The bare-bones office of the Association for Yemeni Refugees, in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, with its mix-and-match furniture and wafts of curry from the restaurant below, often gets busy in the evenings. The association lends its space for classes and workshops, including subsidized English-language lessons for the thousands of Yemenis who have fled the war in their homeland and ­ended up in the Malaysian capital. On this Sunday afternoon in late August, a few days before Eid al-Adha (one of the two holy feasts on the Islamic calendar), a group of twenty-five to thirty refugees, university students, and visitors whose visas have expired gather in the small reception area. The older among them grab the few available chairs while the younger set leans against the walls. Women sit in a separate room until the men call on them to join the conversation. Many at the association come with grievances against the Malaysian government and pleas for Canadian politicians to include them in what they believe to be this country’s generous open-door policies for refugees, citing the rapid admission of 25,000 Syrian refugees in 2015 and 2016 as a model.

I’m visiting the association at the invitation of its chairman, Mohamad Al-Radhi, a former lecturer in international law at a Yemeni navy college who now makes ends meet by renting out cheap apartments in Kuala Lumpur and subletting rooms to newcomers. A refugee from the city of Ibb, in southwestern Yemen, who has been separated from his family for over three years, Al-Radhi wanted to give me a taste of the problems he and his membership try to solve on a daily basis. Over the course of two hours, this sampler will turn into a catalogue of misery.

I haven’t spent this much time with or seen this many people from my birth country of Yemen since I last visited my family in the capital, Sanaa, in 2006. Eight of my siblings and most of their children and grandchildren still live in Sanaa and have been caught in the violence and devastation of the war; my contact with them takes place over landlines and emails, transmitting voices and words from another world. The trip to Kuala Lumpur is my first face-to-face encounter with the war and one of its under-reported legacies: the more than 200,000 internationally displaced Yemenis scattered around the world. The United Nations puts the internally displaced population at a further 2 million.

The stories keep coming, a rush of simultaneous conversations in my native but rarely deployed Arabic. Yusra, a hairdresser, ran a nursery from her home, but had to stop working after she broke her leg. She lost contact with her husband more than a year ago and is not sure if he is still alive in Yemen. A surgeon is now working under the table as a waiter for approximately 1,300 Malaysian ringgits (about $415) a month. “You can’t refuse work,” he says, although I can’t tell if this is out of shame or resilience.

Malaysia doesn’t require Yemenis to obtain a visa before they enter the country—one of only a handful of countries in the world to allow this—and has emerged as a popular choice for those fleeing the war. When they arrive, Yemenis are given a single-entry visa, which is valid for three months. Those who manage to secure refugee status from the local United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, or at least an appointment card with the UNHCR to indicate that their case is being assessed, are able to stay longer but do not have the right to work.

Many families live on one meal a day, Al-Radhi says. When the women join the conversation, one of them describes her existence as one of “slow death.” Her son barely eats, and it shows. “Forget clothing, forget birthdays. I don’t have enough to buy him a bag of potato chips,” she says. “He cries and goes to sleep hungry.”

Enas and her child in their home
Enas and her children fled Yemen for Malaysia, but the family is hoping to find more stable refuge in Canada.

Almost everyone in the association’s office is counting on Canada to accept them. The Canada they’ve chosen to believe in—perhaps out of desperation or because reports in Arabic-language media tended to praise Canada for the way it welcomed Syrian refugees—is a utopia where tolerance and respect for Islam prevail and Canadians welcome refugees at the airport with banners, warm clothing, and fully furnished apartments. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau—“that handsome, young, humanitarian man,” as one elderly Yemeni man describes him—has acquired a near-biblical status as the liberator of the oppressed and destitute. For some in the room, Trudeau’s closest predecessor is not his father, Pierre, who took in South Asians fleeing Idi Amin’s purge of Uganda in the 1970s, but King Najashi, who ruled over what is now Ethiopia and a part of Eritrea in the seventh century and refused to expel a group of Muslims fleeing from their enemies once they’d been granted refuge.

In March 2017, the Canadian government committed $34 million in “life-saving humanitarian assistance” to conflict-affected people in Yemen, with a special focus on children and women. A few months later, it allocated an additional $7.7 million through its Famine Relief Fund, and in January, Marie-Claude Bibeau, the minister responsible for international development, announced an additional $12.1 million in aid, to be split among the Red Cross and various UN agencies. It amounts to about $54 million—a small fraction of what we spent to bring Syrian refugees to Canada. Despite attempts by some members of the Canadian public and media to highlight the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, the federal government has not announced any major refugee-resettlement plan.

An estimated 10,000 Yemenis have died since the start of the war in March 2015. The number of cholera cases has crossed the 1 million mark. About 2 million children suffer from acute malnutrition, and an estimated 60 percent of the country’s population of nearly 29 million is food insecure: many Yemenis don’t know where their next meal will come from. Experts have said Yemen is likely to be the first modern country in the world to run out of usable water, which could happen within a decade.

It’s a humanitarian crisis born out of a widening rivalry between Saudi Arabia (predominantly Sunni) and Iran (mostly Shiite) over geopolitical control of the Middle East. The war’s origins go back to the political void created after popular uprisings in Yemen in 2011 led to the removal of Ali Abdullah Saleh, who had been president since 1978, and the transfer of power to his deputy, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi. By September 2014, Houthi rebels (allegedly with support from Iran) had advanced on the capital, sending Hadi into hiding and forcing his government to retreat to the southern city of Aden. A coalition led by Saudi Arabia (with logistical support and intelligence from the United States) began air strikes the following spring with the goal of restoring the internationally recognized government of Hadi to power.

Enas’s home kitchen, where she bakes Yemeni bread.

Three years later, the situation is at best a stalemate and at worst a quagmire for Saudi Arabia. The war in Yemen—sometimes described as Riyadh’s Vietnam—is just one of the battles Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is waging. Whether stage-managing the resignation of the prime minister of Lebanon (and failing at it) or politically isolating Qatar for its support of the Muslim Brotherhood, the ambitious prince is setting the stage for his eventual rise to the throne of one of the world’s richest and most powerful nations. Yemen, by comparison, was already one of the Arab world’s poorest countries before the war: it came in at number 168 out of 188 countries, one place above Afghanistan, on the UN’s 2016 Human Development Index.

The situation in Yemen has been called—by the press, NGOs, and international organizations, including Amnesty International—the “forgotten war.” Neglected by Western media and politicians alike, Yemenis have come to rely on the international-aid sector to minimize the war’s effects and manage a refugee crisis that could equal Syria’s.

Even if the war ends soon, there’s no functioning economy for refugees to go home to. According to the World Bank, the country’s GDP has contracted by 37.5 percent since 2015. Close to 40 percent of households have lost their primary source of income: the unemployment rate hovers near 17 percent and is 32 percent among youth aged 15 to 24. Most public-sector workers have not received their regular salaries for well over a year.

At the refugee association’s office, my eyes settle on Talal and Enas, a married couple, and their three children. (Their last names are being withheld for safety reasons.) While anyone in the room could have passed for a relative of mine, this particular family reminded me the most of my struggling nephews and nieces in Sanaa—people in their twenties or thirties who married young and are raising children against a backdrop of war and famine. Enas and Talal’s eldest child, Ruaa, eight years old, is limping; bandages seem on the verge of falling off one of her feet. Enas tells me that she stepped on broken glass in the bathroom, but they couldn’t afford to take her to hospital.

Like their compatriots, Enas and Talal became desperate long before they fled to Malaysia: Yemen is near destitution, and the war has only exacerbated conditions for those who live there. Although he’s a university graduate, Talal accepted a job a few years ago as a security guard for an oil company to provide for his family. When a cousin in Kuala Lumpur stumbled upon an online marketing scheme that promised to double initial investments, he enlisted Talal to be his representative in Sanaa. Talal and his friends, neighbours, and family members invested up to $5,000 (US) each—a small fortune in a country where millions live on $2 (US) a day—before the plan collapsed. Talal spent two months in prison before getting out on bail.

A condition for his release was returning everyone’s money—something Talal couldn’t dream of doing. He said goodbye to his family and fled to Kuala Lumpur in November 2016. Enas and the children stayed with her in-laws at first. It wasn’t long before some of the investors came calling, forcing Enas to pull Ruaa from school and hide with a rotating cast of family members. “They threatened to kidnap my daughter,” she tells me.

Enas's bread
Enas sells bread and other baked good to help support her family.
Enas moved from one form of self-imprisonment in Sanaa to another in Kuala Lumpur when she and the children joined Talal a few months later. The family’s apartment, in a shabby residential complex euphemistically called Serdang Skyvillas, is steps from the office of the Association for Yemeni Refugees. As a rule, the family doesn’t leave the immediate neighbourhood, known for its refugee and foreign-student populations, for fear of getting busted by Malaysian immigration authorities. While Talal carries a refugee card from UNHCR, Enas and the kids, who have yet to receive an appointment card, are “overstayers” and can be deported at a moment’s notice.

Two months after the family reunited, Talal lost his off-the-books job as a waiter. The family now lives on handouts from the community and whatever Enas collects from selling homemade sweet and savoury baked goods—a market that’s becoming competitive among the Yemeni women in Kuala Lumpur, for whom this is now the only acceptable means of contributing to their households.

Enas and Talal’s rent comes to 1,000 MR (about $320) monthly. Taking a roommate of any gender goes against conventional Yemeni values for a family like theirs, so they live as frugally as possible. “The kids watch trains go by and dream of riding one of them,” Enas says. “When the kids see their friends riding bikes, they cry and want the same. But I can’t. I can’t give them that. I keep telling them to wait another week.” Enas, who dropped out of university to raise her family, sees the education of her children as an essential part of a plan to restore normalcy to a life she describes as full of “trouble, tears, and strife.” Canada is the one place that can make this dream come true, she says.

Before he cancelled his home internet service to save money, Talal would spend nights watching videos of Trudeau welcoming Syrian refugees at the airport or being visibly moved when hearing their stories. One clip, in which Trudeau wipes tears away with a white handkerchief after a conversation with some of the refugees and their sponsors, stunned Talal. “I watched and heard a lot about Canada and its prime minister,” he tells me. “A true humanitarian, kind and proud. In Yemen, I lived like an outcast. Same here in Malaysia. In a country like Canada, an immigrant is treated as an equal.”

Talal’s path to Canada depends on what happens to his file at the UNHCR office in Kuala Lumpur, where more than 150,000 people from numerous countries are registered as refugees and asylum seekers. Those in a holding pattern are given appointment cards, which indicate simply that the UNHCR will be in touch, without specifying a date or approximate waiting period. People cannot make refugee claims at the Canadian high commission or apply directly to come here: the UNHCR, other referral organizations, or private-sponsorship groups identify refugees for potential resettlement in Canada.

In 2007, there were five Yemeni asylum seekers registered with the UNHCR in Malaysia. By 2016, that number had jumped to 1,864, and by the end of January of this year, the number of registered Yemeni persons of concern—a catch-all term that includes refugees and asylum seekers—was 2,610. There are thousands more people who haven’t applied, either because they find the process too difficult or because they have little faith that the UNHCR will successfully resettle them. Many people fleeing Yemen have flocked to other countries, including Egypt, Jordan, Somalia, and Sudan; due to differing entry requirements, people who know they will be denied visas elsewhere tend to gravitate to Malaysia.

Enas's home kitchen
Enas’s home kitchen. Refugees do not have the legal right to work in Malaysia.
When I arrange a visit to the UNHCR, I am instructed to enter via a different entrance than the crowded ones used by refugees. Even though my appointment falls on a Friday—traditionally the quietest day of the week as the majority of refugees come from Muslim countries where it’s the day of rest—about 100 people are waiting their turn to speak to registration officers. Covered with corrugated metal to shield visitors from the sun or rain, this part of the compound serves as a clearing house for the twenty-first-century brown and black huddled masses. As Brian Gorlick, a Canadian who works as a deputy representative for the UNHCR in Malaysia, guides me through, he stresses improvements the UNHCR has made to keep the situation as tolerable as possible for refugees, such as adding food stalls, informational screens, and a play area.

Despite the intensity of the war in Yemen and the humanitarian tragedy there, one staffer tells me over lunch that the UNHCR doesn’t consider the Yemeni refugee crisis, particularly in Malaysia, to be “massive” just yet. (Staffers’ names are being withheld for security reasons.) In a follow-up email, Gorlick explains that while the level of forced displacement is “very significant,” the Yemeni refugee situation “has not reached the scale of the Syrian crisis….We all hope there is still room for a political solution to the crisis.”

No one bothers making reservations or asking for the menu at Alhamra Restaurant. This popular hangout for Yemeni students, refugees, and stranded travellers features run-of-the-mill cafeteria food and also specializes in a number of Yemeni dishes, including mandi, a chicken or lamb-based rice meal. Although the food is cheap, even by Malaysian standards, some of the clientele lounging on the makeshift terrace limit themselves to tea or coffee to cut down on expenses. After talking to a handful of the people there, I wonder how they can pay for even a cup of the popular Adeni tea—flavoured with nutmeg and sweetened with condensed milk and multiple spoons of sugar—which costs less than one Canadian dollar.

Mustafa Almuntasser, thirty, a father of two who dreamt of starting a new life in New York City, falls into another Yemeni group: United States–bound travellers who came to Kuala Lumpur to complete their immigration paperwork, only to be stuck in Malaysia once President Donald Trump issued a travel ban, in January 2017, barring travel to the US from several majority-Muslim countries, including Yemen.

Almuntasser thought the processing of his US visa was going reasonably well until a routine interview, during which he was asked to provide his transcripts from grades one to eight. Miraculously, his relatives back home tracked the paperwork down, only for the visa officers to tell Almuntasser that the consistency in his marks was suspicious. His application was rejected, the official email notice suggested, because of his inability to “provide rational and convincing evidence to establish [his] identity and the education requirement for this visa.” It was the eighth year in a row he had applied and the first time his application had been selected for consideration.

The US travel ban was still in effect when I met him in late August, and for a while, Almuntasser was determined to bypass it. “I want the visa that I came to Kuala Lumpur for,” he told me. By early October, he began looking into Canada: Almuntasser sent me a message after I left Malaysia, asking how long it would take to process a visa to resettle here. Shortly after, I lost contact with him.

For these stranded Yemenis, the travel ban crystallized their perception of the differences between the United States and Canada. The former closed its doors to them immediately after an election campaign in which the now president talked about a Muslim registry, among other race-baiting policies. The latter reaffirmed its multiculturalism and, with its welcome of Syrian refugees, demonstrated that, under certain and extreme circumstances, its doors were more open than those of its neighbour to the south.

This perception of Canadian openness was not born in a vacuum. One day after Trump issued his ban, Trudeau tweeted: “To those fleeing persecution, terror & war, Canadians will welcome you, regardless of your faith. Diversity is our strength #WelcometoCanada.” The message went viral and, within hours, was retweeted more than 150,000 times and received over 250,000 likes. The Conservatives jumped on that messages, saying it was giving asylum seekers who were crossing into the Canadian border from the US “false hope.” In due course, the Liberals, and Trudeau himself, dialed back the tweet’s sentiment by emphasizing the regulations governing Canadian immigration and asylum policies.

The historical Syrian initiative aside, the Trudeau government continues to move toward policies that favour economic immigrants over other groups of newcomers, including refugees. (Ahmed Hussen, minister of immigration, refugees, and citizenship, declined interview requests for this story.) Last year, Canada announced plans to let in nearly 1 million immigrants over three years: in 2020, we will admit about 15 percent more immigrants overall than we did in 2016. Admissions of refugees and protected persons will almost be 17 percent lower.

In 2016, the UNHCR estimated the number of refugees globally to be about 23 million; the total number of forcibly displaced people was 66 million—the largest since the aftermath of the Second World War. That same year, Canada ranked fourteenth among OECD countries that take in refugees.

Empathy is not neutral; it’s an opportunistic, selective, and often capricious human phenomenon. In the weeks leading up to the October 2015 federal election, the Syrian crisis afforded Trudeau a platform to distinguish himself from then prime minister Stephen Harper, whose approach to immigration was shaped by security concerns and a tendency to view immigrants and refugees, from majority-Muslim countries especially, with suspicion if not outright hostility. While Trudeau promised to bring in 25,000 Syrian refugees by early 2016 in that campaign, Harper proposed increasing the number of refugees from both Syria and Iraq by 10,000 over three years.

The Canadian public was moved into greater action on the Syrian crisis by news reports of refugees drowning in the Mediterranean Sea and especially by the photograph of three-year-old Alan Kurdi, who drowned off the shore of Bodrum, Turkey, in 2015 as his family was trying to reach Greece ; his aunt, who lives in British Columbia, was attempting to help the family reach Canada. For many voters, Harper’s response was slow and on the wrong side of history. Trudeau won the election, and by early 2017, Canada had taken in an estimated 40,081 Syrian refugees. (This includes government-assisted, privately sponsored, and a blend of both.)

Mohamad Al-Radhi, sitting at desk with wall of sticky notes behind
Mohamad Al-Radhi, head of the association for Yemeni Refugees.

Images of starving or dead children since the start of the war in Yemen—or South Sudan, for that matter—have yet to prompt Canadians into action in the same numbers and with a similar dedication. No “mobs of do-gooders,” as the Toronto Star described Canadians who hounded then immigration minister John McCallum in 2015 to help Syrian refugees, have turned up for the Yemenis.

“I believe Canadians feel that we were so incredibly generous…that we can rest on our laurels,” says Senator Ratna Omidvar on the phone from her office in Ottawa. The founder of Lifeline Syria, a non-profit that helps Toronto-area residents offer private sponsorships to Syrian refugees, she believes that the current focus on the Rohingyas fleeing Myanmar, and the uncertainty of asylum seekers crossing the US-Canada border, may have diverted Canadians’ attention from the situation in Yemen. She also doesn’t rule out residual racism as a factor in how we decide who we’ll bring over and who we’ll leave behind. “Syrians could be mistaken for anyone,” she says, describing differences in how people from Syria and Yemen may be perceived. “A brown child or a black child is unlikely to get the same [response].”

In his book Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion, Yale psychologist Paul Bloom argues that empathy is “a spotlight focusing on certain people in the here and now.” He adds that “spotlights only illuminate what they are pointed at, so empathy reflects our biases.” Those outside our immediate world and gaze can’t rely on our collective empathy, even if their need is as great as in those places where we do shine a spotlight. Yemen’s location on the southern tip of the Arabian penninsula, and, in broad historical terms, its political and social isolation from power centres in Europe and North America, mean that only the very geopolitically engaged or those who devote themselves to humanitarian aid will—absent circumstances like a photo that makes the front pages or a politician who chooses to focus on it—likely notice the country or its people. “Change starts with people knowing about the situation,” says Omidvar, who believes that Yemenis suffer because they lack a champion in Canada.

It’s also possible that the Canadian government may not welcome an increased awareness of the crisis in Yemen. Saudi Arabia is one of Canada’s major trading partners and was the largest non-US export destination for Canadian military goods in 2016. (We are the second-largest exporter of weapons to the Middle East, after the United States.) Canada conducted $3 billion worth of bilateral trade with Saudi Arabia in 2016, including over $454 million in the sale of tanks, armoured vehicles, and parts.

Canada began trying to sell LAVs to Saudi Arabia in the 1970s—efforts which started bearing fruit in the 1990s, says Anthony Fenton, a Vancouver-based researcher who studies economic ties between Canada and Arabian-peninsula nations. In monitoring the Middle East “arms bazaar market” over the last decade, Fenton has noticed that the number of Canadian companies trading in the region has grown “in part because [they] had continuous help from Canadian trade commissioners, from Canadian state agencies like Export Development Canada.”

In 2014, the Harper government announced a $15 billion deal between London, Ontario-based General Dynamics Land Systems Canada and Saudi Arabia to manufacture an undisclosed number of light armoured vehicles. The Trudeau Liberals signed off on the export permits in 2016, removing the final obstacle in the system of checks and balances governing arms exports. The Canadian government has admitted that Saudi Arabia is free to use these vehicles in Yemen, if it so wishes. (There have been several reports of LAVs and drones made in Ontario, or in the United Arab Emirates by a Canadian-owned company, being used by Saudi Arabia in Yemen.)

Daniel Turp, a professor of international and constitutional law at the Université de Montreal (and a former Bloc Québécois MP), sued the Trudeau government in 2017 to block the LAV deal in light of Saudi Arabia’s dismal human rights record. His case hinges on the “reasonable risk” that these vehicles could be used in the war in Yemen. In January, a federal judge rejected the government’s motion to dismiss the case. In an earlier, related suit about the same issue, a government memo described Saudi Arabia as a “key partner” and “important and stable ally” in a region “marred by instability, terrorism and conflict,” and went on to say that “Saudi Arabia is a key military ally supporting international efforts to counter ISIS in Iraq and Syria as well as countering instability in Yemen. The acquisition of state-of-the-art armoured vehicles will assist Saudi Arabia in these goals, which are consistent with Canada’s defence interests in the Middle East.”

“The Canadian government seems to be committed to trade relations with Saudi Arabia and not to do anything that could threaten the $15 billion [deal] or upset the [Saudi] regime,” Turp tells me. “It upsets me so much that trade is more important than human rights.”

Closeup of sticky notes with handwritten messages
Sticky notes with messages from refugees, asylum seekers, and visitors on the walks of the Association for Yemeni Refugees in Malaysia.
Canada is “deeply concerned by the ongoing conflict in Yemen,” according to a spokesperson for Global Affairs Canada. (The federal department is responsible for encouraging international trade, in addition to overseeing humanitarian aid.) “We recognize the importance of regional stability and support efforts to protect the legitimate Government of Yemen….Canada was the sponsor of a UNHCR motion, adopted in September of [last] year, calling for a full investigation into human rights abuses in Yemen.” Fenton sees Canada’s involvement in this investigation as part of “overt attempts by the government to appear even-handed.” Turp is less charitable: “They talk from both sides of their mouths.”

Conventional wisdom holds that journalists are supposed to be objective, detached from the stories they cover. But the people I met are from my homeland; I wanted to write this story in the first place to highlight their situation. The idea that I can entirely separate the reporter from the human being in writing about this crisis may be a convenient prop for journalism as it wrestles with challenges to its credibility, but it fails on every human and psychological level I can think of.

During my trip, Tareq Almoslmi, a PhD student in computer science who introduced me to members of the Yemeni community in Kuala Lumpur, had been collecting money to give to refugees and people stranded in Malaysia because of the US travel ban. In one of my conversations with Talal that week, I learned that his daughter Ruaa would have to miss another year of school because he couldn’t afford her tuition. I had $190 (US) left in my wallet shortly before I left—the hard currency I had not yet converted to Malaysian ringgits and that I had set aside for emergencies. I asked Almoslmi to give it to Talal, for him to put toward Ruaa’s tuition, without mentioning my name.

Throughout my time in Malaysia, the Yemenis I met would ask me for help, advice, or confirmation that Canada was indeed as idyllic a place as they imagined. I tried to correct misunderstandings, listing this country’s shortcomings on matters of race, Indigenous relations, and rising anti-Muslim sentiment. Was I trying to warn them? To stop them from coming here altogether? I don’t think so. Although I hoped to be proven wrong, part of me knew that Canada was still a long way from leaping into action on their behalf. For most of them, it seems the fantasy of Canada will remain just that.

When I spoke to Talal in late January, he told me that Ruaa was in school. I found out later that she could only go for the first semester; the family couldn’t afford to keep Ruaa in school for the second term. Her brother hasn’t been able to attend this year at all.

Kamal Al-Solaylee
Kamal Al-Solaylee (@KamalAlSolaylee) is the author of Intolerable: A Memoir of Extremes, which won the 2013 Toronto Book Award. His second book, Brown: What Being Brown in the World Today Means (to Everyone) won the Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing. He is Director of the School of Journalism, Writing, and Media at the University of British Columbia.
Ian Teh
Ian Teh is a Kuala Lumpur-based photographer. His work has appeared in National Geographic, The New Yorker, and Mother Jones.