'The marginalised': the plight of Yemen's forgotten black minority

Yemenis of African descent were treated as second-class citizens for centuries, but the conflict has made matters worse

A woman from the Akhdam community holds her son in a slum area in Yemen's southwestern city of Taiz October 11, 2012. Yemeni Akhdam, or servants, are similar to hereditary castes, but are distinguished by their African features and the menial jobs they perform. Widespread prejudice places the Akhdam at the bottom of Yemen's social ladder. Asked about the origins of the Akhdam, Yemenis say they are descendants of Ethiopians who crossed the Red Sea to conquer Yemen before the arrival of Islam some 1,400 years ago - making them outsiders in their own country. Most live in slum areas in the outskirts of the capital Sanaa and other main cities. They reside in small huts haphazardly built of wood and cloth, without basic services such as running water, electricity and sewage networks. Picture taken October 11, 2012. REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah (YEMEN - Tags: SOCIETY POVERTY)

ATTENTION EDITORS: PICTURE 12 OF 20 FOR PACKAGE 'YEMEN'S UNDERCLASS'
SEARCH 'AKHDAM' FOR ALL IMAGES

Jamala Ali lay screaming in agony on the crowded main street of her village in southern Yemen's Al Dhalea province.
Her leg was smashed by a hit-and-run driver, but no one stopped to help until people from her ethnic minority – known as Al Muhamasheen, or "the marginalised" – arrived.

Quote
We have been living in these poor, unhealthy tin shacks lacking the basic needs for life

"A young man driving a motorcycle crashed into me while walking in the main street and escaped," said Ms Ali, 52.

"I kept screaming and shouting for help, but all the passers-by ignored me until some neighbours from our community rushed me to hospital, where I had surgery to repair the fracture."

Members of her community, sometimes referred to as Al Akhdam, or "the servants", suffer deep-rooted social discrimination in Yemen.

The National met the mother of five near her shanty home made from scrap in the village of Sanah in northern Al Dhalea, now a front line in Yemen's civil war.

Ms Ali sat in the dust with her broken leg stretched out, selling the potato soup she cooks to support her children.

Systematic discrimination against the minority has increased since the war started with the Houthi coup to overthrow the government of Yemen in 2014.

There are no official statistics on the number of Al Muhamasheen in Yemen.

Noaman Al Hothaifi, head of the organisation Marginalised People in Yemen, said they are 12 per cent of the population, while the UN reported there are as many as 3.5 million members of the minority.

Wherever they go in Yemen, Al Muhamasheen are mistreated and oppressed.

At schools, their children are bullied by pupils and teachers, who treat them as servants.

An underclass for centuries 

"Our sons don't go to school any more because they were mistreated and exposed to harassment," Gubran Ghalab, who lives in Qatabah in southern Yemen, told The National.

"My son used to go to the school near by, but he stopped because teachers made him clean the class every day, otherwise his teacher would beat him."

The suffering of Al Muhamasheen goes back centuries and includes systematic oppression and mistreatment by other social classes and by government authorities.

"The current war has greatly affected the whole community in Yemen, but the situation for the marginalised people was much worse," Mr Al Hothaifi told The National.

"The conflict forced the majority of our community to flee their permanent slums, especially in provinces where war erupted, such as Sanaa, Taez, Hodeidah, Al Jawf, Al Dhalea and Marib, to seek shelter in other provinces.

"The social discrimination that has been practised against our community for centuries has greatly complicated our dire situation during this war.

"Our people were not allowed to join the [internally displaced people's] camps occupied by people with tribal links, and such discrimination made it harder for our community to access humanitarian assistance."

With limited resources, displaced Al Muhamasheen set up their huts in remote, unsafe places. Some of those were close to the front lines.

Other settlements can be found near rubbish dumps. They lack the basic amenities.

Taher Mohammed, a community leader in the Al Muhamasheen camp in Sanah, said internally displaced people from other social classes received more help.

"Many of them moved to shelters in state institutions including public schools," Mr Mohammed said.

"But for us in the marginalised community, we had to find our own camps because our life doesn't matter to anybody in this country.

"Even in this self-established camp we aren't secure because the landowner repeatedly comes and threatens us either to pay him rent or to leave his land.

"We lack the basic needs of life such as clean water and suitable shelters. When it rains, the camp turns into a swamp."

Origins   

The historical origin of Al Muhamasheen in Yemen is a controversial topic.

Fadel Al Rabiee, a professor of sociology at Aden University, said they were widely believed to be descendants of the Abyssinians, like modern-day Ethiopians.

"They are remnants of the Abyssinians who invaded Yemen in the sixth century and settled in the coastal areas, mainly in Tehama region [in Hodeidah province], Taez and Aden, and spread to Sanaa and the other provinces in Yemen," Mr Al Rabiee said.

"This community is more marginalised in northern Yemen than they are in southern Yemen, because the community in north Yemen is more tribal."

But Mr Al Hothaifi said the community's origins date back to the Najahid dynasty, which founded the Najahid state on Yemen's Red Sea coastal plain in the 12th century.

"The majority of the Yemenis who reside in areas along the coast are dark-skinned, which proves that our community descends from the same origins," he said.

"But the social marginalisation against us was a result of when the Mahdids overthrew the Najahid state and enslaved its remnants."

EDITOR'S PICKS
NEWSLETTERS