Many Yemeni villages lack adequate infrastructure, and al-Ayfou, northwest of Aden in the al-Qabbaytah district of Lahij Governorate, is no exception. Prone to frequent water shortages, power cuts, and low employment rates, al-Ayfou has low school attendance. Prospects for girls are hardly promising.
“Old traditions force many of them to leave school,” said Samira Radman, a mother of five. “They dictate that a woman’s place is in the home.” But her daughter Ahd Taha was undeterred. With the blessing of her father, Taha al-Qobati, she pursued an education. The family hoped Taha would eventually earn a college degree and a decent job so she could help support the household.
After al-Qobati’s death in 2017, Taha’s three older brothers moved 200 km away to Aden in search of work. When Taha, her mother and sister joined them two years later, she was all the more determined to attend school.
“My daughter insisted on continuing her education,” Radman said, “despite the difficult financial conditions we faced after the loss of my husband.”
A “city of dreams” was Taha’s nickname for Aden when she first arrived in the port city, where the family of six rented a two-room apartment. Once she entered high school, however, she walked into a nightmare. Her schoolmates bullied her relentlessly.
“When I spoke in my rural dialect, other students laughed and smirked at me, especially girls,” Taha said. Given her family’s modest means, Taha’s clothes and school supplies were also a subject of ridicule. “They made fun of those things too,” she added. The memories are still painful.
Bullying can leave short and long-term physical damage, but it can also have a severe emotional impact.”
Taha’s family felt too intimidated to confront teachers about the bullying. Amal Said*, an Arabic teacher at Taha’s school, who said she knew nothing about it.
“It’s a new problem at the school,” said Said. “Other targets of bullying have been students who struggle with their studies. We have issued warnings that parents will be called in if the bullying continues,” she added, noting that perpetrators could be expelled.
Bullying can take many forms, said Dr Isis Abdrabbu al-Mansouri, a social psychologist at the University of Aden. “Physical bullying can leave short and long-term physical damage, but it can also have a severe emotional impact through verbal abuse, such as insults, sarcastic comments, and name-calling,” she added.
This form of abuse can have many adverse psychological effects on students. “Some drop out of school because of bullying,” al-Mansouri said. “Those who stay develop hostile behaviour toward others or withdraw from society.”
Taha’s nightmare lasted four months, an experience that nearly drove her to leave Aden and return to her village. But her determination to attend university won out. She knew it was best to stay and work toward her goal.
Taha’s stress eased when she befriended other students who had similar experiences. Her family has vowed to stay vigilant and confront the school if the bullying continues in the new school year.
“Once I got used to studying, my classmates started helping me,” she said, adding that one of her friends visited her at home. “She spoke with my mum and tried to talk me out of leaving Aden.” This helped Taha regain the trust she’d lost amid her trauma.
According to Dr al-Mansouri, families and educational institutions must recognise bullying as a harmful phenomenon before serious efforts to eliminate it can be undertaken. “But many children and even adults aren’t even aware that it’s a problem,” she said.
She stresses the need for youngsters to be sensitised about the serious consequences of bullying to prevent yet more cases. “Then students can have a healthy journey through school, which will prepare them to coexist with all members of society,” she said.
Aden is a city of love and peace. Its people welcomed us with open arms.”
But difficult economic conditions have driven up the cost of living, and Taha’s family fears they might not be able to afford to stay in the city. Ammar, her 27-year-old brother who works as an electrician, is convinced strength and endurance will see them through. He’s counting on his sister to persevere. “That’s what gives us hope for the future,” he said.
“Aden is a city of love and peace,” he said, “Its people inherited this nature, and they welcomed us with open arms.”
Even if she can’t say the same about all her classmates, persistent encouragement helped Taha get through the worst, and she’s now embarked on her second year of high school. Still, she worries she might not be able to realise her dream of becoming a physician.
“After all the difficulties I’ve faced, I don’t want to be disappointed,” she said.
But her commitment helps her stay focused. Family and friends have rallied around her, keen to lend their support in this phase of her life.
*Not her real name