"We left everything behind": Providing relief for people beset by violence and pandemic in Yemen

A displaced man and woman carry their rapid-response kit in Al Mahweet.
Caption: A displaced family after receiving their rapid-response kit in Al Mahweet.
Photo: Yemen Al-Khair for Relief & Development Foundation (YARD) and UNFPA

When Yemen’s unrelenting conflict arrived in Taizz City, Ashwaq saw her neighbourhood fall to pieces. Amid the bombardments, her house caught fire. She, her husband and their four children — including a son who is paralyzed — fled for their lives. 

When they arrived in Sana’a, Yemen’s capital, Ashwaq found that the influx of displaced people had caused rents to skyrocket. She was unable to afford even the most basic accommodations.  

Her family found temporary shelter with a relative. “There was not enough room for the six of us,” Ashwaq remembered. “We were all squeezed into a single bed. Within two weeks we searched again for a house. We were lucky to find a room and a bathroom in exchange for taking care of a larger house. However, we soon realized we were running out of money to buy daily essentials and medicines for our paralyzed son.”  

Tragically, Ashwaq is only one of more than 3.6 million people who have been displaced.  

The crisis in Yemen started in 2015, and has left 80 per cent of the population in need of urgent humanitarian support.  

Just in time 

Ashwaq and her family received support after a neighbour directed them to a local relief centre. There, emergency food and hygiene supplies were being distributed by a collaborative effort of UNFPA, UNICEF and the World Food Programme (WFP). The collaborative distributes such supplies within 72 hours of when people are displaced from their homes.  

Since June 2018, this effort — called the Rapid Response Mechanism — has reached over 2.5 million displaced persons with emergency relief, in virtually every district of the country. 

Displaced people stand two meters apart, keeping their distance as they wait in the rapid-response distribution line in Al Jawf.

Caption: Social distancing measures for displaced persons during rapid-response distribution in Al Jawf.

Photo: Yemen Al-Khair for Relief & Development Foundation (YARD) and UNFPA

“We are able to sustain ourselves with the food and essential items in this package,” Ashwaq said. “My only wish now is to find treatment for my son.” 

COVID-19 adds to the crisis 

This year, an already thorny humanitarian crisis has been made even more challenging by COVID-19. Even before the pandemic hit, the conflict in Yemen meant that the country’s health system was functioning at 50% of its normal capacity. Chronic malnutrition has left Yemenis vulnerable, their weakened immune systems a prime target for the coronavirus. 

UN agencies have stepped up their emergency response in the face of the pandemic. Earlier this year, during a critical phase of the pandemic, a plane carrying a total of 43 tons of laboratory supplies, ventilators, test kits, polymerase chain reaction (PCR) machines and vital personal protective equipment (PPE) arrived in Yemen. The shipment was a donation to the World Health Organization (WHO) facilitated by Hayel Saeed Anam Foundation on behalf of the International Initiative on COVID-19 in Yemen (IICY), a partnership of multinational companies and the United Nations. The delivery into Yemen was managed by WFP, and from there UN agencies distributed the supplies to hospitals and laboratories nationwide. 

“This donation will help fill the supply gaps in Yemen’s hospitals and laboratories,” says Mr. Auke Lootsma, the Resident Representative of UNDP in Yemen. “This is an example of how the UN and partners can work together to face humanitarian threats.” 

The pandemic has seized the attention of the world, but it is not the only disease putting Yemenis at risk. “We know that COVID-19 is a very real and dangerous threat. But if we focus on this virus alone, we lose sight of others who are dying from diseases that are not COVID-19 and we cannot leave them behind,” says Dr. Muhammad Fawad Khan, the UN’s Health Cluster Coordinator in Yemen. 

The Cluster Approach is how the UN responds to emergencies globally. In Yemen, the Health Cluster includes UN agencies and local and international NGOs. The partners break the response up into grids on a map, so that they can meet humanitarian needs systematically. 

Even as UN agencies tend to emergency needs, they are working on long-term solutions to secure the health, welfare and dignity of displaced persons in Yemen.  

Caption: Led by UNFPA, through the RRM, emergency supplies are distributed to families that are newly displaced, on the move, in hard-to-reach areas, stranded close to the front lines, or destitute returnees. A RRM kit includes ready-to-eat food provided by WFP, basic family hygiene kits provided by UNICEF, and female dignity kits provided by UNFPA. ©2020. Produced by UNFPA. The data featured are as of early 2020.

In this, they bear in mind the wishes of the people they serve, such as 18-year-old Zahrah Mohammed Hassan, who says, “We left everything behind. I wish to have beautiful days like before and to return home with my child. I wish to live in peace and have no more wars.” 

Produced by UN Yemen. Written by UNFPA and WHO in Yemen, with editorial support by Paul VanDeCarr, Development Coordination Office. To learn more, visit:

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United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs
United Nations Development Programme
United Nations Population Fund
United Nations Children’s Fund
World Food Programme
World Health Organization

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