Left in Limbo: the stories of Yemen’s international students who can’t go home

Jibla_01

Jibla, Yemen (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Rashed Udayni sinks back into his couch, shaking his head slightly as he describes his heartbreak over the bloody civil war raging in his home country of Yemen.

He hasn’t returned to his home in Sanaa, Yemen, since he moved to Toronto to study industrial engineering at Ryerson University in the summer of 2013.

“It is hard, looking at the place you grew up in changing and going through that,” he said.

Udayni, 20, had planned on returning to Yemen this past summer but couldn’t, due to the country’s escalating violence. The United Nations has classified the situation there as a Level 3 emergency.

He and his immediate family are among the few fortunate Yemenis who have been able to flee since the conflict re-emerged in 2014 and intensified this year.

The main fight is between President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi and loyalists to his government and the Houthi rebels, a Shia insurgent group. The rebels are supported by former Yemen president Ali Abdullah Saleh.

The Houthis seized power and dissolved parliament in January, prompting Hadi to request a Saudi-led coalition of 10 Arab countries to begin air raids in March against the rebels. The situation has been made increasingly complicated by recent floods and attacks by the group al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.

Over two million people are internally displaced and 21.1 million people – 80 per cent of the population – require some form of humanitarian protection or assistance, according to an October report by the United Nations Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

Bombings have destroyed civilian buildings and institutions. Udayni, as well as other Yemeni international students studying in Canada, are unable to return home. Many are low on funds but unable to work here.

Udayni hasn’t been able to pay tuition yet because his father can’t wire money out of Yemen.

Unable to pay rent, he has moved in with his sister here in Toronto. As an international student, Udayni can’t work either, but said he would like to due to the financial troubles that have plagued the family.

“I’m adjusting,” he said. “For the time being I am just trying to study and get this over with.”

In the spring of 2015, Adil Al-Serri, president of the Yemen Canadian Community in Toronto, started pleading for former immigration minister Chris Alexander’s help.

A letter written by Adil Al-Serri (Krista Hessey/Ryersonian Staff)

A letter written by Adil Al-Serri (Krista Hessey/Ryersonian Staff)

With the assistance of former NDP MP Mike Sullivan, Al-Serri sent letters to Alexander urging for extensions for Yemeni students here on student and temporary visas –  similar to the relief granted by Washington earlier this year to Yemeni students in the U.S.

He has also been advocating for measures to make it easier for Yemeni Canadians to bring their families to Canada.

“Every day there are people dying. I really fear that one of the families here in Canada hear that their families back home dies,” said Al-Serri. “We want them to enjoy the freedom here.”

His letters and calls have gone unanswered.

Mohammed Al-Furais’s parents were also forced to flee Yemen. He and his brother now live in Toronto. The conflict has dispersed the family and caused a number of difficulties.

In late October, Al-Furais called his mother in Turkey, where they had resettled.

She informed him of unsettling news: his sister-in-law’s father had been shot and rushed to a hospital in Yemen.

Later that day, Al-Furais received another call. This time it was his father instructing him to pick up his nephew from his brother’s home. His father told him that his sister-in-law’s father had died.

Upon arriving, he heard screaming from outside the apartment door.

Al-Furais took his nephew and, unable to calm his sister in-law down, called for an ambulance to take her to the hospital.

“Imagine you don’t see your parents for more than one year, then you get a call saying your father just passed away.”

But he is still nostalgic about his former home. Every day before falling asleep he thinks back to his high school graduation. After he said his speech at the ceremony, friends and family all gathered at the Mövenpick Hotel in Sanaa to celebrate.

“That day was amazing,” said, Al-Furais. “That year the conflict in Yemen started to get really bad so by having graduation, it took our minds from that.”

Yemeni_Graphic

(Created by Brittany Ferreira and Emerson Brito)

Al-Furais returned to Canada in 2012 and is now a permanent resident. He is in second year of industrial engineering. After graduating, he hopes to work for his father’s import and export business based in Yemen and turn it into a global company. That dream, however, has been put on hold.

“It was basically focusing on exporting stuff from Yemen and importing it (to Cana-da),” said Al-Furais. But because of the conflict, the shipments were not allowed to go out from Yemen. Luckily, due to offices outside of Yemen, the family still has a source of income.

Without it, Al-Furais said, he would not be able to continue his schooling.

Al-Serri says that there are many stories like Al-Furais’s.

“A lot of students approached me from Calgary, Toronto and Vancouver,” said Al-Serri. “We hope the universities and colleges themselves can help (the students) if the government cannot.”

Mohammed Al-Ariqi, 22, moved to Canada four years ago and is currently studying financial and business economics at York University.

“Every day we hope that the situation becomes better,” said Al-Ariqi, whose immediate family fled to Saudi Arabia because of the civil war. His father, who had a partnership with a consulting company in Yemen, lost his job as businesses shut down across the country.

“He’s supporting me financially here in Canada … from his savings now,” said Al-Ariqi. “There is no income.”

Al-Ariqi holds a study permit that allows students to work part time during the school year and full time during the summer. But finding a job is not easy and would not be enough, he said.

“Tuition for international students is triple the Canadian one so even if you work part time it is not going to (make) a big difference for you,” said Al-Ariqi. “On the other side it affects your studies.”

His study permit expires in December. He has applied for it to be renewed, but it is still in process.

“I hope they give me more years so I can finish my studies and then if I want to work during the summer I can do that,” said Al-Ariqi. “There is no way I can go back to Yemen.”

Al-Serri continues to encourage community members to write to their local MPs.

In an email, he said he will continue to lobby the new government for immigration relief for Yemeni international students and Yemeni Canadians trying to bring their families to Canada.

This article was published in the print edition of The Ryersonian on Nov. 18, 2015.

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