From Syria to Yemen: My Life in WASH
BY: MAYSOUN ALHAJOMAR
“Please, can I have a small plastic basin for my baby to bathe her?” A shy, middle-aged woman whispered these words into my ear. In June 2018, as the conflict in Yemen escalated, this woman, like other displaced families living in this school, had fled her home in Hodeida. I looked at the month-old baby girl in her arms – so weak, with a peaceful, beautiful face – and reassured the mother that we do provide basins and she would be able to wash her baby.
As a Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) specialist in UNICEF’s Sana’a Field Office, I provide rapid response to families (like this mother’s) fleeing conflict or facing public health emergencies like cholera outbreaks. My responsibilities include monitoring the situation and ensuring all needed responses are in place, as well as planning and implementing programs, managing partnerships with governmental and non-governmental organizations, and coordinating with other sectors (health, nutrition, education, child protection, and communications for development).
People in Sana’a depend on private water wells. When I first came to Yemen, I noticed how women and children struggled to get clean water. They walk a long way and wait a long time for the truck to fill their jerrycans. It was heartbreaking to see there were no taps to get water directly from the wells.
I’ve always believed that water is life and peace, and it should never be used as a weapon. I started to think about how families could access clean water and at the same time restore their dignity. I conducted meetings with UNICEF partners and made agreements to install water tanks connected to the wells, with proper stands and taps. This has made a significant difference, as water is now safely and easily accessible to every child and their families. The best part of my job is real interaction with people in need, when I go out to visit people in their homes and talk with women and children to discuss how we can best serve them to reduce their suffering.
My passion for this field and endless desire to help more children and women pushed me to take this step and face the world with what I truly believe, and here I am!
I am Syrian and began my career as a civil engineer in Syria. When the Syrian crisis reached its peak in Aleppo, I decided to apply for a humanitarian job, and became a WASH facilitator for UNICEF. The situation was dire, and I had to travel to another city for the interview. Although the trip would take me through a road notorious for snipers, I knew what I wanted and couldn’t let anything hinder my ambition. I will never forget how a man was shot dead beside me while passing through a dangerous area and running as fast as I could. It was a shocking experience, but it didn’t lessen my determination. It has been horrific working during war, avoiding mortars and stray bullets to serve affected people. I was so proud and happy to do something for my country during such circumstances, and I received an award from the country office for great achievement.
Leaving Syria to join UNICEF, Yemen in February 2018 was a turning point in my life. But having lived 7 years in war-torn Aleppo made the decision less tough.
It is interesting to mention that of the five WASH team members, I’m the only woman. As a woman in such a challenging job, I face a lot of questions and comments from people: “A woman will never be able to survive such a terrible emergency,” “This is man’s job,” “Be rational and act with your brain not your heart,” and many other messages that I now recall with a confident smile. People were always trying to convince me to change my mind. My passion for this field and endless desire to help more children and women pushed me to take this step and face the world with what I truly believe, and here I am!
I lead a new life in Yemen now. I share an apartment with one of my colleagues inside a UN compound. Movement is limited because of the unstable security situation. Though I usually cook my meals, I can’t deny that sometimes I miss the heartwarming smell of my mother’s food back home in Aleppo.
When I started my career, I couldn’t have imagined I would be where I am now. As a female civil engineer, I’ve worked primarily with men throughout my career, but I’ve never had a challenge dealing with male supervisors or team members. Being a woman gives me an advantage in some of my work as it facilitates my role in helping others. Yemeni culture makes it easier for me to enter people’s houses to build a rapport with other women and interact effectively with them.
My advice to other women is: Keep your self-esteem high, always take a step forward and face your fears to reach your real potential; be faithful to your work and your role as a change maker in this life, and keep your eyes focused on your goals and keep telling yourself that nothing is impossible for you. Never lose that sparkling passion, work from the heart, and always remember to celebrate your womanhood; and never hide your feelings as a mother, sister and daughter as those will guide you till you become an example for others.
In Yemen, my dream is that no child dies because of diarrhea, no child drinks polluted water and every child gets his or her rights, especially those related to WASH services, and that’s what I’m working hard to achieve.