Refugees Continue to Highlight World News
By John Mason / Arab America Contributing Writer
A poignant human-interest story emerged this week about a refugee couple who fled Ukraine to Gaza to, perhaps ironically, seek a safe haven. At least one that’s safer than Ukraine. The article walks us through another story about how the U.S. is trying consciously to balance the scale on which some refugees in the world get lots of help while others don’t—in this case Yemen refugees.
Gaza receives Ukrainian wife and her Palestinian husband as they flee Russian invasion
Not a place typically chosen by refugees to flee to, Gaza has become the temporary home for a Ukrainian woman and her Palestinian husband. Living in the town of Vinnytsia, 125 miles southwest of Kyiv, Viktoria Saidam, was studying pharmacy while her husband Ibrahim Saidam studied medicine. Viktoria claimed, “My husband and I had to look for a safer place than Ukraine,” according to the Jerusalem Post. Thus, the couple ended up in Gaza, where they say at least it feels safe.
The Ukrainian-Palestinian couple had wanted to speed up the process of meeting her in-laws in Gaza, after two years of marriage, but the Russian attack hastened that meeting. As refugees from Ukraine, Viktoria and Ibrahim ended up in a Palestinian refugee camp in Gaza, called Breij. No small irony, going from a status of fleeing Ukraine as refugees, the couple ended up with the same status as they take refuge in the Breij camp.
Also, not escaping the irony of this young Ukrainian-Palestinian couple fleeing one scene of extreme warfare in Ukraine, is the fact that just one year earlier, Gaza had been in its own war with Israel. May of 2021 saw armed Palestinians firing rockets at Israel and Israel hitting back with intense airstrikes. As Saidam noted about their new home, “There was a war here, and it can start again, but we had to leave Ukraine and (Gaza) was safe.”
In describing recent life in war torn Ukraine, the wife, Viktoria said, “We understood that there was no way to know what tomorrow would bring. The number of dead and dying was rising every day.” She continued, “My husband and I had to look for a safer place than Ukraine–we chose his homeland, Gaza.”
The couple understands certain realities of living in Gaza, including Hamas control of the territory on one side of the border and, on the other side, a strict blockade by Israel.
Further, the couple knows that unemployment in Gaza is over 50% and the supply of water and electricity is sporadic. Husband Ibrahim noted that “Hamas, considered a terrorist group by much of the West, has fought four wars with Israel since taking power in Gaza. There was a war here, and it can start again, but we had to leave Ukraine…” Viktoria added, “We don’t know what will happen tomorrow [though] we hope and pray for the best.”
The couple described how they could have traveled to European countries to gain asylum, but Ibrahim said he would feel safer in Gaza and knows how life works there. Viktoria becomes upset when she speaks with her family back in Ukraine, hearing about all the death and destruction that continues in her homeland. She says, “I still cannot believe that what has happened isn’t a dream, it’s horrible… I’m dreaming of the day my husband and I can go home.”
Yemen victims of war receive their due–U.S. pledges $585 million more in humanitarian aid
While the Ukrainian-Russian war is receiving much more attention than the war in Yemen, at least some sense of equity in treating refugees in the Middle East is finally emerging. This came about through a pledge by the U.S. of almost $585 million of new humanitarian aid for Yemen for 2022. This gift was in response to a United Nations campaign, according to a Reuters news report. The aid is directed to assist millions of Yemenis who have suffered displacement, hunger, and death from an eight-year-old senseless war.
U.S. Secretary of State Blinken explained that Yemen’s predicament has been exacerbated by the Russian war in Ukraine. Yemen is heavily dependent on its import of wheat from Ukraine. Reuters reported, “Just in the first week alone, many Yemenis saw the bread price shoot up 50 percent.” Total U.S. contributions to Yemen is $4.5 billion.
As Arab America reported in an earlier article, it is not only European countries at war that deserve our compassion, but Middle Eastern and other groupings of countries that need our support. While the Ukrainian refugee problem is substantial and worthy of the news coverage it is getting, Yemen has been torn apart by its largely outsider-instigated civil war and its refugee crisis and is of at least the same level of newsworthiness. Yemen’s situation, as we reported in a quote of U.N. humanitarian ambassador Angelina Jolie, is “one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world.”
Jolie purposely linked her visit to Yemen’s refugees to underscore the importance of the Ukrainian crisis, though she did not want the latter crisis to overshadow the over 20 million Yemeni refugees who depend for their survival on humanitarian assistance. She noted that in Yemen today, one civilian is killed or injured every hour. Furthermore, Jolie encouraged her followers “to pay attention to both conflicts and lend some compassion to victims affected by the ordeal.”
“Ukrainian woman, Palestinian husband move to Gaza after fleeing Russian invasion,” The Jerusalem Post, 3/23/2022
“U.S. Pledges $585 Million in New Aid for Yemen in 2022,” Reuters, 3/16/2022
“Nothing New for Humanitarian Angelina Jolie, Now the Actress Focuses on Helping Yemen Refugees,” Arab America, 3/9/2022
John Mason, PhD., who focuses on Arab culture, society, and history, is the author of LEFT-HANDED IN AN ISLAMIC WORLD: An Anthropologist’s Journey into the Middle East, New Academia Publishing, 2017. He has taught at the University of Libya, Benghazi, Rennselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York, and the American University in Cairo; John served with the United Nations in Tripoli, Libya, and consulted extensively on socioeconomic and political development for USAID and the World Bank in 65 countries.
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