Ali said: “I don’t want to work on the streets like my brother” [Archives:2005/872/Reportage]

August 29 2005

By Corinne Levey
[email protected]
For the Yemen Times

In 2003 a project was established in Sana'a on behalf of the British NGO, 'YERO' (Yemeni Education and Relief Organization). The aim of the project is to identify children who are working or begging on the streets of Sana'a, and to sponsor those children to go to school.

The law in Yemen that children must go to school is not enforced. Many of the children from impoverished families, who work or beg, day and night on the streets of Sana'a, end up imprisoned in The Beggars Centre or the Juvenile Centre; and so continues the cycle of poverty.

Problems in villages drive families to the city in search of work and a better quality of life. In the city, they find that their economic situation worsens, as they cannot afford the rent, they have to pay for water, their electricity bills are high; and they don't have any training to get a job. With an average of seven children in the families, their only option is to work or beg on the street. If the parents are ill or unable to work, then they must send their children out to beg or work at the expense of the children's education.

Ali is nine years old. He has been sponsored by the project for 2 years; and he is now moving into the third grade. His father is mentally disabled and so he cannot work. Sayidda, Ali's mother, works long, hard days as a cleaner; but this is still not enough to support her seven children, so her sons must go out to work – cleaning cars at the traffic lights on the streets.

Sayidda cares greatly about her children's future. She never went to school; but she wants her children to be educated and go to university, so that they can look forward to a better future. As long as YERO continues to support this family, it is very possible that their dreams will come true – all of Sayidda's children are very intelligent and doing well at school. Even Tagheer, who is only six years old and will be starting school this September, can read her sisters' Arabic books beautifully.

When I ask Ali whether he likes going to school, he grins and tells me; “yes, because I like my teacher”. Sayidda explains that Ali doesn't work on the streets like his older brother, as he is too young – she smiles and tells me; “Ali will never have to work on the streets, because now he is going to school”. Ali tells me that he would not be happy if he did not go to school, he shakes his head firmly and says; “I don't want to work on the streets like my brother”. When he grows up, Ali wants to be a pilot, so that he can fly all over the world. This is a far cry from the dreams he would have if he were not supported to go to school.

Ali's older sister, Hanan, is twelve years old. She flicks through her colouring books to show me the drawings she has done. Hanan loves reading and writing and she is doing very well at school. When she grows up, she wants to be a doctor. Sayidda explains: “Before she started going to school, Hanan would cry when she saw the other children on their way to school, because she wanted to go too.” But now there are no tears in Hanan's eyes, she smiles as she shows me her school work and her mother smiles and laughs as she talks about her children; because even though Sayidda has had a hard day at work, all of her children are going to school now and she knows that they have a bright future to look forward to.

Children are identified to be included in this education programme through referral from The Beggars Centre in Sana'a and from the Al-Sada society, which works with the communities in YERO's target areas: Al Saffia and Bab-Al-Yemen. However, many children identify themselves for the project, coming forward to the project's founder, Ms Noria Nagi, whom they know as “Umi Noria”; and expressing their desire to stop working or begging on the streets and instead, to go to school.

Ms Nagi moved from Yemen to Britain with her family, when she was just 16. After living in London for most of her life, she decided that she wanted to return to Yemen and devote the rest of her life to helping Yemeni people who are less fortunate than herself. She said; “I came to Yemen to help these people, especially the children, because they are the future.”

The YERO project began with a pilot project, involving just one family of four children. Two years ago, none of the children in this family could read, write, or even hold a pen. Now they are all studying at a government school, and attending summer school. The oldest child, Faten, is moving into the 3rd grade this year; and her younger brothers and sister are moving into the 2nd and 1st grades. YERO has provided medical treatment and support for their mother; and their father is now working for a local taxi firm in Sana'a. The organization has grown since its establishment two years ago; and now there are thirty children, from seven families, enrolled on the programme.

The sponsors of the children pay $200 per year for their child, which covers the cost of their school uniform, all necessary writing and reading materials, regular medical examinations of the child, obtainment of a birth certificate; and also school registration fees. YERO also compensates for the family's immediate loss of income by supplying them with temporary food rations, until a better solution is found. The work of YERO does not stop there, YERO account themselves to be responsible for the child's social and medical welfare also. The YERO project ensures that the children are taught how to be respectable members of society, both in their appearance and their actions.

The work of YERO is about to take a massive leap, as they look forward to opening the first YERO centre for education and development in September this year. Up until now, YERO has had no central work place for the parents and children supported by the project. The centre will provide a stimulating, caring environment for the children and their families. It will be staffed by Yemeni and international volunteers and will be situated in Hadda, close to a bus stop frequented by buses from the project's target areas, Bab-al-Yemen and Al Saffia.

At the centre, the children will be given classes in health and hygiene. Medical volunteers ensure good health of the children; and they will be taught how to care for themselves and how to wash and dress properly. This is very important for their integration into the government schools. The children will be guided in their behaviour, to ensure that they understand what will be expected of them when they attend school. Their time at the centre will also introduce them to an educational environment.

The centre will also be used for a 'homework club' where the children can get help with aspects of their schoolwork that they are struggling with; and for this purpose, YERO will employ a teacher to work in the centre.

During school holidays, the centre will be used as a summer school for the children. There will also be opportunities for the children to receive practical training, with lessons in sewing and cooking.

One of the main purposes of the centre is to provide literacy classes for older children or family members, who feel that they are too old to attend government schools. The centre is hoping to get guidance and resources from the Ministry of Education for the purpose of teaching older pupils basic literacy skills.

It is very important to YERO that they have good relations with the parents of the children that they sponsor. The centre will provide an excellent way for the parents to become actively involved in their child's education. There will be opportunities for the mothers or older girls in the families to receive training in sewing and capacity building, to empower them to be independent, then YERO may employ the women to make the children's school uniforms. There will be other employment opportunities in the centre for the parents of the children, such as cooking and cleaning.

YERO is hoping to receive support from The Red Crescent, to provide the children with first aid lessons and guidance on the action they should take in the event of an emergency.

Many of these children do not eat nutritional food at home, and as a result, they suffer from health and development problems throughout their childhoods and into their adult lives. YERO is hoping that local food companies will be keen to support their project, so that they will be able to provide the children with nutritional food.

A social worker will volunteer at the centre to provide professional guidance for children who are having difficulties at home or socially. They will also work with the families of the children and provide support for the parents. Since the majority of the parents have never been to school, the centre will provide the opportunity for YERO to help them to understand the importance of their children's education.

At the centre there will be supplies of clothes, shoes, toiletries and learning materials, so that any of the children who are in need, may have access to essential items. Of YERO's work, Ms Nagi says; “We will do anything we can to help these children to help themselves.” She won't turn anyone away who comes to her for help. If she is unable to help them directly, she will refer them to somewhere they can get help. This is YERO's philosophy.

The sensitive social situations of the children that this project works with, mean they require more attention than can be given to them at the crowded government schools. This is why the new centre will be so vital to the work that the project does. It will provide a community and support network in which the children can learn and develop their skills in a caring atmosphere. Their time in the centre will teach them how to behave in the school environment; and their attendance at a government school will work towards fully integrating them into society.

When I asked Ms Nagi about her aims for the YERO project over the next few years, she was hesitant to respond. She hopes that in three years time they will have 300 children enrolled on the project; but she knows that for this progress to be made, she will need more support from individuals and from organizations, both locally and internationally.

YERO is a non-profit organization; the transparency of YERO's accounts means that any of its supporters or sponsors can see exactly where their money is being spent. As a foreign NGO, YERO gets no support from the Yemeni government. The project relies on the thirty private sponsors, who donate $200 per year to cover the costs of one child to go to school and be cared for by the project. The IWA supports the project with donations of food, clothes and educational resources and have sponsored fifteen children for this coming year.

YERO is very grateful to The Dutch Embassy in Yemen, which is showing great support for the project by supplying funding to furbish the new centre. Ms Nagi is keen to compliment all of YERO's supporters and shows them continuous gratitude. Hasnah Kamin, the wife of the Malaysian Ambassador for Yemen, has personally shown great support for YERO; and Ms Nagi compliments her efforts and those of many other contributors in Yemen. She insists that it is due to the support given to her by the Dutch Embassy, that YERO is able to open the new centre in September.

There is a waiting list of 250 children who have come forward to YERO and asked to be enrolled onto the project. Until the project has enough funding to sponsor and support them, they will continue to work and beg on the streets of Sana'a, just waiting to be given the opportunity to have an education.