“I didn’t believe my sister was still alive”

Four years into the Yemen conflict, families are struggling to feed themselves. That’s having a devastating impact on their health.

By Mohammed Al-Ghorbani
اليمن. أسرة تقف خارج منزلها في الحديدة.
UNICEF/UN0276403/AlGhabri

29 March 2019

HUDAYDAH, Yemen – “I didn’t actually believe that she was still alive until I saw her for myself,” Mareiah, 15, says of her sister Doa’a.

One-year-old Doa’a was experiencing complications from severe acute malnutrition, including pneumonia, but the nearest health centre was about an hour away by car. Her father, Hussein, wasn’t sure his daughter could even survive the journey to the hospital.

“I was pretty sure she wouldn’t make it,” Hussein recalls. “But I didn’t give up,” he says, adding that he needed to borrow money just to get his daughter to the centre for treatment.

“I was pretty sure she wouldn’t make it...But I didn’t give up.”

Doa’a was one of the hundreds of thousands of children in Yemen suffering the most extreme and visible form of undernutrition as four years of conflict continue to take a devastating toll on families. Almost 10 million people in Yemen are suffering from extreme hunger, while around 360,000 children under five are suffering from severe acute malnutrition.

Read more about Yemen, the largest humanitarian crisis in the world

The suffering is particularly acute for residents in the port city of Hudaydah, where ongoing clashes, soaring prices and a lack of basic services have made life almost unbearable for residents, who are struggling to access affordable food.

The therapeutic feeding centre where Doa’a received her care typically treats between 50 to 60 malnourished children and their mothers each month, offering free medication for the children and providing meals for mothers.

Yemen. A therapeutic feeding centre.
UNICEF/UN0276389/AlGhabri
A therapeutic feeding centre where Doa'a received treatment.

“When Doa’a arrived at the centre, we provided medical treatment and gave her formula until her condition improved,” says Dhia Al-Haq Al-Omari, a doctor at the centre. He notes that the centre doesn’t just provide children with much-needed nutrition, but also has a health educator on hand to provide helpful information for mothers such as how to prepare the most nutritious meals possible.

Yemen. A baby is measured by medical staff.
UNICEF/UN0276396/AlGhabri
Doa'a is measured by medical staff at a nutrition centre.

The UNICEF-funded facility, operated by the Taibah Foundation, also covers the cost of patients’ transportation home. This is tremendously important because even the cost of a shared car or taxi can be prohibitive for many families, further endangering babies and children who might not be able to reach treatment facilities at all. But Al-Omari warns that despite the treatment, children and their families still face an uphill struggle because of the deteriorating situation in the country.

اليمن. طفلة تخضع للفحص في مركز للتغذية
UNICEF/UN0276402/AlGhabri
Doa'a has her arm measured as part of the screening at a nutrition centre.

“We can provide treatment for those that come here, but that’s not going to be enough,” Al-Omari says, adding that the tough economic circumstances confronting Doa’a’s family could well take a toll on her health in the future.

“We have nothing, and nobody to help us”

Hussein says that even before the conflict, when prices for basic goods were more reasonable, he struggled to make ends meet for his family. Now, four years later, the money he earns from making the rope beds popular with locals doesn’t even cover the cost of feeding his family.

Hussein lives with his mother, wife and children in a tiny oshah, a small house made of mud and sticks, in Hudaydah. The family have decorated the walls of the oshah with some drawings – despite the fact that their home could collapse at any time when it rains.

“My son works hard trying to support us,” Hussein’s mother says. He has little choice. “We have nothing, and nobody to help us,” she adds.

Yemen. A woman at the family home.
UNICEF/UN0276398/AlGhabri
Doa'a's grandmother says her son works hard to support the family.

Doa’a’s mother, Zahra, is also suffering from health problems. She was forced to sell her jewelry to pay for treatment. She says she is happy, though, that Doa’a appears to be healthy since she returned home thanks to the treatment she received.

“I didn’t think Doa’a would come home,” she says. “But the health workers at the treatment centre gave her the medicine and baby formula she needed, so she’s doing OK now.”

Hussein adds: “It’s enough for me that my daughter returned to the house alive and that she is smiling and laughing.”

اليمن. فتاة صغيرة تجلس مع والديها.
UNICEF/UN0279211/AlGhabri
دعاء تجلس مع والديها في المنزل في مدينة الحديدة باليمن.