On the computer screen, Stella smiles. “I’m happy to talk to someone. I’ve been here alone for days”. And this is not because of covid-19, on the contrary: “When the restrictions came into force in Italy, talking with my family, with my friends, I thought they understood what my everyday life was about. For the humanitarian workers working in conflict zones, who are unable to leave home, experiencing the moment of the weekly shop is the highlight of the week, with the excitement of being able to see people, is a normal thing. I’m in the office now, but do you see the ladder behind me? That leads to my house”.
There is no trace of any claim or complaint in the 35 year old Stella Pedrazzini’s voice, who is the program coordinator for INTERSOS in North Yemen. “The happiness of waking up in the morning and knowing that you are doing something great, permits me to endure such an immense compromise. Not seeing a niece grow up, except via video; seeing the years that pass for my parents and not having memories together, except those of a Skype call or a WhatsApp chat. When, at 25, I told my parents ‘I’m going to Palestine’, it was a tragedy. Like any communication about a new job in a new place. I try to mitigate this every day and it works a little bit, because they see that I’m calm. I have lost a lot of things from normal life, but there is this abnormal life that gives so much”.
This abnormal life began in 2010, when Stella, from Melzo, in the Milanese hinterland, left for the Middle East. First, she spent four years in Palestine, then Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon. “Since March 2018 I’ve been in Yemen. First in Aden, in the South, where I was in charge of a protection project for Yemeni displaced people. Since this February, in Sana’a, the capital of the area, which since 2015 has been controlled by the de facto government of the Huthi militias”. For five years, Yemen has been constantly devastated by a war that has split the Country in two: “In the South there is the internationally recognized Sunni government of Hadi, supported by the coalition led by Saudi Arabia; in the North, the Huthi, Shiite militias. Then there are other factions in other areas, with whom we humanitarian workers must dialogue. Each has its own rules and imposes its own restrictions, it’s very complicated”.
INTERSOS Yemen is a mission run only by women. “From the mission leader Evelyn, to all the coordinators. Chiara and I, South and North programs, Luma, human resources, Loubna, protection. We are strong women, who have chosen a different life, on the front line; those who find satisfaction by using their skills where necessary, putting themselves at the service of those who need them most”. And here there are 24 million people, 80% of the inhabitants, who need humanitarian assistance. Malnutrition kills more than bombs, INTEROS analysts say: almost 16 million people, more than 53% of the population, are experiencing “severe food insecurity” and it is expected that by 2020 the number of children under five years of age suffering from “severe malnutrition” will have exceeded 1.9 million, while more than 325 thousand will be children with acute severe malnutrition. “Hunger in Yemen is a historical problem, there are many remote areas where basic needs are met and nothing more, and sometimes not even those properly”, explains Stella Pedrazzini. “The situation is devastating, tragic, and which not only effects children, but also women, men, the elderly. Access to food was limited even before the war”.
The projects that Stella coordinates regard medical and nutritional assistance; the protection of refugees and migrants; access to education and professionalizing courses; psychological assistance and protection for the most vulnerable categories, and WASH interventions, an acronym that stands for water, health and hygiene. “On malnutrition we carry out a basic activity through mobile teams or through support to different types of health facilities throughout the country. The package ranges from maternal and child screening for the identification of severe and less severe acute cases, to a coordination network with other governmental organizations or institutions, which offer treatment services through Therapeutic Nutrition Centers and, when needed, hospitalization”.
But, then we come back to everyday life and it is very difficult to break out of the cycle of hunger. “An important part of our intervention is to restore dignity to people, to give them the ability to provide for their families and for themselves. We try to provide integrated responses through the protection of victims of abuse, access to medical care, organization of training courses to carry out income-generating activities, education and food awareness. We promote best-practice feeding and breastfeeding practices, because women do not have people to teach or follow them during pregnancy; they often generate malnourished children, and do not have the milk to feed them or do not know how to manage it”. In any case, “in families with 10-15 children it is difficult to provide a correct diet: above all, they try to maintain the man’s strength, for he is the one who has to go to work”. But this does not necessarily mean bringing money home: “There is the social plague of qat, a hallucinogenic plant that has replaced the coffee plantations for which Yemen was famous. The daily worker manages to earn about ten dollars –from construction, transportation of materials, cleaning, washing cars, for example- which is not always spent on the needs of the family; but instead some is spent on qat. It is a legal market, a social ritual; and all the agreements, all the business between men, even the meetings in the ministries are done by chewing qat”.
All courses, work, socializing, everything has been distorted by the Coronavirus and distancing measures. Considering that malnutrition undermines the immune system and exponentially multiplies, especially in children, the possibility of fatal infections and that the war has destroyed 49% of healthcare facilities, only catastrophic outcomes can be expected from infections and pandemics. And it is not just the Coronavirus: “Cholera, dengue, malaria, diphtheria are also present in the country, and they return in seasonal waves. This year, H1N1, has also reappeared”, the so-called swine fever. All this under the bombs, with ceasefires repeatedly declared and then violated. And yet, says Stella, “when there was a chance to take the last flight out of Yemen, before the closure for the virus, my mother, from Lombardy at the peak of the contagion, told me: ‘actually, you stay there because it is safer’”. Which makes things even harder: “You never get used to being away from your family and if you don’t have a time limit, a goal, it’s even more complicated”.
In the meantime, she hasn’t given up planning one of her own, as long as it doesn’t distract her from her life’s mission. “I’ve seen so many families come into being, but stay in this field. A man and a woman who have the same needs and passions, who find each other, get married, have children and go to work in areas classified as Family Duty Stations; Lebanon, Jordan, many parts of Africa, countries where there is no assistance, but development programs and therefore it is normal to have a family based there. Certainly not Yemen, you don’t come here with children”.
Moving around would not be a problem, and until today she considers herself lucky. “I see the Middle East as a second home, I have always felt welcomed, I have found wonderful people in a wonderful culture. Now this life seems to me to be the maximum of my aspiration; but one day, to find the right person and to have a family is an idea that I hold dear. I come from a small village, my mother always tells me: you can’t be happy alone, how can you be happy? But I answer her that you are not always happy when in a couple. When we are so much in contact with misery and suffering, every day is a blessing. Things that are too long-term scare me. My life is made up of contract after contract, year after year. The important thing is to be at peace with yourself”.
by Federica Re David