The Russian invasion of Ukraine sent waves of shock across the world. However, it did not take long in the Yemeni diaspora for the first shock to be replaced by another: the realization that some Yemenis were facing yet another war, this time in Europe.
About 600 Yemenis, many of them students, were residing in Ukraine when Russia invaded on February 24. Consequently, a collective of young activists and volunteers soon formed a safety network to address the plight of these Yemenis caught up in the war. It consists of members of Yomn Council, a newly established association led by Yemeni youth living abroad that aims to identify and support efforts to resolve Yemen-related issues, as well as other diaspora Yemenis and internationals with connections to Yemen. The initiative, #YemenisinUkraine, mobilized by the safety network on social media, called for action from authorities and the international community to provide a lifeline to Yemenis fleeing the war.
Activists’ hopes of expanding coordination with the Yemeni embassy in Warsaw to help Yemenis out of Ukraine were soon dashed. According to the volunteers, the embassy lacked empathy and diplomatic courtesy when it rejected the network’s request for assistance and guidance in ensuring the safety of 12 Yemeni students who network volunteers had learned were stranded for more than 24 hours at the Ukraine-Poland border. A network volunteer said the embassy in Warsaw advised that the students “go to the reception camps for refugees or submit their files to the security forces at the border.”
“All we wanted from them (the embassy) was to help us send some water and transport, considering the small number of Yemenis versus other nationalities,” said Reem Jarhum, a #YemenisinUkraine organizer. The volunteers were surprised when, a day later, the Yemeni ambassador to Poland appeared on Al Jazeera and other social media platforms claiming to have helped Yemenis stranded at the border. The report included images of some Yemenis who had managed to cross the border, though not the 12 students, who were being joined by others as the hours passed. Some Yemen embassies in Ukraine’s neighboring countries, under pressure from their communities, issued a statement with guidelines for fleeing Ukraine and offered to assist with passport issues.
Activists and human rights organizations have denounced what they perceive as a double standard in the treatment of non-Ukrainian versus Ukrainian refugees, evident not only in media coverage of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, but also in the implementation of legal procedures. Videos, images, and voice messages documenting mistreatment have put a spotlight on the plight of non-Ukrainians, sparking a global movement under the hashtags #AfricansinUkraine, #SudaneseinUkraine, #SyriansinUkraine, #IndiansinUkraine and #YemenisinUkraine.
#YemenisinUkraine Volunteers Take up Civil Duties
According to #YemenisinUkraine activists and volunteers, more than 250 Yemenis were in danger of losing their lives during the Russian invasion, struggling to flee some of the most high-risk areas. Yemeni students were stuck at the border for days, and reported that the situation was “extremely chaotic and inhumane.” One student said that during four days at the border, there was no food, no water, not even a toilet, and that police and security guards used dogs and fired shots at them to control the queues. Others told volunteers that they were forced to walk long distances between border crossings and wait many hours in line to have their identities and passports checked. “We had to walk 20 to 30 kilometers, then we arrived at different stops that were extremely crowded with all different nationalities, except Ukrainians, and had to wait for more than 17 hours each time due to the long queues at the borders,” one said.
A 24-year-old Yemeni student said: “We were shocked at the level of abuse, discrimination and injustice as we watched Ukrainians and their animals being prioritized and pass us by in comfortable buses with food and drink while we endured in the cold without food, drink or sleep.”
Another Yemeni student, 20, told #YemenisinUkraine volunteers that in late February, two days after the war erupted, drivers began charging up to US$500 per person for rides from Kharkiv, near Ukraine’s eastern border with Russia, to Lviv, 885 kilometers to the west, near the Polish border. “The situation was dire and reached an extreme level of exploitation,” he recounted. Others who had crossed into Poland reported that available transportation prioritized Ukrainian women and children as well as other Europeans over other nationalities, regardless of age or gender. Some Yemeni students waited more than 20 hours for transport to Poland after walking 40 kilometers. Students who crossed the border told volunteers that they suffered from exhaustion after their long journey and more than four sleepless days, to the extent that some fainted and others required medical care for swollen legs.
By March 1, five days after Russia’s invasion, volunteers had managed to locate 131 Yemeni students in Ukraine and had assisted 89 of them (68 percent) in crossing into Poland, Hungary and other countries. The volunteers continued to support the students afterward, providing safe shelter and meeting basic needs with their own funds, until a crowdfunding campaign was launched.
The Realities of Migration
#YemenisinUkraine volunteers provided holistic intervention and filled gaps that many aid organizations had neglected. They researched the legalities surrounding Yemeni asylum cases in Europe and brought in experts to answer questions on how to proceed so Yemenis could make informed decisions on their next steps and be aware of the consequences of their decisions. Despite immense efforts made by these volunteers in such a short period of time with limited resources, more difficult issues remain relating to the protection and asylum of Yemenis who escaped.
Migration is a process of cultural exchange, and it is important to understand its political, socio-economic and emotional impact. Studies that attempt to explain why large numbers of migrants are unhappy point to difficulties related to discrimination and isolation. Immigrants and refugees also often experience discrepancies between the expectations and the realities of migration. Too often migrants and refugees are treated as a burden, rather than being recognized for their potential. Such attitudes and policies make the work of organizations and networks like #YemenisinUkraine not just important, but vital.
As of March 25, #YemenisinUkraine volunteers had located and assisted 170 Yemenis, most of them students at the borders to EU countries. Among these, 151, were in Warsaw, provided with safe and temporary housing from #YemenisinUkraine donations; others had continued on to Germany, the Netherlands and elsewhere. The number of Yemenis who may be still in Ukraine remains unclear. What is clear, however, is that Yemenis once again have lost their studies, jobs and communities. These numbers from Ukraine represent a fraction of Yemenis around the world who endure similar, whether from wars or discriminatory policies and systems. They are burdened by fears of violations, starting over and either making a home in another foreign country or returning to one of the war-torn countries they have fled in the past. Yemeni youth activists and safety networks, such as #YemenisinUkraine, strive to ease these fears and uncertainties on their journeys to finding security, dignity and home.