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In Hard-To-Flee Yemen, Those Escaping Are Not Typical Refugees

Hassan Farid, 23, was a medical resident at a big hospital in Yemen and is the son of a judge. It can be difficult and expensive to flee Yemen, and educated professionals are among the refugees who have reached the nearby African nation of Djibouti.
Hassan Farid, 23, was a medical resident at a big hospital in Yemen and is the son of a judge. It can be difficult and expensive to flee Yemen, and educated professionals are among the refugees who have reached the nearby African nation of Djibouti.

The conflict in Yemen has escalated rapidly and it has become a difficult place to flee. The land route to Saudi Arabia is blocked by Houthi rebels. Some have tried to cross the Gulf of Aden to the east coast of Africa, but for that you need a boat.

Those who have reached the tiny African state of Djibouti are not your stereotypical refugees. Some were fishermen — they had boats — and others came from Yemen's small professional class, and therefore had the money to buy a seat on the boats.

I met some of them at an outdoor soccer stadium turned refugee transit center near the port of Obock in Djibouti.

A Yemeni man shows a bullet wound he suffered as he was fleeing his homeland by boat.
Gregory Warner / NPR
A Yemeni man shows a bullet wound he suffered as he was fleeing his homeland by boat.

Hassan Farid, 23, was a medical resident at a major Yemeni hospital. His father is a judge. His father is still in Yemen, "hiding from the same criminals he sentenced," Farid says.

Farid paid $300 to board a repurposed cargo ship at the port in the southern coastal city of Aden. Houthi rebels fired on them as they waited to board.

"This guy was shot in the leg," he explains, and the young man next to him obediently rolls up his pants to show a bullet wound through the calf. Earlier this week, rockets allegedly fired by the same rebels sank a fleeing ship and killed at least 40 people.

Dikra Mohamed is a lawyer who lived through two earlier Yemeni conflicts in previous decades. Those wars never touched her personally. This time, a rocket-propelled grenade was fired into her living room.

"It was like World War III," she says. "Everything was destroyed."

Raja Abdulkhadr is a lawyer from Yemen. She is now staying at an old soccer stadium, hoping that another country might accept her family.
Gregory Warner / NPR
Raja Abdulkhadr is a lawyer from Yemen. She is now staying at an old soccer stadium, hoping that another country might accept her family.

Though she feels lucky to have escaped to Djibouti, the most difficult issue is the heat. This transit center in Obock is not far from the Danakil Depression, one of the hottest places on Earth. Even here at the port, summer temperatures can reach 120 degrees.

Raja Abdulkhadr, another lawyer, rattles off her children's educational degrees: her son, the geological engineer, another son, trained in computer science, and two daughters — a university lecturer and a TV station director.

The subtext is clear: These are not the people you would normally find sleeping in the warmup room of an old soccer stadium. She wonders if Canada might take her family. "Canada's empty," she says with a laugh. "And it's cold. We need cold."

Saudi Arabia has been carrying out airstrikes against Houthi rebel positions in Yemen since late March. That has made it even more difficult for refugees to escape and humanitarian agencies to gain access.

Children nap on the floor of a soccer stadium's warmup room at the Obock port in Djibouti.
Gregory Warner / NPR
Children nap on the floor of a soccer stadium's warmup room at the Obock port in Djibouti.

The Saudis agreed to a five-day cease-fire on Thursday during a visit to the kingdom by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, though the rebels have yet to agree to the terms. The U.N. agency that runs this camp in Djibouti predicts that a cease-fire will have the effect of increasing the number of refugees, because thousands are likely to flee as soon as there is a stop in the shooting.

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