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What’s Unsaid | What’s Unheard? The Yemen Listening Project 

‘I speak because I am a Yemeni woman.’

What's Unsaid podcast teaser picture with a portrait photo in black and white of Nuha al Junaid, over a radial gradient background. The color at the center is a purplish blue and the color outside is green. On the top right, a bit skewed to the right we see the title of the podcast: What’s Unsaid.

The end of March marks nine years of war for Yemen. The conflict has caused what has been called one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises, and has left the country on the brink of famine more than once.

But Yemen rarely makes international news. When it does, articles, aid press releases, and political statements rarely quote regular Yemenis. The Yemen Listening Project, from The New Humanitarian, is changing that.

The project started by asking one simple question: “How has the war impacted your life?” Through emails, Facebook messages, and WhatsApp voice notes, many Yemenis shared their stories. On 25 March, The New Humanitarian will publish around 100 of them.

There are stories about bombings and economic collapse, and the frustration of how war separates people. But “people shared their stories with hopeful voices,” project coordinator Nuha al-Junaid says. “They shared love stories. They shared successful stories.”

The New Humanitarian’s Middle East Editor Annie Slemrod hosts this episode of What’s Unsaid. She started The Yemen Listening Project to amplify the voices of Yemenis that are often unheard, or ignored. This matters, al-Junaid says, because “Yemenis don’t feel heard.”

As Yemen’s war continues – and threatens to get even worse thanks to the conflict over shipping in the Red Sea – this innovative participatory journalism project shows how much war has changed for the more than 30 million Yemenis, while most of the world wasn’t paying attention. It also lays bare how important it is that we keep listening.

“I speak because I am a Yemeni woman,” al-Junaid says. “Our voices are not traditionally heard.” In this episode, she tells her own story about how the war transformed her life; from a hopeful graduate in Sana’a to a mother living as a former refugee in the Netherlands. She also shares other testimonies that resonate with her. "Working on this project is bittersweet,” she explains. “It is like déjà vu.” 

What’s Unsaid is the new bi-weekly podcast exploring the open secrets and uncomfortable conversations that surround the world’s conflicts and disasters, regularly hosted by staff editors Obi Anyadike and Ali Latifi.

Guest: Nuha al-Junaid, Project Coordinator, The New Humanitarian’s Yemen Listening Project

Subscribe on Spotify, Apple, Google, Stitcher, or YouTube, or search “The New Humanitarian” in your favourite podcast app.

Have a question or feedback? Maybe you have ideas for What’s Unsaid topics – from your own conversations or ones you’ve overheard? Email [email protected] or have your say on Twitter using the hashtag #WhatsUnsaid

Transcript | What’s Unheard? The Yemen Listening Project

Annie Slemrod: 

Today on What's Unsaid, we’re doing things a little differently, and asking: What’s Unheard? This is the Yemen Listening Project.


Nuha al-Junaid: 

Yemenis don't feel heard. And, we don't really hear real stories, suffering stories, normal stories that really matter, and reflect what's going on in Yemen on a day-to-day basis.



Yemen has now been at war for nine years. It’s been called one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises, and has been on the brink of famine more than once. But it rarely makes the international news. And when it does break through, the articles, aid press releases, and political statements about it rarely quote regular Yemenis. This project is changing that. 



It talks about normal people's stories; not politicians, not journalists, not international organisation representatives who are used to talk on behalf of Yemen. But, the one who talks on behalf of normal people are people with their own agendas. So, this project talks on behalf of its people, and its people is Yemen people.



That’s the project’s coordinator Nuha al-Junaid, and this is What's Unsaid, a biweekly podcast by The New Humanitarian, where we explore open secrets and uncomfortable conversations around the world's conflicts and disasters. My name is Annie Slemrod, Middle East editor at The New Humanitarian. 


On today’s episode, we’re flipping the script to talk less about what’s unsaid, and instead amplify voices that are often unheard - or honestly just ignored. 


Yemen has been making the news lately because of attacks on ships in the Red Sea by Houthi rebels, and the US-UK airstrikes in retaliation. But, even as a journalist, it can be hard to get behind the headlines to the stories of what it’s really like to live through such a devastating war. Stories about the first time you hear an airstrike. Stories about just how hard it is - and how important it feels - to get to school when it seems like everything is falling apart around you. Stories like the ones you will hear in this episode. And stories like Nuha’s. We’ve been working closely together on The Yemen Listening Project for the last few months.



It was not an easy journey. People would think that working on a project coordinator in this project is an easy thing - only storytelling and you're collecting them - but I'm a Yemeni person, and I was there. I am one of them. So, all these stories might be stories only to people who will read it from all around the world. But it is a reality. And it is a pain for Yemenis.



The project started with one simple question: “How has the war impacted your life?” Through emails, messages, and voice notes, we found that many Yemenis really want to tell their stories, and on March 25th, we’ll publish 100 of them. As Yemen’s war continues, these personal testimonies are striking, because they show how much war has changed for the more than 30 million people who live in Yemen while we weren’t paying attention. And how important it is that we keep listening.



I grew up in Yemen. I was born and raised in Sana’a. My family comes from different cities in Yemen. So, my father is originally from Hadhramout. Born and raised in the south of Yemen. My mom is originally from Taiz as well – half Sana’ani, half Taizi – and yeah, we're a collection of precious Yemen. And when they got married, they settled in Sana’a. And there we were born and raised. We are six siblings - four sisters and two brothers - scattered all over the world now. So, some of my family are still in Yemen, like my brother's still in Yemen with his wife and child. My mother is in Egypt, with my other two sisters. I have a brother here in the Netherlands, studying. And I also have another sister in Berlin, Germany, and we're all refugees. So, the war started when I was working with the United Nations. I was a fresh graduate, and I joined to work as a human resources assistant. And I was just sleeping. I was asleep when I heard a big bomb. It was, I don't know what time was it? But it was early morning, I think. No, in the middle of the night. Yeah. And I thought this is the final day of the life. Like, maybe it's Yawm al-Qiyamah as they said. And it started and never ended. The war affected us directly when our house was severely damaged in the big bombing in Faj Attan in April 2016. That was really the biggest change in our lives, or my life in particular. Everything was destroyed: windows, doors, everything is scattered, the glass, everything is destroyed. A whole house. Four floors is just destroyed. And then that moment, my mother decided that this is not a safe place to stay in anymore, and we decided to leave Yemen right after that. But it took us time to arrange for that, it was not an easy decision. So, basically, my mother and my two sisters and brother and me, were evacuated to Jordan, and we stayed there for eight months. That time reminds me of Dhuha, writing in Amman.



I wake up every day in Amman, the capital of Jordan, and ask myself, "Where to next year?" But we have been here in Jordan for eight and a half years, and the ninth is knocking on the door. We have been staying in this rented house since the war forced me and my family to flee from our home city of Taiz in Yemen. The war displaced my entire family. Our neighbours left too. Those who didn’t were killed by bombs or snipers’ bullets. For a long time, I spent most of my days in Jordanian government offices, renewing temporary residence permits, so we wouldn't have to pay fines for staying without papers. Finally, we were granted official residence, but we still tell ourselves that next year we will return to our city. But the war doesn't stop. So, here we are still waiting. We don’t buy many things because we will go back. We do not settle, because we will return. But, it looks like we’re heading into our tenth year of living out of suitcases. We can't plan for the future. Everything about our lives has been suspended. I have not married because I am waiting to go back to Yemen. Dreaming about small luxuries or stability like that has stopped, because perhaps the next moment will be the one when we return.



My family relocated themselves to Egypt, and they're living there since 2016-17, and I went back to Yemen to work. So, it was not an easy journey for me. My mental health started to deteriorate. And I felt not secure, not supported. I was also trying to finish my master's degree because I felt that I don't want to lose my future as well. Like, I need to work hard on myself. And I saw everyone also in Yemen trying to do the same thing. We were sad. We were destroyed. But we had hopes. We did not sleep at night because of bombs, but we woke up the next day. I go to work. And then after work, I go to the university, and I finish the master courses, and I go back home. When I look back at these things, I still can't believe: how did I do that? It was bombing and I was driving my car to the university. It's just nonsense now when I look back at it, but now I feel like how brave I was. And not only me, all Yemenis are like this. That's why Zaid in Sana'a’s story resonates with me. 



It took a few years of war, and for the government to stop paying public employees, before I realised that life and work was not going to return to normal. I decided to develop new skills in languages, communication, and negotiation. For two years, I worked from ten at night until seven in the morning to cover the costs, and then studied during the day. When I finished, I couldn’t find a job. I worked for a time as an English teacher, but it didn't feel like the right fit for me. So, I went on to study accounting, again working at the same time, always trying to support my family. But I still couldn’t find a job. Despair was beginning to knock me down. I considered going to the frontlines of the war to fight. I didn’t really want to fight, but I did want to die. I felt like I was a burden to my family. I figured that if I were killed, other people would step in and help my family get by. One day, my phone rang. The caller said that I had an interview. I dressed quickly, and looked at myself in the mirror. “Is this finally the job?” I wondered. I waited for weeks. Everyday wishing that it would all end. I carried so much anxiety, stress, and fear that I had missed my only chance. Finally, there was an offer and a contract. A job in the humanitarian field, trying to ease the burden of the war on other people. I felt hard work and fate had done their jobs. I am now in a place where I can help others.



So, I finished my university degree, and then I felt like my mental health is really deteriorating. I was going through a big depression. And I felt like no, this is not something that I can handle any more. I can't do anything for Yemen from this situation. So, I'm not sure if my decision was right or not. I doubt it until the moment, because I'm not sure that I found what I really looked for. I was engaged by then, and I thought, if I want to make a family, and if I’ll have a child then I need to find a safer place to be in. I ended up in the Netherlands asking asylum, and here started another journey of suffering. I asked for asylum. I went to a strange place called the camp, and I spent time with strangers. People that I never expected to live with, from different parts of the world. We don't speak the same language. We were different backgrounds. I was really shocked. I was asked from the first day to go and clean the bathroom after people, and this is something that I have never done before. So, I was like why? And they were saying to me like yeah, we're sharing the same bathroom, and every day one cleans it. So, okay. And then we're sharing the same fridge, and then my food was stolen, and I couldn't confront anyone. And then if two people fight, I feel frightened. And I just go back into my room, and I locked myself into the room. It was really not an easy situation to live in. And also, waiting for the unknown. You don't know what's coming next and you have to just wait, wait, wait, wait…this is also tiring, and I can't study. I can't work. I can't do anything. I just wait. And this is not something that I was used to. I was to be an active young lady, working and studying at the same time, very productive. So, that was really devastating, but I went to the organisation that was by then working for the refugees’ camp, and then I asked them that if I can do anything - anything, just for free - just to feel that I'm a human being and I do something with value. And then I started just cleaning, and working in cafes, and also I went to the elderly house. I helped old people to read stories for them, and also to clean them and feed them. And that gave me a really peaceful feeling inside me, that I'm at least doing something good, and that should be coming back to me. Karma, I think. And then, a few months later, I got the residence permit and I moved to another city, and started strongly working on my language skills. I learned the Dutch language, and I've obtained the higher certificate within an exceptional time - one and a half years - but I put in all my effort. And I had my first child in the Netherlands. And that was my biggest happiness. And the first relief that I can say, feeling of relief after long years of suffering.



When we first started working together, Nuha told me the broad outlines of her story. But she said she wanted to wait until we were done to sit down and record it. By now, we’ve read, listened to, or watched more than 100 stories, and she’s been in personal contact with many of the people. It’s been intense. Not every story turned out to be what I expected. Some triggered difficult memories. Some made us cry. A lot were about day-to-day obstacles that can be really frustrating, like blocked roads that make it harder to get medical treatment or to see family. There were also quite a few stories of persistence in the face of, what I would call impossible odds, many from women. They all brought to life how war can affect lives in massive and also minute, intensely personal ways. I asked Nuha, did she feel this work was worth it?



When I worked first in this project, I was hoping that maybe I will get one or two good stories, because most of what I was expecting is misery stories or sadness. But I was really surprised. People shared their stories with hopeful voices. They shared love stories. They shared successful stories. They shared fall-and-then-stand-up stories. And for me, working on this project is bittersweet, because it brought memories back. I could relate myself to many of those stories that I've heard. I could suffer for them as well, because when I heard some stories, I couldn't stop crying, or get the Post Traumatic Stress Disorder again, and it is like a déjà vu. You live again, what you have seen or you have heard, and I speak because I am a Yemeni woman, so our voices are not traditionally accepted to be heard. So, when I heard that most of the stories - persistence stories - were from Yemeni women, I was really amazed. And I felt really happy that most Yemeni women are very resilient. And they really managed to get out of really hard circumstances, and brought hope; started their own home bakery, started working on the streets, while their men, for instance, refused to do that at the beginning, because they felt really proud of “Oh, how can I do that?” But a woman did not feel the same way. They could manage. That woman, for instance, she started selling water in the street. And then when her man saw her, he came and sold water in the street with her. So she started this.


Umm Tarek:

My name is Umm Tarek, I’m in Aden. When the war in Yemen began, I planned to stay in my Aden home. I didn't want to leave. But my aunt convinced me to flee, for the sake of my children, who were constantly afraid of the fighting around us. So, I took a few belongings and left. I took my family to our home village, but my children had trouble adapting to life there. They were city kids. I suffered there, too. I had to provide for my children, so I earned money by carrying fruits and vegetables for girls who sold them at the market. They gave me some of the profit. I wasn’t used to this kind of work, and my legs would swell up from the labour. After a month or a month and a half of this, my husband decided it was time for us to return to Aden. On our way back, we saw dead bodies on the road. I fainted at the sight. Back in Aden, we had to find a way to make money. I borrowed some money from a friend and gave it to my husband so he could buy and sell various small things. But before the war, he had worked in a bank, and he didn't want to change. So, I started selling water, juice, cigarettes, and bread on the street. My efforts encouraged my husband, and we ended up working together. I suffered so much, but I changed too. I am stronger. I have five children, and I was able to take care of them. They are no longer young. For now, at least, things are better.



I was amazed how Yemeni women are able to get through all these circumstances with big faith, big resilience, and acceptance. Because the whole situation is really destroying. Most men’s stories - I’m not going to discriminate here - but they were a little bit less hopeful than the women’s ones. I think of Abduljabar in Dhamar, who did not leave Yemen.



Ever since I became aware of the world around me, I have loved science and learning. I began my education in bookshops. I first learned to write the letters of the alphabet with a wooden board and a pen made from reeds, dipped in water and plaster. I became a teacher myself in 1990, first at a primary school. Then I went back to a college of education to study Arabic language and literature, and qualified in 1993-1994 as an Arabic teacher for sixth through ninth grade. Many of my students have become fathers and grandfathers, famous doctors, successful businessmen, professors, judges, prosecutors, and held positions in government ministries. I remained a modest teacher with a limited income, dealing with relative poverty and all the costs of life. Myself, my family, and my children, we were all content with what God had given us. But when the government salaries stopped, we hoped they would return within a few months. Month after month, year after year, we spent all our savings, just to get by. My children dropped out of school because they had to look for work. Now, we are in a miserable state. I am suffering, and my children are suffering. When we get sick, we can’t afford to buy medicine. When our clothes wear out, we can’t replace them. We don’t have clean water, food, medicine, or a decent life.



So, what I want to say is that maybe I'm disattached to Yemen now, physically, but never in my soul. I'm still connected to Yemen. I still don't feel the belonging here. I feel like I was already a tree that was taken out from its soil, brought up to another place. This is not my environment. This is not my air, and this is not my soul, soil. No. So, I'm here but not here at the same time. Maybe, the only feeling of belonging is my daughter because I think she belongs to here more. She loves this place. And I see her happiness as well. But I still feel sorry for children her age in Yemen not having the same chance and not having the same opportunity, not having the same dignity, and choice of life they deserve. So, it is always the survival guilt. It's never gone. And also, yeah, I feel I miss Yemen, even Ramadan reminds me of Yemen. The food will never be the same or, we can bring memories here, but we cannot live it with people that we love, in the place that we love. It's just a copy, paste. Maybe. And, as you know, we hear so many stories and so many opinions, but not for the people and the normal people of Yemen, just like me or anyone from my country. I want to say that the Yemeni suffering will never end as long as the war is still in Yemen. I thought when I am out of Yemen, I will be more restful and happy. But that didn't really happen. Two years ago, my uncle's house was bombed. And everyone inside that house died. Everyone - when I say everyone - like everyone. I've lost the whole family in one day. So, you can still imagine how hard this is for a Yemeni living outside the Yemen, and not being able to share the sad moments with your beloved ones, or at least talk to them, or be next to them. I can relate to one story that I remember. A woman told me that her son was sniped, and the other one used drugs, and the other one just went into a deep phase of depression. And I just asked her, “What story do you want to share, which one?” She said “All of them. And I want to say that my story is that I still believe that another day will be coming. And it will be better than the present that we are living.” And I was amazed. How could she do this? How could she feel like this? Why? What drives her? I'm not sure what is it? Maybe faith? Maybe hope.



Nuha al Junaid is the project coordinator of The Yemen Listening Project. Find out more at the Yemen Listening Project on our website TheNewHumanitarian.org.


And please, do let us know what people are afraid to talk about in today’s crises? What needs to be discussed openly? Send us an email to [email protected]


Also, subscribe to The New Humanitarian on your podcast app for more episodes of What’s Unsaid – our podcast about open secrets and uncomfortable truths - with new episodes every other week. 


This episode is produced and edited by Freddie Boswell, sound engineering by Mark Nieto, with original music by Whitney Patterson. And regularly hosted by Obi Anyadike and Ali Latifi. Thanks for listening. I’m Annie Slemrod.

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