In almost every corner of Yemen, you can find suffering children. But in the darkest corners of city slums, children from Ethiopia, refugees with no official Yemeni legal status, are hard to locate. Parents say they lock up their children while they are at work to keep them safe from accidents, and force them to stay inside to keep them safe from racially charged violence.
In this household, on most days, the girls, Husnia, who is 5, and Dunia, who is 3, are tied to the bedposts while their parents go to work. The door is locked from the outside. Their big brother, 9-year-old Akram, is not tied up. He is allowed to wander the two concrete window-less rooms and the dank hallway.
Their mother, Asha, says Akram is now old enough to avoid household accidents that commonly kill refugee children in Yemen’s urban slums. But, she says, when Akram was little, she chained and padlocked him to the bed to keep him safe.
Not long ago, Asha’s neighbor went to work, and didn’t tie up her toddler. The baby crawled into the clothes-washing water, and was dead before she got home.
Asha says she locks up the children to keep them alive. She cannot afford day care, and school is out of the question. When a visitor opens the front door, the three bolt towards the white sunlight. “They are like animals,” she says- always trying to get out.
Asha is an ethnic Oromo, and one of thousands of Ethiopian refugees in Yemen. Ethiopian officials say there is no ethnic majority among Ethiopian refugees in Yemen. But aid workers and refugees say they are almost all from the Oromo.
This girl, whose name is Oromia, has spent seven of her 10 years inside a cave-like room with a leaky tin roof, and a single window, which is squished up against her neighbor’s wall. She went to school for one day, but her classmates beat her and her sister. The school principal did nothing to stop it, so her father took them home.
Oromia says she has no dreams because she has no future. She and her brothers and sisters don’t fight, and they don’t play. She says she doesn’t know any games.
No legal standing
Khader, the father says he never lets his children go outside. He says he is afraid they will be beaten up because they are black, and he has barely any legal standing to complain.
In Yemen, Somalis fleeing war are granted automatic refugee status, which gives them the right to live and work. Non-Somalis from Africa, however, who are mostly from Ethiopia and Eritrea, are sometimes granted legal refugee status from the United Nations refugee agency. The Yemeni government, however, does not recognize this status.
Abdul Karim al-Iryani, a former prime minister, says that Ethiopians are not recognized because they are not really refugees. He says they came to Yemen looking for work, not fleeing political persecution.
“There is no war in Ethiopia, like in Somalia, to justify their classification as refugees, like Somalis, but this has been the case between Yemen, and Eritrea and Ethiopia, particularly during famines, and lack of rains,” said al-Iryani.
Ethiopian parents insist they fled human rights abuses, like arbitrary arrests, torture, and killings at home. UNHCR refugee status means protection from deportation, and access to some refugee services. But because the government does not recognize them as refugees, their letters, that are supposed to serve as ID cards, are virtually useless.
No education, no future
And for all African refugee children in Yemen- from Somalia, Ethiopia and Eritrea- abject poverty stunts their education as much as racism or politics. Adventist Development and Relief Agency project manager Soo-Rae Hong says many families simply cannot justify the cost of sending their kids to school.
“In general, I don’t think there are a lot of refugee children that attend schools because even though its relatively free of charge, provided by the government, you still need to have a birth certificate and a lot of those children don’t have that. You also need to pay for a school uniform and school supplies, and parents can’t afford that,” said Soo-Rae.
Many children, like Oromia, say they no longer dream of education, because it won’t happen. Oromia’s 7-year-old sister, Ilily, however, says when she grows up, she wants to be the school principal. When that day comes, she says, refugee children will never get beaten when they try to go to school.