At a glance: Yemen

A community in Yemen transforms its school – and its environs

By Mahyoub Haza Alomari and Kate Rose

On 21 February, UNICEF launches Humanitarian Action for Children (HAC) 2014. This global appeal pulls together the combined needs for those living in the most challenging circumstances – whether large-scale emergencies making headlines around the world or less-visible but no less urgent crises that put the lives and well-being of children and women in danger.  

With the aim of providing critical assistance to 85 million people, including 59 million children, the HAC 2014 is the largest humanitarian appeal ever made by UNICEF – $2.2 billion in total – reflecting the increased impact of disasters and emergencies on children around the world.

Among the challenges Yemen faces is that the country has increasingly seen localized, tribal conflict leading to small-scale short-term displacements. More than one million Yemeni girls and boys under 5 suffer from acute malnutrition, and some 14,000 children die from preventable diseases every year. Poor water and poor hygiene contribute significantly to these diseases and, in emergency situations, the situation is even more critical.

In Sana’a, students, teachers, parents and other community members band together to transform the local school, and its environs.

SANA’A, Yemen, 20 February 2014 – Stray bullets had turned the schoolyard into a battleground.

The children and teachers were terrified. They feared where the bullets might land. They dreaded what might happen to them, in the crossfire.

A school at the centre

Omer Bin Abdulaziz school is perched at the centre of a cluster of villages in Sana’a Governorate, in central Yemen. Children from the surrounding villages attend. All of the locals know the school, and the whole community can access it easily. 

So, there was a time when representatives of some of the local tribes would meet near the school to discuss such matters as disputes, revenge – or even killing. They’d bring their weapons. Because of the nature of the issues, there was every possibility of conflict breaking out in the area surrounding the school, of violence, of guns being emptied.

Some of the gunfire right outside Omer Bin Abdulaziz school was actually friendly. If, for example, a man would kill someone from another group, perhaps by mistake, then the two groups might try to come to a compromise, at a meeting point near the school. One way they might greet one another, apologize – or even agree to make peace – would be to shoot bullets into the air.

Teachers and some of the older students would wonder if there were a way to stop such behaviour and make the area free of weapons. But, these people had guns, and the teachers and students feared for their safety.

Children at the centre

Then, Omer Bin Abdulaziz school was chosen to become a child-friendly school, supported by UNICEF and the Ministry of Education. This focus meant that the school would receive help to develop in ways that encourage children’s participation in education.

To become a child-friendly school requires that a number of standards be met, such as safe and working toilets for boys and girls, community management of the school and enhanced training for teachers.

One of the key activities that took place for Omer bin Abdulaziz School was that parents were selected to join a ‘father and mother council’. The benefit of such a council is that, as parents, the members want the best for their children – and, with a forum to discuss their issues, changes for the better can take place.

The council members all received training and went on to work with the school staff and students as one team. They called for meetings with the surrounding groups. These meetings were successful; they were able to persuade the group members to stop brandishing weapons near the school.

Today the school neighbourhood is very different. The meeting point has been moved. When community members visit the school, they leave their weapons outside.

With support from the whole community, the gunfire around Omer Bin Abdulaziz school has been silenced. 

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