Australian aid worker Harriet Dwyer is based in Yemen, a country grappling with one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises. As the conflict enters its sixth year, and the COVID-19 pandemic takes hold, Harriet wants to remind people that Yemeni children are just like children everywhere and with the right support they can truly flourish.
Harriet met 12-year-old Aia at a UNICEF supported prosthetics centre in Aden, Southern Yemen. Aia’s leg was amputated after her home was attacked in 2018 and she goes to the centre regularly for physical therapy.
Throughout this horrific experience, Aia has focused on her future. She is back at school and aspiring to become a doctor. Every few months her prosthesis needs to be replaced because she runs around and plays with her friends so much!
“Aia is really quite inspiring and I think about her a lot” Harriet, UNICEF’s Communications Specialist, says.
"It is so important that we can return some sort of dignity to these children when so much has been taken from them. Every family I've met in Yemen stays with me and their courage and resilience continues to amaze me.”
Before COVID arrived, UNICEF estimated that four out of every five Yemeni children – a staggering 12.3 million – is in need of humanitarian aid. Now the pandemic has brought a new layer of complexity to children’s suffering and as the virus spreads, vulnerable families will be pushed further into poverty and be at even greater risk.
“We absolutely take clean water for granted in Australia and New Zealand, but soap and water are one of the easiest ways that people can protect themselves from the spread of disease.”
Currently UNICEF provides safe water to about 18 million people across the country, and is continuing to work around the clock to get supplies of soap, hygiene kits and health supplies in by road, sea and by air.
Insecurity is one of the biggest barriers to getting vital services to children. Harriet has worked in many conflict zones but Yemen is the most challenging as it has over 35 active frontlines.
“Living in a conflict zone is sobering. You hear attacks at night and what follows is a very harrowing silence.”
“Yemeni children have already had to deal with too much horror and the conflict has continued for them year after year. Like children everywhere, they want to be safe and be healthy and they want to go to school. They tell me that first and foremost, they want peace.”
As cases of COVID continue to soar and the conflict continues to unfold, peace for Yemeni children seems a long way off.
Yemen’s health system is on the brink of collapse. Only half of the health-centres are functioning, health workers haven't received salaries in over three years and they don't have the equipment they desperately need.
“Yemen has such a weak health infrastructure – when a virus like COVID spreads through the community, the impact is even more catastrophic.”
UNICEF is keeping the health system from collapsing entirely by mobilising teams and bringing care directly to families; including antenatal care, vaccines, screening and treatment for malnourished children. We’re also financially supporting healthcare workers, so they can continue to support children and their own families.
Harriet hugely admires the national Yemeni staff who work tirelessly to protect kids.
“The operation continues only because of them. They're really the most important part of our human resources fabric. They have lived through five years of conflict and now they're scared for their own families. They know that their country doesn't have the capacity to respond to COVID like other countries do. That is a difficult thing to reconcile.”
While New Zealanders have been able to social distance under lockdown, it is extremely challenging for Yemeni families displaced from their homes and living in crowded camps or settlements. So that these families can understand the seriousness of the virus and better protect themselves, UNICEF have mobilised over 20,000 community health workers who travel through the community. They conduct education sessions and deliver posters and COVID colouring books for kids which are all procured locally.
“Yemeni children are smart and they know that they deserve the same things that children everywhere deserve. If we are able to provide them with the opportunities they so fundamentally deserve they will rebuild Yemen for a brighter future.“
“Children are often more resilient than adults so if we're able to give them the support that they need, they have an amazing ability to recover.”
We cannot forget about children in Yemen
After years of ongoing conflict, every day is a struggle to survive.