Three Women, Three Backgrounds, All Influential Humanitarians

Three Women, Three Backgrounds, All Influential Humanitarians

Weam, Naima and Fatima, IOM Yemen 

When the conflict broke out in Yemen, Weam did what she could to support those in need in her community. She volunteered with a local organization, distributing food during Ramadan. That was her first humanitarian experience.  

Nearly five years on, she is still a part of a distribution team but now works with the International Organization for Migration (IOM), as a shelter assistant providing displaced people with some form of protection from the elements. Based in Al Hudaydah, which has seen ongoing fighting since the conflict escalated there in 2018, the 27-year-old humanitarian faces constant insecurity, limiting her access to areas where people are most in need.  

Weam being interviewed. Photo: IOM

Yemen can be a dangerous place for humanitarians to operate in – they can be both targeted or simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, with the full weight of war crashing down on them. 

Despite the possible risks, Fatima would encourage more women in Yemen to enter the humanitarian sector. When asked about any advice she might have for young women thinking about such a career, she said: “they should work on self-development and take any opportunity that will help further their objective.”  

Working alongside Weam in the IOM Al Hudaydah shelter team is Naima, a Somali by birth and a Yemeni by upbringing.  

When her father got a job as an English teacher in Taiz, he waited a year to settle before moving two-year-old Naima and the rest of their family from Hargeisa, Somalia to Yemen. 

“In the beginning, I remember that it was very tough,” said Naima. “There weren’t a lot of Somalis in our area - I was the only Somali kid in my school. Especially as an African in an Arab country, I stood out but as the years went on, I made connections with people and learned the language. Then during the nineties, more Somali families started coming to Yemen because of the conflict at home. Yemenis got to know more about us, and we even had other Somali students at school.” 

Naima spent nearly 20 years of her life in Taiz before moving to Sana’a in 2007 to study for a degree in Business Administration. She planned to start some sort of Yemeni-Somali trading company. But she could not shake off her passion for helping others. Having volunteered with youth initiatives in high school, Naima went on to work for an international NGO to help fund their university degree. 

Naima. Photo: IOM

“My first job was as a project assistant, supporting refugee kids, mostly from Ethiopia and Somalia, with their integration into the education system in Yemen, helping lessen the discrimination they might face. This is one of my fondest memories because I had once been in the same situation as those children. When I talked to them, I could see myself and knew how they were feeling,” Naima explained. 

As the situation stabilized somewhat, Naima would typically go back to Somalia once a year to visit family. In fact, she was there when the Yemen conflict intensified in 2015. Before she left, the effects of the worsening security situation had already started to take their toll. 

“When I left Yemen, it wasn’t very calm. The situation in Sana’a had already deteriorated. I went back to Somalia and it took me a while to adapt. I had a lot of nightmares; I felt like I could still hear the bombing. It took three to four months for my body to feel safe again,” described Naima. 

Unable to return to Yemen, Naima worked in Somalia for a few months before joining IOM’s team in South Sudan. The work she did with IOM’s shelter team there laid the groundwork for her to join IOM Yemen some four years later. A decision she and her family did not take lightly, as she was worried about reliving the first days of the conflict. 

Despite her more than ten years of experience, Naima still faces discrimination based on her gender and nationality. “Being seen just as a woman and an African, can be challenging at times. People look at me and you can see them assuming I don’t know much.” 

As a humanitarian, the prejudice Naima’s faces has not subsided, particularly at airports in the Middle East where people assume that she is an irregular migrant, coming from Somalia to try find menial work, and never realize that the fluent Arabic-speaker can understand everything they are saying.  

These stereotypes can at times spill over to her work.  

“When I go to meetings, I sometimes have to remind myself of my position, my experience, what I have achieved so far and what I actually bring to the table - these things are more valuable than other people and how they stereotype me. The humanitarian work we are doing is more important than these differences.” 

“You think you have overcome the stereotypes and their effects and then they come back to get you again, so you need to remind yourself of who you really are. One of my Somali friends is a protection manager in Iraq. When we discuss the challenges that we face, we also talk about how to encourage other women from Somalia to take leadership roles in our communities.” 

When she goes back to Somalia, Naima often feels like she is put in a certain box, which involves marriage and children. Anything outside of that box, like her career is unheard of. Appreciating her exposure to different places and people, she feels passionate about the amazing work Somalis are doing internationally but also inside Somalia and hopes that one day women’s contributions, outside what is traditionally thought be their role, will be given the praise they deserve.  

Naima’s colleague Fatima has also been on a mission to defy stereotypes since she began working in the humanitarian sector about a year before the conflict broke out in Yemen. 

As a clinical psychologist in an IOM health centre in Sana’a, Fatima works with migrants in need of therapy and counselling, which can involve discussing what are often thought to be taboo topics in Yemen. 

“At the start of my career, it was a problem, as it is usual that psychologists address sensitive issues within families and, according to some local traditions, this is shameful for an unmarried woman to talk about these topics. It would even be difficult for a married woman to talk about them. But after I studied my higher diploma in clinic psychology, I learned how to handle such topics, how to phrase the questions and how to provide solutions,” said Fatima.  

“My father, who was a geography professor in Sana’a university, provided me supported my dream and encouraged me to continue my studies,” Fatima added. 

A key country on the route from the Horn of Africa to the Arabian Gulf, migrants continue to travel to and through Yemen despite the conflict. Fatima knows the true value of the phycological support she provides to these migrants, who frequently witness death and experience torture during their journey. The need for the work she and other humanitarians are doing, for her, cements the role of women in humanitarian work.  

“These days we have poverty, disease, conflict and so on, and this can lead to many problems within the family. It is our role to address these problems and make sure that we have a healthy family from a psychological point of view, which contributes to a health society. My advice to young women is to pursue your education. You must believe in themselves so that they can play a major role in their society,” explained Fatima. 

Weam, Naima and Fatima are just three of the thousands of women putting their lives on the line in Yemen to assist and protect people affected by the conflict.