The Spirit of Activism: Alive and Well in Yemeni Society

Mohammed Ali Mahroos
In several parts of the country, Yemenis are reviving a spirit of solidarity through initiatives to help support citizens whose world has been upended by war. Community action is alleviating hardship in everyday struggles, a sign that hope and harmony persist across Yemen, even in times of adversity.
Jabal Haraz, a mountainous region between Sana’a and Hodeidah, includes Jabal an-Nabi Shu’ayb, the highest mountain in the Arabian Peninsula at 3,666 m. © Rod Waddington

When the war in Yemen forced hundreds of families from cities to their ancestral villages, local residents came under additional pressure. Those living in the country’s rugged mountainous areas have been affected more than most, prompting many there to launch mobility improvement projects where paved roads are lacking in the steep terrain. 

Such initiatives, like others across the country, constitute structures that are crucial to the rebuilding of society. All efforts aim at inspiring joint participation to improve people’s lives and foster sustainability.


Reshaping Mountains

In the last few years, residents of Taiz, Lahij, Ibb, Raymah, and Dhamar Governorates have started paving roads for pedestrians and vehicles. The aim is to ensure the transport of basic goods and offer transit to people unable to walk long distances.  

A project underway in Jebel Habashi, in southern Taiz Governorate, is based on a different model. Community-based initiatives have garnered the support of local authorities who would like other areas to follow suit.

The road is for everyone, and our contribution is a declaration that we are part of this community.

A prominent citizen who spearheaded the road improvement project in two local areas encouraged other Yemenis, including those working abroad, to participate without preconditions. Merchants provided the necessary tools and equipment for the road work. A finance officer was appointed to manage the community’s needs and collect contributions. 

All parties involved gather in the evening for daily debriefings in an atmosphere of cordial transparency.

More than 20 women have also joined the effort, said Wagda al-Nasari, 38, a community activist and project participant. They have helped pave six roads totaling up to ten kilometres by digging road foundations and transporting materials.

“We agreed to make a mark alongside the men, because the road is for everyone,” she said. “Our contribution is a declaration that we are part of this community, and we can do whatever is possible to prove it.”  

In Raymah, residents of two villages came together in determination to tackle one of their biggest challenges since childhood: paving a rough road in the al-Jaafariya district. Not long after their decision in March 2019, a committee was elected to manage the project. It took nine months to complete about one kilometre before heavy rains washed away the road and obliterated all their hard work.

Amr al-Ayashi, 31, the project coordinator, recounted the moment when the villagers decided to press on nonetheless. 

“We did not despair,” he said. “We mobilised people once more and launched a large-scale media campaign to raise morale.”

Al-Ayashi, along with his elected members from both villages, led a tireless effort so their project wouldn’t die in its infancy. Months later, with no community support on the horizon, Ayashi devised a plan in which every family would pay a share of 30,000 Yemeni rials (equivalent to US$50 at the time) in areas controlled by Houthis. After about eight weeks, migrants from the two villages intervened, asking for a similar plan so they could take part in the initiative.

“I found out each migrant could contribute three shares,” al-Ayashi said, adding that some were willing to pay 14 shares, enough to complete a week’s worth of work.

The group has completed 1.2 km of road work, al-Ayashi said, adding that just over a kilometre is yet to be paved.

“After that, our dream will come true,” he said. The initiative will benefit the roughly 800 residents of two villages combined.


On Your Way: A Hashtag for Mobility

The rapid collapse of the national currency has had a devastating impact on daily life since 2018, especially for young people. Higher petrol prices drove up the cost of local transportation, a daily requirement for students who have to shoulder this additional burden.

In the south of Yemen, Naeef al-Wafi, a journalist, started a youth drive in Taiz to ease this hardship: he began dropping off students at school en route to his office every morning. Once he shared this daily mission on his Facebook page, he got a boost: a few supportive comments resulted in the hashtag #OnYourWay. 

“I appealed for community action,” al-Wafi, 34, said. “Everyone with a means of transportation can participate, depending on their circumstances. The response has been great.”

Thanks to al-Wafi’s efforts and social media, residents of Sana’a, Aden, Hodeidah, and Marib launched similar initiatives.

These efforts reflect a social maturity that transcends the state of war.

Al-Wafi has also helped over a dozen students with speech and hearing disabilities who abandoned their studies when school fees proved unaffordable. In November 2021, he raised enough funds to cover the students’ three-year tuition fees as well as nine months’ rent for the premises of al- Tamouh, an organisation that helps the hearing-impaired.

“This feeling of solidarity will stay with me as a sign that our society is unbreakable,” al-Wafi said. 

Such initiatives draw the community’s attention to the comprehensive concept of cooperation. 

“There are now many who carry on their social activities by duplicating this initiative,” said Mahmoud al-Bokari, a sociology professor at Taiz University. “This community engagement reflects a social maturity that transcends the state of war.”

Although normal life is on hold, he added, “people continue to support one another in a spirit of social integration and unity.” 

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