Yemen's abandoned children
The author won the Society's annual Essay Prize for 2009. He lives in Sana'a.
By night, newborn babies are laid down on the ground. By day, they are found by people and adopted. These abandoned Yemeni children grow up in the suburbs, or in orphanages in major cities. As a result of the harsh treatment which they are exposed to, they suffer mental illness and a profound sense of shame. The negative attitude of society and the government towards them, and the neglect of private charities, shows in their troubled lives.
These abandoned children seem to lead a normal life, but deep inside their bodies there exist insulted souls which eventually cry out in anger. When the hustle and bustle of a highland community dwindles to quiet night, a radio repair man strongly vents his criticism of almost everything happening in the world. He is known as Ahmad 'al-Askari', and is named after the soldier who is believed to have raped Ahmad's deaf and dumb mother during the Yemeni CivilWar in the 1960s. His mother came home one day to the house where she worked as a servant, bloodstained and fighting back tears. She gestured towards a remote field, but the soldier had long gone.
'Al-Askari' moved into town, and managed to set up his own radio repair shop. There he met a sixty-year-old woman in the qat market, where she begged for qat leaves. Eventually 'al-Askari' decided to marry her, and was happy to be her seventh or even eighth husband. At night however, he never stops his complaining speeches, and his voice gets ever louder.
Unlike 'al-Askari', Qasim's last name didn't originate from the ranks of the military or security forces. It is 'al-Kashhah', slang for the bush in which Qasim was found the day after his birth. 'Al-Kashhah' moved to another area, and did all kinds of jobs to earn a living. Later he fathered four children. He doesn't shout at night. Instead he tells his children his innermost secrets, such as his ability to stay alive for three days in the neighbouring lake, and the (disappointingly) invisible spacecraft which he uses if necessary.
Some of the abandoned are sent to city orphanages which also receive homeless children. They feel lonely and rejected among orphans whose relatives often visit them. Orphanages are obliged by Civil Affairs Law 23 to record the personal details of the abandoned, and of the person who found them. These are sent to the Civil Affairs Authority which is empowered to name them. 'The first name is invented', said Major Ahmad al-Sorabi, manager of the Registry in Sana'a. But the last name is derived from the place where the abandoned are found. For example, if a child were found in al-Rawdha district, he or she would be named 'al-Rawdhi'.
The Registry has recently received details of twenty cases from one orphanage, but there are no figures for the total abandoned there. There are an estimated one million abandoned children living in orphanages, out of Yemen's fast-growing population of over 22 million. At one state-run orphanage there are over one hundred abandoned children - all boys - among fifteen hundred orphans. 'The last child we received was an eightyear old boy whose adoptive father brought him here because his own children began to insult him', said Ahmad al-Shami, the Director-General of the orphanage. At similar care shelters, the main concern of the abandoned is loneliness. 'I have no relatives or parents to look after me', says Akram al-Sana'ani, a teenager who lives in al-Ihsan orphanage in Sana'a, 'but I have found someone who promised to'.
The abandoned, considered by many Yemenis to pose a major threat to the fabric of society, live with the harsh reality of being considered unwelcome guests. According toArwa al-Najjar, a doctor at the Educational and Psychological Counselling Centre at Sana'a University, the word 'abandoned' is a term of abuse which destroys the person and his or her future. 'Because abandoned children are the result of adultery', she explained, 'they suffer social ostracism, and people do not want to marry them. They consequently blame society for their position, and are aggressive towards it. Some of them', she added, 'share character traits of their biological parents, and commit wrongs such as theft and rape.'
Yaser al-Sohbani, a 22-year-old who used to sell bottled water at road junctions, has joined a group of youths who steal mobile phones. 'We only rob the rich, and the ones who just talk and don't really need them', he said.
Arwa al-Najjar believes that while some abandoned children might succeed in their professional life, they often lack confidence, feel insecure and become introverted. She mentioned a 32-year-old woman who has pursued a career in psychology but spends more time in the Counselling Centre than in her own clinic. Another case which al-Najjar encountered was Jubran al-Salwi, a 20-year old youth who was never adopted. His mother, who had left him at an orphanage soon after his birth, later came back. But it was too late for al-Salwi, who refused his mother's offer of a nice home and new family. 'I needed her care when I was still a baby looking for someone to turn to, but I found nothing but darkness and barking 34 dogs', said al-Salwi. He preferred to remain at the orphanage with his only friend, Sari'a - a dog.
Intellectuals who analyse the causes of these situations believe that there are contributing factors other than poverty. Sociologist Sokaina Hashem feels that the main reason for the escalating number of the abandoned, in addition to extreme poverty, is the seduction of girls whose lovers disappear once they are pregnant. Ahmad al-Hasani, a Yemeni intellectual and journalist, thinks that inequalities of social class and conditions of social disorder - where no one is held responsible - are to blame. 'In feudal communities', he said, 'the sexual exploitation of women is commonplace. Incriminating only the women makes it difficult for them to discuss their problems, and if they do, they risk being killed by their families.'
Looking for solutions to the rising tide of abandoned children, Sana'a officials have turned to the Jordan Children'sVillage Programme as a model. This focuses on building special homes for the abandoned, then later integrating them into families. 'But this programme was obstructed due to the specialists' lack of understanding', said Rasheedah al-Nosairi, Director of the Women and Child section at the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labour.
'They thought that the programme would be a shelter for crime and might help to spread the phenomenon'. However, al-Nosairi said, the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labour had initiated a similar programme in Aden which would help the abandoned to get access to social services. 'But', she added, 'none of these solutions is satisfactory. There are no plans or strategies, and the Ministry has no statistics; it just deals with individual cases'.
No one, it seems, is keen to address the problem of the abandoned. This is partly because governmental and private bodies are ashamed to support them. In a conservative society like Yemen's, many associate the term 'abandoned' with moral corruption. So whereas charitable groups mainly controlled by Islamic parties and religious groups donate millions for orphans, the abandoned are ignored and insulted.
Whether they are found living rough, or in the marbled luxury of a house, or working in wheat fields or shopping in mega-malls, the abandoned children of Yemen suffer such severe social ostracism that they often become mentally ill or turn to crime. To escape the stigma of being illegitimate people, they can only move to a different area, but even then they often face discrimination, not the relief they seek.