Yemen’s unrest hits Ethiopian businesses
As they set up their own stores and trades in Yemen, some places, especially in the capital Sana’a, become associated with Ethiopians and their products
The commercial exchange between Yemen and Ethiopia exceeded $18 million in 2007, according to Yemen’s Central Bureau of Statistics.
Jamila, who did not want to give her full name, is an Ethiopian businesswoman in the capital who came from the Ethiopian village of Debre Zebit, north Ethiopia, 18 years ago, after marrying a Yemeni man who now lives and works in Saudi Arabia.
“I had too much time and was chewing too much qat so I decided to start my small business and go out to work to break the daily routine,” she explained.
Recently, Jamila rented a shop in the capital to sell Habashi pepper, honey and oils. Her capital for this business was about $1,000.
She said that fellow Ethiopians help her to import their country’s commodities to Yemen. The project had been running successfully, but as economic conditions tumbled during 2011’s political unrest, she found less customers coming to her store.
Jamila added that her business might fail if Yemen’s economic conditions do not improve. If that happens she may even return to Ethiopia, she said.
Searching for freedom
One popular music cassette shop in Sana’a is reminiscent of an Addis Ababa market, and stands crowded with Ethiopians.
Dawood, the store’s Ethiopian salesman, who also wished to remain anonymous, arrived in Yemen two years ago looking for work.
“Here in Yemen, I found a job and used to receive YR 30,000 ($140), but now I get only YR 25,000 ($117) due to the deteriorated economic condition,” explained Dawood.
“This is one of the largest cassette shops, but sales have fallen because of the electricity cuts,” he added.
However, Dawood does not plan to return to Ethiopia.
“I can’t go back come,” he said, “because my country has no democracy and the youth have no chance to make a change and improve their country.”
Seesai Shamlas, who runs an Ethiopian restaurant in Sana’a, tells a similar story. Shamlas came from Gondar in the north of Ethiopia, where 28 years ago he worked in both the coffee and fabric trades.
“But I was not able to move freely inside my own homeland as the President of the country supported a tribal system,” he explained. “And that forced me to leave Ethiopia.”
Shamlas came via Somalia to Aden, then travelled to Sana’a where he worked again in the coffee trade, but without sufficient cash to rent a shop of his own, he left the coffee business and began buying and selling leather shoes imported from Ethiopia.
Today he runs an Ethiopian restaurant serving specialties such as Ziqni, Arastok and Katwafa, and says, “most my customers are Yemenis”.
While his restaurant was doing well before the uprising, Shamlas explained that business dropped dramatically during 2011 as people struggled financially.
Security is urgently needed
Sably Mahnas, an Ethiopian woman, says she thought of Yemen as a safe haven when she opened a hairdressing shop for men. However, she faced problems from security officials who tried to blackmail her and extort bribes.
“We paid those bribes –as much YR 30,000 – but still policemen closed down the shop once while we were still inside,” Mahnas explained.
“In my own country, I was subjected to politically-motivated harassment, and here I also faced problems, so I complained to the Human Rights Commission” she added.
Mahnas said that she was expelled from her shop and her machines and equipment were stolen.
“Therefore I set up a tent in front of the headquarters of the Human Rights Commission, demanding security for my business and my family,” she said.
Kaji, an Ethiopian customer at Shamlas’ restaurant, who did not want to give his full name, explained that he has been in Yemen for approximately one year, adding that he was a refugee in Iraq during the war.
“I owned a car showroom there, but I fled to Somalia and then to Kuwait when war broke out,” said Kaji, reiterating that all his wealth was abandoned in Iraq when he fled.
“Conflicts in the Arab states have kept me away from my wife for ten years,” he said. “I’m waiting for the United Nations to help me solve my problems.”
“In Ethiopia, we suffered from racism, but here in Yemen we all live in the same area and pay no attention to differences in creed or religion,” he said.
“Refugees in some countries, such as the United States, can afford to make a better life for their children, but here we do not receive good treatment; we are exploited by many people – even the police.”
In a neighborhood of Sana’a where many migrants and refugees live, an Ethiopian explained how he had been a professional runner in his own country.
“Currently, I work as a cleaner, but I went several times to Yemen’s Youth and Sports Ministry to work as a volunteer to train Yemenis, particularly young players, but they turned me down,” he said sadly.
“I feel sorrow when I see young Yemenis chewing qat, so I wanted to train them and offer my experience – even without payment,” he explained. “In my country, I was a famous athlete, and media outlets picked up my news, but as a result of the political conditions in my homeland, I was forced to leave and I cannot return.”