Dutch couple saves Yemeni family from street life [Archives:2008/1211/Reportage]

November 27 2008

By: Khaled Al-Hilaly
It all started with a photo of a child beggar and his sister taken in 2006 and published in a recent issue of the Yemen Times. A few days after the paper came out, Niels Nieman, a Dutchman living in Yemen, called in to say that the children in the photo are no longer in the streets. He and his wife sponsored the two kids along with their three siblings and widowed mother, and they now go to school, live a decent life and are happier than ever.

One year ago Mustafa, Fawziah and Zahiah Hilal were out of school begging on Khawlan Street. On their way home in a taxi, Niels and his wife Wendy were accosted by Fawziah who asked them for money. They were captured by the innocence of the children, especially Fauzia who repeated to them the only English words she knew: “I love you”. The Niemans felt sorry for the children and decided to do something for them.

“We started by giving them money every time they stopped by our car to beg,” Mrs. Nieman explained, “One day we got out of the car to talk to the children, and asked them about their family and why there were in the streets. We decided to take them to Fun City along with their mother so that they could have a nice day for a change. And from that day on, we give them monthly allowances and monitored their progress in school under the condition that they don't beg any more.”

“After my husband died, I started begging with my children,” the children's mother said, “[the Niemans] have done us a great favor by helping us and protecting my children from violence on the street.”

“Thank God, we left our miserable life on the street behind,” said Mustafa, 13 “If we hadn't met the Niemans, we would still be there.” When in street, he was always on the lookout to protect his sisters, which is why the Niemans see him as the man of the family. With him acting as a bodyguard even to the Niemans in the street, nobody dared to steal from them or insult them.

“After two years out of school, [the Niemans] helped me go back again, I am lucky” Mustafa added.

Now Mustafa, his brother and sisters – ten year-old Yousif, nine year-old Zahiah, seven year-old Fawziah, and five year-old Khulood- and his mother are all supported by Niemans. The Dutch family, who has rented a house for them, buys them clothes, gives them weekly financial support and takes care of their health.

Every Friday, the children visit the Niemans in their home for lunch and play around in their garden.

“Niels and Fawziah, as well as I and Zahiah have a special connection,” said Mrs. Nieman.

Fawziah likes to use Mr. Nieman's camera to take photos. Her eyes light up when she talks about the day the Niemans took her family to the shop to buy them clothes and the day they bought her brother Mustafa a bicycle as a gift for his success in school. She studies in first grade and she wants to become a doctor when she grows up to treat her mother who suffers from high blood pressure.

In addition to the financial support, the Niemans pay great attention to the children's behavior and teach them how to treat other people. “Sometimes the children come to us when they fight with each other, and we always ask them to talk to each other instead of being loud and aggressive. Even with their mother we made them say 'I am sorry',” said Mrs. Nieman, “There is a big difference in their behavior since last year.”

The Niemans are learning Arabic from the children while they teach them English and Dutch. Because communication can be difficult, they sometimes ask a Yemeni friend to talk to children about important matters like hygiene and behavior.

The Niemans are planning to send Mustafa to a language institute to learn English in order to facilitate the communication. From their conversations with the Niemans, the children have learned some Dutch words, such as geit [goat] and maf [crazy], which they use among each other.

“Children are the future of Yemen, but street children are open to a lot of violence, that they will probably project into the future to their children or other children on the street,” said Mr. Nieman, lamenting the future of street children in Yemen.

“There should be recognition from the Yemeni government that there are street children and a group of them are really poor,” he added, “There are a lot of NGOs but they all target the same small group of children. The problem is big and there must be more support by the government.”

The Niemans encourage the children to be good Muslims. “Mustafa and his brother go to study Quran in the mosque. We support them to be good Muslims and we only want to help them live a better life,” explained Mr. Nieman, “We will keep supporting them financially, even after we leave Yemen, until Khulood is 18 years old. We hope that by then they will be educated Yemenis who can have a bright future.”

The Niemans recalled how much they missed the children when they were in Netherlands on holiday.

“Once Niels went to Netherlands for a long time and I let the children talk to him on the telephone,” Mrs. Niemans recalled, “It was strange for them.”

“Mustafa and Fawziah came to the airport to say goodbye when I had to go away for ten weeks. At one moment they had to leave me and I had to leave them because all of us started crying. Fawziah clung to Wendy's leg in tears,” said Mr. Nieman.

In eighteen months, the Niemans will have to leave Yemen, “It will be a hard moment but we will come back regularly to see them and to see how they are progressing in life,” said Mr. Nieman.

“I don't want to think of that moment,” Mrs. Nieman said.