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Yemen's urban garbage dwellers – a life and death duel

UNICEF Yemen/2017
© UNICEF Yemen/2017
A Muhamasheen family in Sana'a having a meal.

Sana’a, 9 October 2017 - The Muhamasheen, a minority tribe in Yemen originally migrated from Africa. For many years, they have lived at the periphery of society and subjected to social exclusion and marginalization. They live in squalid conditions in the outskirts of major towns and cities mainly working as casual labourers and collecting garbage to survive.

The conflict in Yemen has execrated the condition of the Muhamasheen. Many of them are seen on the streets of the Capital, Sana’a begging or polishing shoes for money in order to survive.

32-year-old Fatime Hayel wakes up at 6 am am every day and sends her husband to fetch water using their three 20-litre jerry cans.

"After that, I send my kids to garbage dumps and restaurants to search for food and bring it to us for breakfast," she says.

Struggling to hold back tears, Hayel explains how the search for food often stretches to 4-5 hours.

”My kids would normally return at around 10 am. We eat the food they bring in 15 minutes and then get out of the slum to beg for money on the streets and also to go to restaurants for the remnants of discarded food. We return to the shack at 2:00 pm to have lunch together."

The collection of bottles and metal scrap can take several hours as well. Many children fight over the collected materials or even steal it from one another for the survival of their families. Exacerbating the situation, are the pervasive skin problems and deadly diseases they suffer from due to the constant collection of trash with bare hands. 

UNICEF Yemen/2017
© UNICEF Yemen/2017
A Muhamasheen girl sits at a shack. The risk of early marriage is high for Muhamasheen girls in Yemen.

The Muhamasheen pay little or no attention to common illnesses such as fever, skin diseases, diarrhoea, indigestion or colic. They believe that all these diseases are cured after a certain period of time without any treatment. However, death is inevitable when they are exposed to fatal diseases due to the lack of money for medical care.

Zainab Saleh Yahiya, a 28-year-old Muhamasheen mother, had to take five of her six children to the hospital to receive treatment for cholera.

"All my family members eat food from garbage and nothing happens to them. However, five of my six children suffered from cholera at various intervals due to their weak immunity. The treatment cost YR 12000 ($ 47.94) so, I went to my shack and sold our blankets and everything else. They can tolerate the cold but not cholera.”

Unlike more fortunate children, who lead happy and comfortable lives, the Muhamasheen children desire basic necessities - such as food, water and clean toilets - considered as basic human rights.

Mansour Yahiya, a 10-year-old Muhamasheen boy, shares, ”I want to join a school and become a teacher but I will not be able to achieve this dream due to my difficult conditions so, I will replace it with some other, simpler dream.”



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