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Helping Refugees Find their Feet in Yemen

Sarah Porter, with a career in international development ahead of her, recently accepted a job with ADRA in Yemen. A few weeks in, Spectrum asked her what the country is like and what her job is teaching her.

Q: How would you describe Yemen from your experience so far? How is it the same, or different, than you imagined? What are the Yemeni people like?

A: My experience in Yemen so far has been interesting to say the least. I have been enjoying getting to know the staff here. I feel that it is especially important to get to know your staff, their personalities, their habits, and so on so that you can better know how to lead them.

The weather has warmed and will continue to get warmer and warmer. In the summer, temperatures are in the hundreds Fahrenheit (at least) with high humidity.

It is different than I expected in that I am not required to wear a head scarf. This has been a surprise for me – I was preparing myself to wear one at all times outside of the house. It has been a little bit shocking and difficult to get used to seeing everyone wearing the abaya and burka. (The abaya is a long black dress-like garment that goes over your regular clothes and the burka is the piece of cloth that is tied around the head to cover the face.) It is difficult sometimes to recognize the people I am seeing since I can only see their eyes.

The Yemeni people are wonderful. It is difficult sometimes to walk about as the men all stare hard at me since I do not wear the abaya. But my staff are wonderful! I have already formed close relationships with several of my staff.

Culturally, one of my favorite aspects is that when you are in Yemen, the Yemeni people are under obligation to protect you. This is part of the culture, which is amazing to me. If I am ever in trouble, all I have to do is ask for help and so many people are willing to drop everything and help.

Q: You are working to integrate refugees, right? Are they mostly Somali? Where do they come from and why have they come to Yemen? What is Yemen’s attitude toward them? What is ADRA, and you, doing to help them?

A: I am actually working with two different projects. The first is a project funded by the UNHCR (United Nations High Commission for Refugees) dealing with the social issues. This project is in two geographic areas. One is here in Aden – specifically in Basateen, a district in the city. The second geographical area is Kharaz which is about two-and-a-half hours from Aden. There is a camp coordinator who is also from the US working there. I am focused on Basateen.

There are three parts to this project. The first is vocational training. In Basateen we do embroidery, crocheting, and sewing. In Kharaz we do basketry, computer training, etc.

The second part is social counseling. We do social assessments of individual refugees as well as referring them to needed services both in Kharaz and in Basateen.

The third area is a kindergarten. This is mainly offered for refugee moms who need to go to work and cannot take care of their children while they are away at work. We do educational activities with the children. It’s fun to go and visit the kindergarten.

The second project that I am working on is focused on community integration of refugees. Specifically this project focuses on conducting a market analysis, training focused on market needs, literacy training, and income generation.

The majority of refugees in Yemen are from Somalia. There is a small percentage of refugees from Ethiopia as well. These refugees, specifically from Somalia, are fleeing war and persecution. I have met several people who had to watch as their parents were killed in front of them in Somalia. These people have had to go through incredible hardships. These projects are attempting to make it possible for these refugees to rely on themselves by increasing their skill level and ability to integrate themselves into the community they are living in.

Q: Where does ADRA Yemen’s funding come from?

A: The projects in my region are funded by UNHCR, ADRA Netherlands, and ADRA Norway.

Q: Is it difficult to be a woman working in a Muslim country? How strict is society there? Is it similar to its neighbor Saudi Arabia?

A: It is not especially difficult to be a woman working here. Society is strict, but, quite honestly, I am enjoying the separation of men and women. It is one of those things that is difficult to understand from the outside. I find that, no matter which restaurant I go to, there is always a family section that I can go and sit in. This section is made for women and/or families. It is nice to have a separate area just for ladies. There is also a women-only swimming beach.

The society is similar to Saudi Arabia but in Aden especially it is a bit less conservative. Aden used to be a British colony and still is a bit less conservative than Sana’a (the capital city).

Q: What is the most difficult thing about your job?

A: The most difficult thing about my job is the fact that everyone wants more than you can give. There have been a few cases where people become violent towards our staff. This is quite difficult to deal with.

Q: What do you enjoy the most about your job?

A: The thing that I enjoy most about my job is the people. It is an amazing feeling to see a change happen in a person. Just knowing that I am doing something and not just sitting around feeling sorry for people is enough reward. If I can help just one person have a better life, I am truly blessed!

Q: Can you describe a typical day at work?

A: I typically wake up at 7:00 in the morning. I get ready for the day and wait for the driver to pick me up from my house and take me to the office. I then spend a few minutes checking my email to make sure there are no urgent issues to deal with. Depending on the day, I make a plan of how to accomplish everything.

I usually work with the translator for a while in the morning to go over the social assessments he has translated. I also spend time with the social counselors listening to any issues they have. I work with our operations manager to make sure everything is going smoothly. I then focus on the project activities.

Depending on the day, I visit the kindergarten or the Community Center in Basateen. By the end of the month my office, as well as the translator’s office, will be in Basateen so I am trying to make sure that everything is on schedule. Somewhere around mid-day, if there is time, I eat a hurried lunch, then keep running until 4:00 pm when most people go home. This signals the end of the working day.

I typically go find something to eat, then head home. Depending on the evening, I may go for a walk on the beach or go to the supermarket. I especially enjoy walking on the beach after dark. It seems a fitting end to a busy day.

Q: What are the people like that you work with?

A: I wish you could meet the wonderful people I work with. They are extremely compassionate and truly want to help people in need. They have a vision of a world where peace reigns eternally and all live in equality. In that world there will be no more wars or rape or mental disease.

Q: What do you do when you are not working?

A: When I’m not working? Lately it seems like the only thing I can do is grab food and then sleep. I always find time to read a little bit before going to sleep and I do a Sudoku puzzle. Apart from that, I love to go walking on the beach as well as just talking with my staff.

There is a mall here in Aden and I enjoy going there to the supermarket and spending time perusing what is available. I also have been attempting to learn one word of Arabic per day. So far, it’s going alright although I keep forgetting certain words. I have learned “Mafish” which means “we don’t have any but can I help you with something else?”; “Shukran” which means thank you; “Afuan” which means you’re welcome; and “Salam Alequm and Wa’allai Kuma Salama!” which is the typical greeting. The meaning is “peace in God’s name to you”.

Q: What experience do you have that has prepared you for your work in Yemen?

A: I worked in Cambodia as an administrative intern for two years and have just completed my masters of science in administration with a focus on international development. I specifically focused my research on NGO sustainability through diversity of donors.

I have been exposed to development quite a bit before. When I was eight years old, my family moved to Sri Lanka, where we spent five years. After leaving Sri Lanka, we went to Russia for two-and-a-half years. In my third year of college, I spent a year in Kazakhstan teaching English.

Q: What do you find the most difficult thing about being away from the US?

A: The most difficult by far is the fact that my family is so far away. I miss them tremendously, but fortunately one of my staff members has adopted me, and I him as my adopted father. It is extremely important here in the Arab culture to have a father or husband to look after you, so it is great to have this person taking care of me!

The second thing that I find most difficult is the fact that there is no church here. I attend an Anglican-style service for prayer on Fridays, but on Saturday it is difficult.

Q: What do you hope to accomplish in your year in Yemen?

A: In my year in Yemen, I want to help just one person. Quite honestly I just want to use my talents and skills to help people.

Q: What do you believe are the best ways for wealthier nations to help poorer nations?

A: I believe that the best way for wealthier nations to help poorer nations is to bring businesses and factories to offer work to people that otherwise would not have an income. Many times people want to send money and forget about it but this has created a huge dependency syndrome among people in developing countries. This has caused endless headaches for aid workers. People simply do not want to help themselves or work for themselves when they are “guaranteed” free access to water, food, shelter, and money.

Q: Are NGOs in general effective? Is ADRA specifically an effective organization for making the world a better place?

A: If I thought that NGOs in general were not making a difference, I would not be in this field. NGOs are in deep need of people who are committed to helping those in need.

Q: What did you do before you were sent to Yemen?

A: Before I came to Yemen, I was finishing my masters and looking for work. For the five months before coming to Yemen in February, I spent a lot of time at my parent’s house and spent time with my grandma who is in a home near where my parents live. I had been searching for a job in California, but it seemed that God had a different purpose for me. I truly believe that His timing is perfect!

Q: What and where did you study?

A: For my undergraduate degree I studied at Columbia Union College in Maryland, where I completed my bachelors of science in counseling psychology. I then went on to attend Andrews University’s off-campus degree – an MSA in international development.

Q: What are your major career goals?

A: To follow the leading of God and to help those in need. I believe I have been prepared and called to work in development.

Q: How do you use technology in your work? How does it help your work, and how does it make it easier to be far from home?

A: I use technology constantly, from email to simple word processing. For work, I often receive emails with urgent requests to visit cases.

I also keep in touch with my family using Skype and email. I can remember when we went to Sri Lanka and we had to use the regular post to send and receive mail. We used to wait what seemed like forever to receive a reply back from our family (in actuality it was one month). Now I can send a message on Skype and receive a reply immediately. Absolutely a life saver!

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