By an Arab World Media team member
I last saw them in the spring of 2013. For three years they had shared their lives with me. For three seasons of Ramadan we had broken the fast together over the Iftar meals. Friday mornings were spent reviewing English assignments with the youngest, followed by the all-important Friday noon meal with their ever-growing family.
They brought me into their home, into their family and into their hearts. They treated me with the utmost respect and honoured me with their friendship and amazing Yemeni hospitality. When the two oldest boys were married, I was ushered in on the arm of the groom’s mother. ‘If she doesn’t attend, there will be no wedding,’ she declared. They taught me a lot about their lives as well as the culture of their arid, mountainous land on the Arabian Peninsula. During the uprising of 2011, they guarded my home and cared for me, upholding the long-held Arab tradition of protecting the guest who lives amongst them. Their eldest son slept in my car at petrol stations for days to secure fuel, as it was not safe for me, as a foreign woman, to go near the stations, where queues were often ten miles long and gunfights broke out regularly. They would call my office daily to enquire if I had arrived safely and to remind me of the risky areas of the city that I should avoid. It didn’t matter that they were Muslims and I was a Christian. Their love for me outweighed any of our differences, and through that bridge of love we shared our lives and our faiths.
Because of increasing instability and war, I left Yemen for the safety of my western land, but I’ve remained in their hearts as they have in mine. Thanks to the technology of Facebook voice calls, Skype and WhatsApp, I converse with my Arabian family three or four times a week. The internet connection is often too weak, but we try. They don’t speak English, so I am forced to keep up with my Arabic language studies – but even when I forget or misspell a word, they know what I’m trying to say. Family is like that. They know the nuances, and they know my heart. On days when we can’t chat, I try to text them an encouraging message that often includes Scripture. Or perhaps some picture art with Scripture verses taken from our Arabic language website.
Many of their neighbours have left their homes in the cities and moved to their traditional villages, but my family doesn’t have a house in the village. All they have is their house in the city, and, unfortunately, it is located in the neighbourhood where the rebels have been fighting relentlessly for months and where the coalition continues its nightly bombing raids. Their text messages often begin with ‘We are alive’ and our voice chats begin with, ‘We are awaiting death’. I’ve asked if they can leave to rent a house in the village, but they explain that if they leave, they will lose their home. All their neighbours’ houses that are still standing (and few of them are) have now been taken over by the anti-government rebels. If the men leave, they will be shot on the street (like their cousins and uncles) or kidnapped by the rebels to join the fight. That will leave the women with no protection and susceptible to kidnap and rape. If the women leave, the rebels will take the house and the men. They see no way out. Thus they endure, in fear, and with little hope.
For the past six months, my conversations with them have been strained. How does one have a heart-to-heart talk with loved ones who are suffering through war, nightly bombing raids, and the destruction of civilian homes and the infrastructure of their city? Our phone calls are filled with the sounds of gunfire, rockets and whispering, scared voices. Beginning a phone call with ‘How are you?’ seems insensitive. When I ask, ‘How can I help you?’, their response is ‘Hearing your voice brings us hope’. I constantly feel inadequate and helpless to alleviate their pain and suffering. With less than one hour of electricity in twenty-four, they rely on their neighbour’s generator to recharge their phone. The men cannot work because of danger in the streets, making money a scarce commodity. They cannot afford the limited petrol or diesel required for their generator. There is little water, and what they have is often undrinkable. They leave their house early in the morning, while the rebels are sleeping after a long night of fighting, and walk throughout their city, carrying jerry cans, trying all the taps in their search for water. They’ve managed to store some rainwater for drinking, but there is little rain in their land. Cooking gas, the price of which has quadrupled, is nowhere to be found now that the manufacturing plant has been bombed. All of the schools have been destroyed in the nightly coalition bombing raids and the children have not had classes for eight months. Food is in short supply, prohibitively expensive, and dangerous to look for, so they eat very little. All of the hospitals have been bombed, making medical services unavailable. The coalition forces have prevented planes and ships from bringing aid to their land. Each phone call brings more news of those who have died.
My daily prayers for them sound more like pleadings than prayers – a constant cry for mercy for souls who are suffering. I remind them regularly that I am praying, and in amazing ways God lets me know that he has heard my prayers. Even though all their neighbours’ houses have been destroyed, their home is still standing. I tell them often that I ask God to put angels around their home. They have told me that in Islam there is a story that if people hear birds chirping or chickens clucking where there are no birds or chickens, it is a sign that there are angels near. My family have heard the birds chirping and immediately proclaimed to one another, ‘Miriam has sent the angels!’
I read the news headlines of refugees escaping war in the Middle East, but rarely is the country of my heart mentioned. In general, the public is unaware of the disaster unfolding in this time-honoured land that once bore the name Arabia Felix, ‘Happy Arabia’. While the news channels show the story of refugees from the Middle East fleeing in search of safety, the people of this extraordinary Arabian land of ancient history are too poor to leave. Yemen is filled with a forgotten people; they are among the forgotten victims of war.
Recently, with an aching heart, I lamented to my Canadian friend, ‘I wish Jesus would visit them in a dream or a vision.’ She gently reminded me that every time I was in their home, Jesus was visiting them. My prayer is that my Arabian family, along with the thousands of other victims of war, would have an encounter with the living God. May the many Scriptures I’ve shared with them over the years bring them to know the one who gives us hope in the midst of hopelessness.
The forgotten victims of war
By an Arab World Media team member