Now safe in New Zealand, Khalid talks to UNICEF New Zealand about the family they left behind in Yemen and the horrors of Covid-19.
It is really hard to leave your homeland and leave behind people who are suffering.
In Yemen, cases of Covid-19 are continuing to rise. My brother in law is a chemist in Sana’a and he recently caught the disease. Fortunately he is now back at work in the hospital, but he tells me that the graveyards are full and there is a huge demand for coffins and graves. A coffin used to cost about 10,000 Yemeni rial ($50 NZD), now it is ten times that.
The main port in Yemen is closed most of the time and this causes the cost of goods to skyrocket. Food insecurity is a big problem and many people haven’t received salaries for the last five years. Little children are dying because parents cannot afford to feed them.
Western media dehumanises Yemen. The news only focuses on the violence – they don’t shine a light on the Yemeni people who are suffering or share stories of their strength.
I grew up in the old city of Sana’a. I ran through streets dating back to the fifth century, they were so ancient and beautiful. In summer we played with marbles and in the winter we played games with rubber bands. I loved my primary school and I always got top marks in physics.
I met my wife Ahlam at University. I was studying engineering and she was studying English literature.
Khalid surrounded by his daughters, Jumanah (left) and Hanin (right).
In 2011, our lives changed dramatically. Sana’a was split in half between forces supporting Army General Ali Mohssien Al-Ahmar and Shiekh Sadiq Al-Ahmar. Violence spilled out onto the streets.
Sana’a is flat like Christchurch but surrounded by mountains dotted with military bases. Our house was close to the Ministry of Defence and the university, which were bombed many times. The debris would often land on our house.
Before the bombs dropped, you would hear a whistle. One day at 4am, the whistle started getting louder and louder. I was screaming at my wife, begging her to drop to the ground and then we heard a building explode nearby. All the windows in our home were shaking.
Ahlam was heavily pregnant and during the last three months of her pregnancy, the bombings intensified. Anything that moved was at risk of being attacked, including schools and hospitals.
Just before Ahlam gave birth to our daughter Hanin on August 13 2011, I was outside the hospital with my brother when we heard a gunshot, followed by a bomb exploding nearby.
My brother turned to me and said, “What a time to deliver a baby!”
We didn’t have the money to pay for a private clinic. I had worked as a control system engineer for an oil company, but during the conflict I was made redundant. We were totally broke and I didn’t know how to support my family. The stress was overwhelming.
One day I saw a brochure with a phone number to call for help. We only had to pay 5% of all the medical costs. My daughter was born in a UNICEF-supported hospital and their support means a lot to us. I know that UNICEF is non-political, they are only there to take care of the most vulnerable children and families.
When I held my daughter for the first time, I just froze. I was so shocked to see her and it was jaw-dropping! But no parent wants to bring up their child in a war zone. Everything was being destroyed around us, there was no electricity and we even had to buy water.
We left Yemen in 2012 and we have never been back. It is hard speaking with our families and friends, knowing that they are still suffering. Hanin’s eight-year-old cousin said to her recently, “I want to come to New Zealand. Yemen is so bad.” We have lost many relatives and friends in the war. Boys as young as 10 years old are now being recruited to fight. My Mum often says to me “Do you remember that boy from our neighbourhood? He was just killed in the frontlines and is now sitting in a coffin.”
However, many people in Yemen have high pride and don't want to share their suffering. Even now during Covid-19, people want to be happy and are trying to find positives in life. My two sisters started a creative programme for children in Yemen and I am so proud of them both.
Ahlam and I lived in Malaysia for three years and completed our masters degrees, before I accepted a scholarship from the University of Canterbury to do a PhD in mechanical engineering.
I remember lining up to board the plane in Malaysia and a security man in a smart suit picked me out from all the other passengers to double check my papers. I looked up at him with fear, worried that I would be sent back. When I finally boarded the plane I felt a huge relief, we were going to start a new life.
We are Muslims and people in New Zealand have been so genuinely kind to us. When the Al Noor mosque was attacked on March 15, strangers left flowers and cards outside our door. A lovely Māori lady made a phone call for me one evening when I didn’t have any coins. Now we have two daughters and they have built a network of friends around them.
It is very safe for us to stay in Christchurch and we love living here, but we are also still in pain. We know that nearly every child in Yemen needs support and we don’t want their voices to go unheard.
No child should grow up surrounded by the sounds of whistling bombs.