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Yemen: Students share classrooms to shelter displaced families

05 May 2016


Displaced families who sought shelter at the Al Furqan Primary School pile up their belongings in the classrooms. Photo Credit: Esam Krada.
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People displaced by the ongoing conflict are sheltering in schools, making it difficult for children to attend class.

Before the conflict in Yemen escalated in March 2015, students at Zubeir Ben Al Awam School in Al Taizziyah District in Taizz Governorate studied in two shifts: one in the morning and one in the afternoon. But this is no longer possible, as the classrooms are now occupied by internally displaced persons (IDPs).

Many IDPs sought safe shelter in the schools after fleeing violence in their areas of origin. Up to five families share a classroom, moving out in the mornings to allow students to study. Zubeir Ben Al Awam school hosts 26 displaced families (156 people) and 805 students, but it is just one of the many schools housing IDPs in Taizz. The school still operates in two shifts, but now each shift lasts only two hours.

“You can imagine the negative impact on the quality of education,” said Towfiq Al Soufi, the District Education Officer. “Completing the curriculum is not possible.”

Mohamed Mutawakil, a student at the school, said IDPs sometimes refuse to leave the classrooms, forcing students to study in the open. “We have to sit outside, under the sun or on the ground to try to study. It doesn’t help and we cannot concentrate on what the teachers tell us,” he said.

At Al Furqan primary school, which hosts 43 families (258 people) and 1,510 students, the IDPs reported increased trauma, forced marriages and exploitation of boys and girls. “[Because of trauma] there is a 15-year-old girl here who cannot talk since she lost all her family members in an air strike and is now being taken care of by the neighbours,” said Karima Abdallah, an IDP living in the school.

How the Taizz crisis worsened

Before the conflict Taizz Governorate had an estimated population of 3 million people. However, in August 2015, the governorate became a key battlefield. Air strikes, armed confrontation and looting across the governorate exacerbated an already precarious situation and dramatically escalated human suffering. The most intense fighting focused on Taizz City, mostly in Al Mudhaffar, Al Qahirah and Salh districts.

Today almost 870,000 people are displaced in the governorate, while another 621,000 IDPs are in Ibb Governorate nearby. Of those displaced within Taizz, an estimated 150,000 live in Al Taiziya district. A large number of these IDPs live in 11 schools where they face serious shortages of medicine, food, fuel, water, sanitation and hygiene supplies.

As fighting continues, health services have ground to a halt, with the few functioning hospitals only providing emergency treatment. The water corporation stopped working due to a lack of fuel and damage to its infrastructure. In the three districts of Taizz City, 300,000 people out of a population of half a million fled and sought refuge in neighbouring districts and governorates, notably Ibb and Al Dhale’e.

It took months of negotiations for some assistance to finally reach Taizz City in December. By then, the suffering of the people in Taizz had become highly politicized, with all parties to the conflict publicly accusing the others of blocking access to people in need, diverting or commandeering assistance and accusing humanitarian partners of distributing only to zones controlled by a certain faction.

Current humanitarian response

Humanitarian organizations are trucking water to the IDPs, providing food and other relief items, supporting outpatient therapeutic-feeding programmes and providing mobile health clinics. In 2015, over 1 million people received some form of humanitarian assistance in Taizz Governorate. They include 730,000 people who were assisted by partners that are funded through the OCHA-managed Yemen Humanitarian Fund. In 2015, the fund provided US$4.5 million to 10 partners operating in Taizz.

On 10 April, OCHA participated in a humanitarian mission that found 15 cases of severe acute malnutrition in Al Furqan and Zubeir Bin Al Awam schools. Two girls had reportedly died of a malnutrition-related illness. The mission found 12 cases of diarrhoea and one of malaria, and IDPs spoke of women giving birth in the two schools without skilled birth attendants. Humanitarian partners told the mission that delivering assistance in Taizz remains a challenge. Access to IDPs, host communities and marginalized groups is difficult because of many checkpoints on the roads and the need to seek clearance from multiple authorities.

Following the mission, plans and negotiations with local authorities are now under way to scale up humanitarian assistance in Taizz, taking advantage of the Cessation of Hostilities agreement that has largely held across Yemen since 10 April. The agreement was a pre-cursor to peace talks that started in Kuwait on 21 April.

The humanitarian partners in Taizz hope that the Cessation of Hostilities agreement holds so that they can deploy more teams to the field, providing supplementary supplies, distributing food and non-food items as well as hygiene and sanitation kits.

An estimated 175,000 to 200,000 people remained in Taizz City through the months of fighting, unable or unwilling to leave. “This is my home, I have lived here my whole life, I have nowhere to go,” said Misk, a woman in her late fifties. “I will continue to stay in our house with one of my sons, his wife and six children.”