President’s lady Amel Alariqi kept her audience spellbound with a very personal talk about her native Yemen when she was guest speaker at the club’s latest evening meeting at Maidenhead Golf Club.
With the help of a fascinating selection of photographs, Amel’s talk ranged from the history, geography, culture and politics of Yemen to her own experiences working as a journalist and later as a communications officer for Oxfam, before becoming a refugee because of the country’s bitter civil war.
Perhaps best known because of the former British protectorate, the port city of Aden, Yemen sits at the southern end of the Arabian Peninsula bordering Saudi Arabia and Oman.
Amel explained that due to its location on major trade routes, over the centuries it has been influenced by Greek, Roman, Indian, Ottoman, Turkish and Ethiopian cultures which have all left their mark on Yemen and its cuisine.
The north and south of the country were divided until Yemen unified in May 1990 and Amel, who was born and grew up in the capital Sana’a in the north, vividly recalled travelling to Aden in the south for the first time and experiencing its less conservative culture than the tribal dominated north.
After Yemen’s government failed to condemn the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in August 1990 its Gulf neighbours, particularly Saudi Arabia, expelled millions of Yemeni workers. Not only did this damage the Yemeni economy but they also brought back with them the more conservative form of Islam practised in their host countries.
“Quickly society became much more conservative. Women had to wear black when they went out, and even small girls were required to be covered up. All my friends started covering their faces,” said Amel.
In 1994 a short-lived civil war broke out in a failed bid by the South for independence from the North.
Amel recalled: “It only lasted about four weeks but I remember the food shortages and hiding in the basement. The most painful memory is visiting Aden after the war and seeing the devastation and the look on the faces of the people there.”
After finishing university, Amel became a journalist working as a reporter and later managing editor of the Yemen Times, an English language newspaper in Sana’a.
She covered many important issues from child marriage and the plight of children in prisons to the impact of climate change. She also came to the UK to study journalism in Oxford on a Reuters fellowship.
Amel said she eventually decided she wanted to actively do more to help Yemen so she became a communications officer for Oxfam, travelling all
over the country to advocate for improvements in local communities and to campaign on issues from food insecurity to women’s rights. She often appeared on Arabic TV across the region as a spokeswoman for Oxfam.
In 2011 came the so-called Arab Spring, a series of popular uprisings across the Middle East and North Africa. The new wave of optimism it brought was short-lived, however.
“The situation was not getting better,” said Amel. “Poverty was increasing and security was collapsing as militia and armed groups such as Al Qaeda took over parts of the South and a tribal group called the Houthis started making their presence felt in the North.”
The current civil war broke out in March 2015 and Amel, who was in the UK at the time, has been unable to return home since. She sought asylum and is now a British citizen.
Already one of the poorest countries in the region, Yemen has suffered much in the intervening years. Protracted armed conflict, widespread economic collapse, and a breakdown in infrastructure has left 80 per cent of the 29 million population, including 11.3 million children under threat of massive food insecurity and famine.
Now far from the headlines Yemen remains the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. Even before the war in Ukraine, one of the largest producers of food, the World Food Programme was already being forced to cut the rations it was providing for Yemenis on the brink of starvation.
In the past year Maidenhead Rotary Club has raised more than £3,000 for the UNICEF Yemen Crisis Appeal and another £1,000 for the activities of Rotary charity Shelterbox in Yemen.