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Yemeni dish, Zurbian, they helped me cook a few days after the interview. Curtesy of Veronica Vaughan.

A family's escape from war to prison

The family did not want me to include their full names to protect them. The family is comprised of N, a wife and mother of two; M, the husband and father; and U, the older sister of N. The two kids were asleep as we conducted this interview at 11 p.m.

 

“Life was paradise, really,” expressed N.

 

N explains how life was joyous because their family was always together. Life was simple, until it wasn’t.

 

The family was from Aden, a coastal city near the gulf. Once the war began, they survived in Aden for only a few months before life became unbearable. It quickly became common to see dead bodies on the side of the road.

 

“If someone died in front of you, you could really do nothing for him,” U said. They explained this to me in such a nonchalant way, emphasizing the numbness of the situation, not allowing for the mind to fully come to terms with what they witnessed as mere girls.

 

Following the same pattern of other refugees' accounts of their lives in Yemen, the electricity stopped and access to food became limited, available only to the “rich” who could afford the increased prices.

 

Bringing nothing but the clothes on their backs and important government documents, the sisters did not own any cars or use the bus, so walking was their sole form of transportation. When the fire awoke inside them to flee, they had no choice but to board a bus to take them to a ship, carrying people to Somalia. The bus required a ticket for each passenger, and money for that purpose was not a luxury this family had access to. The sisters' mother, a Somali native, sold her jewelry to afford tickets.

 

The chaos did not stop there.

 

N looked over her shoulder to her husband, M, sitting behind her. She turned back toward me and melted her eyes into mine. She told me the story of how M was also unable to afford a bus ticket, so he reluctantly stood on the outside of the bus, holding on to random railings. As they were driving to the port, a bomb went off near enough to the bus that M was thrown off and severely hurt his back.

 

The otherworldly journey continued.

 

Departing from Al Mukalla, the ship had barely enough room for the hundreds of families on board. They were given no food or place to sleep on the 24-hour journey. They survived on lemon slices and salt. They left without their father, as he, along with their cousin, stayed to continue working. To this day, their whereabouts are unknown, even after other family members have searched for them.

 

After arriving in Somalia, they had to wait in line under a tent in the thick African summer air to receive paperwork and aid from UNICEF. After gathering fragments of food and water, they left for Mogadishu, Somalia’s capital, to temporarily stay with their mother. During this time of uncertainty, U’s health began to decline. In response to her medical needs, their mother reached out to a source in Jordan who eventually invited the sisters and M to go. In 2015, they arrived in their new home of Amman.

 

Through the UNHCR, they were granted official refugee status. However, their status does not provide them with access to affordable housing, education, or viable financial aid. This is especially challenging for U as she developed lupus. One of U’s greatest struggles was the wait time for responses from UNICEF. Every decision needed to be made through a holistic lens of her life. It was very difficult to get medical help, and when she did, the cost was so outrageous that it threw her into a cycle of stress, worsening her sickness. One of UNICEF’s agreements with her was to pay for half of the expense of her treatments.

 

In this strange land, they were able to slowly interweave themselves into the community of refugees. One of their main sources of community is Hope Center Jordan. There, they take English and Spanish courses as well as Zumba classes with the local South American community. U specifically found interest in seamstress projects and spends many hours at the center making bags and sewing her own custom abayas and hijabs.

 

U is unable to work legally or physically with ease. Due to semi-blindness and lupus, her body cannot keep up with the high demands of labor. She explained how at least once a month, she is sent to the hospital because of her diseases flaring up. Her ideal job is to work independently and sell her crafts. Sometimes the center holds a table for her to sell her items. If she were to open her own table at a bazaar or some market, she would have to pay a fee of 300 JD for a three-day period.

 

“Sometimes I don’t know if I will be in this life… it’s so bad,” U says, referring to the severity of her diseases. Her sister and brother-in-law nodded in agreement, having witnessed numerous instances of U’s body being attacked internally.

 

M, as the head of the household, does his best to make money any way he can, usually by cleaning houses or doing maintenance work. He told me a story of the time he was caught by the police and sent to jail.

 

“We sat here for days, crying,” N recalled.

 

Despite the illegality of his actions, he continues to work under the table to support his family. “But I am scared, I have my hand on my heart,” M said.

 

N’s struggle lies in the future of her children. To my surprise, though her children were both born in Jordan, they only hold refugee identification forms through the UNHCR and a Yemeni passport. This inhibits her children from ever having any opportunities in Jordan as they are merely granted the same limited rights as their refugee parents. For them to go to school, they must attend a level of classes similar to pre-school, which is only available through payment. N’s financial freedom is at the expense of how much M is able to make that month.

 

At this point in the interview, the word “prison” appeared frequently and heavily. “We want to go and make something for us. My children right now, they need a future,” N said. She was very passionate about her desire to contribute to the world and use her drive to earn money. Her motivation is deeply rooted in her children’s success as she prays that somehow, they will get out of this rat race and attain a better, more prosperous, and meaningful future.

 

Simultaneously, the sisters explained how they hold so much passion and drive but nowhere to place that energy. Everything they want to do to earn money and serve a purpose is either illegal or expensive.

 

“We have been here eight years, but we have never seen Petra,” N said. The family has never left the maze of Amman, which has only motivated them to want to flee to a new country with more opportunities for refugees, specifically the United States. Major decisions like a move across continents are determined by the UN.

 

The concept of returning to Yemen quickly became foreign to them as eight years ago, they lost their house, their father, and their life there.

 

“It really feels like we are in jail,” N said repeatedly.

 

As a family, they yearn to see their mother again, a prominent figure in their lives whom they have not seen in eight years. N and M’s children have never met their grandparents.

 

After the interview, U took me to her “office” and showed me the countless bags and purses she made. She shook her abaya and smilingly told me she made it herself. N expressed endless praise and pride over her sister as she has overcome many adversities. God, Allah, was given praise, and I was heartened to see a sense of overflowing joy in U’s ability to create with her hands.

 

The interview ended, and they put together a large plate with hummus, falafel, olives, peppers, oil, spices, and cheeses. We talked as if I were a member of their family, using laughter and stories as a means of covering up the intense reality they live in every day.

 

U ended the conversation by telling me that her dream is to serve widowed women through a center that provides services and protection to the vulnerable. She has a fiery eagerness for learning languages.

 

N’s selfless desires are motivated by her children. She hopes that they can move out of Jordan and raise her children in a country that will provide education for them and opportunities for her to work and earn her own money.

 

M hopes for a life where he can legally work and be the provider he strives to be, for himself, for his wife, and for his children.

 

Their dreams seem so common and simple. Their hopes mirror the lives many of us live as non-refugees. However, life in their reality makes these goals impossible. Unless systems change and finances grow, they are stuck in a continuous cycle of struggle.

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