We opened our homes and hearts to those fleeing war in Syria. But we aren't doing the same for people in Yemen
- by Kamal Al-SolayleeKamal Al-Solaylee Illustration by Ian Teh, Updated 14:27, Mar. 27, 2020 | Published 13:03, Mar. 26, 2018This article was published over a year ago. Some information may no longer be current.
Photograph of Yemeni Family
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.”
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.
Before you go, did you know that The Walrus is a registered charity? We rely on donations and support from readers like you to keep our journalism independent and freely available online.
When you donate to The Walrus, you’re helping writers, editors, and artists produce stories like the ones you’ve just read. Every story is meticulously researched, written, and edited, before undergoing a rigorous fact-checking process. These stories take time, but they’re worth the effort, because you leave our site better informed about Canada and its people.
If you’d like to ensure we continue creating stories that matter to you, with a level of accuracy you can trust, please consider becoming a supporter of The Walrus. I know it’s tough out there with inflation and rising costs, but good journalism affects us as well, so I don’t ask this lightly.
Will you join us in keeping independent journalism free and available to all?
Claire Cooper Managing Editor, The Walrus
Hey, thank you for reading! We hope you enjoyed this story.
Before you go, did you know that The Walrus is a registered charity? We rely on donations and support from readers like you to keep our journalism independent and freely available online. Will you join us in keeping independent journalism free and available to all?
I took a leap of faith and moved to Canada in May 2022. It was a completely new country, and I knew I had no more than three months to land on my feet.
A personal interaction with The Walrus staff at the Word on the Street festival in Toronto the following June encouraged me to buy a subscription. When I started reading the magazine for the first time, I was lost in it at once. Shortly after, I applied for a position at The Walrus and started working there in August, a week before the clock ran out on my three-month deadline.
Most of what I know of Canada, I’ve learnt from The Walrus, an organization which, to me, also reflects the best of this country. In many ways, The Walrus made my new Canadian life possible—and keeps it possible day after day. That’s why I support The Walrus, and I encourage you to do the same.
Siddhesh Inamdar Copy editor, The Walrus
The Walrus is able to tell stories with big impact thanks to supporters like you.
I moved to Canada in May 2022. Most of what I know of Canada, I’ve learnt from The Walrus, an organization which, to me, also reflects the best of this country. In many ways, The Walrus made my new Canadian life possible—and keeps it possible day after day.
That’s why I support The Walrus, and I encourage you to do the same.