The marginalized community of Aden (Part one) Where boundaries fade and forgiveness is tradition

Published on 12 March 2012 in Report
Muaad Al-Maqtari (author)

Muaad Al-Maqtari

Randa (inset) and the children of Al-Mahareeq with their only swing.

Randa (inset) and the children of Al-Mahareeq with their only swing.

Ragged children play in open- sewages while others amuse themselves exploring garbage. Some of those children have never been to school while many of those who did eventually dropped out.

A little boy Sakhr, 10, dances his customized version of hip hop along with nine-year old Sua'd near one of the shacks. They had seen it on TV, which is the central entertainment source of their lives.

Sakhr lives in northern Al-Mahareeq slums in Sheikh Othman district of Aden, which is home to some 15,000 marginalized inhabitants of African origin known in Yemen as akhdam. They live in around 1,000 cottages and poorly built homes made of cardboards, leftover wood and random cement blocks.

This community is heavily discriminated against in the Yemeni society not only because of their darker skin color and poor sanitation conditions but also because of their poverty and the myths Yemenis spread about their traditions and practices.

However, Sua’d who, did not originally belong to the same marginalized community. She had been living in a proper home integrated with the mainstream Yemeni community until her father died one year ago dropping them to the lowest scale of the social ladder next to the akhdam.

Sua'd had to drop out of school so did her older sister Sumaya before moving to Al-Mahareeq.  In order to support the family, their big brother, 15, is working as a street cleaner with the Municipality.

Because of the lack of integration such slums have become a taboo area for many Yemenis, who prefer not to come close sometimes for justified reasons such as armed gangs and thugs who beat-up and rob strangers.

However, having an inside contact creates a form of protection for any visitor, which is how this report was made possible.

Despite the seemingly lack of order, there is a strict hierarchy and chain of command system in the community. There is a social leader whom the locals refer to for solving their disputes.

Ironically, women from this community have more freedom that the average Yemeni woman. They have less inhibitions talking to strange men in any subject.

"Please come to the wedding of my relative. There will be singers and musicians from our community," said Um Adel Faraj a leader in the community inviting the journalist to the wedding.

She was welcoming and open to sitting with the outsiders just like the women in that community do.

Sakhr and Sua'd the aspiring hip-hop dancers.

Sakhr and Sua'd the aspiring hip-hop dancers.

Illegitimate children

On average akhdam have the same number of children, seven, as most Yemeni families. The difference is that because of poverty the entire family is usually cramped into one or two rooms.

"This creates a problem in privacy," said Salah Dabwan, head of Youth of Popular Districts Organization in Aden. This organization deals with unorganized poor communities and includes staff from the marginalized community.

"Children in these shacks can see their parents engaging in marital relations and sometimes even try to imitate what they see which causes unwanted pregnancies, and sometimes incest."

This also causes a problem of illegitimate children whose fathers are not known. The level of shame associated with illegitimate children is much less than in traditional Yemeni communities.

In fact, the community members have a moral agreement among each other not to disrespect or point fingers at each others' scandals. Although some mothers land up leaving their new born children at health centers or in public places.

Al-Amal Association, an organization focusing on developing marginalized communities created a five year project which ended 2011to defend the right of illegitimate children to obtain official birth certificates to give them a chance to enter schools. The project was funded by CHF, and had initial support from UNICEF which was shortly disconnected.

In 2009, Al-Amal Association in coordination with Fardoos Association held an awareness campaign for educating the community on this issue.

"In the campaign we gathered illegitimate children and those with known fathers in the same room so that they don't feel shamed and we talked to them indiscriminately about their rights," said Adel Faraj director of the association.

Through the five year project around 5000 birth certificates for both illegitimate and children with known parents were obtained.

According to Dabwan, illegitimate children in the birth certificate are given the family names of their closest male relative such as an uncle or someone who wills to adopt them.

The akhdam consider themselves Yemenis and are considered so by law. Although it becomes very hard for them to avail ID cards because they have no fixed address. But when it comes to elections and mobilizing voters, they are given voter ID cards easily according to Dabwan.

The lack of structural education and adult supervision also leads to other problems such as offensive language which is common and the use hallucinogenic drugs and poor quality alcohol made locally called haroor.

"You can buy a 75ml bottle of haroor for only $200 [less than 1$]," said a man known for selling alcohol in his house at Al-Mahareeq.

 However, the drugs such as diazepam are relatively more expensive as they are smuggled through the sea from other areas and could be sold to anyone with enough cash including children.

Randa’s swing

In the southern part of the slum, a well dressed young lady in black abaya was helping young akhdam children into the single swing on which eight children piled on.

A scene extremely different from the despair seen earlier at the northern part of Al-Mahareeq.

She helps the little ones and comforts those who fall. She even dusts the dirt from their clothes and wipes their noses.

When she noticed the camera she shouted warning the other children: “Journalists, Journalists…”

However, children did take note and continued playing as usual. This is when Yemen Times journalist had following conversation with the smart little girl:

Why did you shout journalists?

To draw the attention of the children playing to you so that they leave the swing and others get a turn playing. I come from outside this community. My house is near this swing and so when I have time I come to help those children.

Are there any other playgrounds around?

No. There are no parks, no gardens no place for us to play. This swing is part of an electronic games playing area owned by businessman outside the community.

Why don’t you teach them  other activities such as drawing?

I tried to do that in the past, but they were drawing knives, guns and rockets, both the boys and the girls did that. It was so violent.

Why do you think they only drew that?

Because this is what they know. They have not been exposed to parks and trees and fun games. They are even living far from the sea which is one of the outlets for children in Aden.

You are a journalist; please tell the government to provide us with games, schools and parks to improve those marginalized children’s behavior.