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Ancient class system haunts Yemeni shantytowns

Ancient class system haunts Yemeni shantytowns – Human rights activists say land rights are a key to helping an impoverished and often isolated minority group known as ‘akhdam’ in Yemen. The group often lives in settlements that do not receive city services like water, sewage pipes and electricity.

SANA’A, Aug. 23 – Nassra Mohammad has raised eight children and buried two daughters since she moved into her single room home 25 years ago, but she does not know who legally owns the property.

The room has a tin door, stone walls and a hot-plate on the floor. There is no running water or windows, and a naked light bulb hangs from a wire on the ceiling.

Her home is no larger than the inside of the back of a boxy delivery truck. She moved there after her family was evicted from a similar settlement on the other side of Sana’a city.

“People asked us to get out, so we came here,” she said.

The land was empty when her family started building in what became a dusty shantytown known as a “mahwa” that now houses thousands of people who don’t technically own the land.

But according to the law, they should, said Yasser Mubarak the Oxfam Coordinator for the Poverty Reduction Strategy Project in Yemen.

And with no land rights, he said, mahwa residents become victims of human rights abuses.

Islamic law and Yemeni civil law both say that a person who settles on unclaimed land is its owner, added lawyer Abdulazeez Al-Samawi.

Land ownership for settlers is also a part of Yemeni culture, according Khaled al-Anisi, the executive director of the National Organization for Defending Rights and Freedoms.

“If they had documents, no one could take their land,” he said.

And because they don’t have the deeds to their properties, Mubarak said, they are denied basic city services, like water, sewage, telephones and electricity.

Nassra also still fears that she and her family will one day be thrown out of their homes again.

“There were rumors that the government wanted to take the place from us,” she said.

She is part of a large, often isolated and impoverished minority group in Yemen known as “al-akhdam,” which literally means, “the servants.”

Surrounded by a pack of grandchildren, and her youngest child, 10-year-old Fatima, Nassra said that besides extreme poverty her family and neighbors are constant victims of racial discrimination.

She gently pinched Fatima’s cheek. “They call us akhdam, they call us black, but we are all creations of God,” she said.

Despite the fact that akhdam communities are Muslim with a Yemeni heritage older than Islam, they are often isolated, discriminated against and live in slums that are short of water, sewage, healthy food, available education and security.

Many of these injustices could be alleviated if families in mahwas like Nassra’s, were granted legal ownership of their homes, said Mubarak.

But because the land was settled as opposed to purchased, residents do not have deeds, and the lack of city services makes them vulnerable to host of other injustices.

They suffer poor health from inadequate sanitation, which also harms their educations, said Mubarak.

One family he knew in Aden lived five meters from the school in a mahwa with no running water. They wanted to send their daughter to school, but the teachers refused her because she was dirty.

With no water to wash, she was considered a health risk to other children.

“Access to land would solve everything,” he said.

Nassra’s 31-year-old son, Ali Al-Rousi, did not know he might be entitled to own his home. He is, however, keenly aware of the difference between living in the mahwa and living a few dozen meters away on Zubairi Street.

Thousands of residents share a single sewage pipe in the mahwa, while homes on the main road have running water.

More often than not, the pipe is stopped up, he said.

“It would be easy for the government to connect us with water and sewers,” he said, “But they don’t.”

With 10 children and two wives, Ali struggles to support his family as a day laborer carrying cases of sodas from trucks into shops. At best, his income provides his family with about YR 150 (75 cents) for each individual per day. Many days, however, he does not find work.

Ali, who laughs easily and uses animated gestures when he talks, leaned on a dirty yellow jerry can and joked.

“The only opportunity our government gives us is to carry,” he said.

Discrimination in the heart of Sana’a

Eighteen-year-old Rashad Hassan Al-Zabeedy’s lives in a settlement of about 30 families behind a black metal gate in the Old City.

The settlement has five bathrooms- one for about 50 people. His apartment is about 15 feet long and six feet wide.

When asked how many members of his large family sleep in the room, Rashad cocked his head while he counted silently.

“Twelve or thirteen,” he concluded.

He looked slightly embarrassed and laughed.

“Yeah, we sleep on top of each other,” he added

Yemen is one of the poorest countries in the world, according to a 2008 UN report and almost half of the people live on less than two dollars a day. But no group has suffered more- or longer- than the akhdam.

An ancient, fading class system unites the akhdam as a group. Their collective identity appears to originate from Ethiopians who conquered and settled in 6th Century Yemen. They have, however, been in Yemen as long as any other group, and self-identify as Yemenis.

But besides being isolated from mainstream society in separate neighborhoods, they mostly work in dangerous, dirty and insecure sanitation jobs, like sweeping streets, which can pay as little as YR 300 (USD 1.50) a day.

Mubarak said that there are about 20,000 to 30,000 akhdam in Sana’a but mahwas all over the country that have the same demographics and the same problems. Estimates of the total population of the group in Yemen range from 500,000 to 1 million.

Most akhdam children do not finish school, and many drop out around fourth or fifth grade because of mistreatment from teachers and other students, according to Rashad. Others leave because they need to go to work to help support their families.

Many, like Rashad, leave school before they are able to read and write.

Rashad also said teachers regularly fail akhdam children who deserve good marks.

“Even the teachers and students discriminate against us,” he added.

Police also do not properly investigate crimes against akhdam, he said. Six years ago, his sister, Saeeda, was stabbed to death by 10 men on the streets of the Old City. She was 15.

Rashad’s older brother, Saeed, witnessed the murder, and identified the killer to the police. The police came late, and accused the brother of the murder. The killer remains free.

“We are, in their opinion, just akhdam,” he said.

“We are Yemeni”

While akhdam is a common term, the group is also referred to as the main part of a larger group left over from the old class system. They are called “al-muhamasheen,” which means, “the marginalized ones.”

Many Yemenis prefer the term muhamasheen because it is not as stigmatizing as the inherently negative term, akhdam.

And according to one member of Nassra’s family, 19-year-old Khaled Sa’ad, akhdam is a cruel label.

But his family, he said, are not muhamasheen either.

“We are not marginalized,” he said. “We are Yemeni like other people.”

Ali agreed and said that the minority label is an excuse for racism.

“If somebody black is walking in any area, people call them akhdam.”

And across town in the Old City, Rashad and his family agreed.

Rashad’s sister, 17-year-old Hussnia Al-Zabeedy said the label was simply a way for charity groups and NGOs to solicit funding. Her family, she said, are not marginalized. They are Muslims, originally from Zabeed, famous for its ancient Islamic colleges and scholarship.

“There is no difference between black and white,” she said, “Only in worship.”

Source – http://yementimes.com/article.shtml?i=1288&p=front&a=1

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