By Payton Bruni
Thunderstorms and rain were a nightly occurrence around Shahed Al-Kibsi’s house. Al-Kibsi, a student living in Yemen’s capital city Sana’a, had grown accustomed to the booming thunder the storms would bring. So, when she woke up in the middle of the night to pouring rain and what she believed to be the roar of thunder, she didn’t think anything of it. She went back to sleep.
But after being startled awake for a second time, she realized that it wasn’t thunder. It was rocket fire. Terrified, Al-Kibsi, along with her two sisters and mom, ran towards the phone to call her dad, who lived separate from them.
She asked, “Dad what’s going? Do you hear the rockets?”
He replied, “Go down stairs and turn on the TV. The Saudis are attacking us.”
Al-Kibsi watched the news and was horrified. She had no idea there was tension between Yemen and Saudi Arabia. “I’ll never forget how the house shook with every bomb,” Al-Kibsi said, “and how we felt like every new rocket would be the end of us.”
That night marked the beginning of an exhaustive list of challenges that Al-Kibsi, a student at the Lebanese International University (LIU) in Yemen, and other Yemeni college students have had to face. Relentless bombing – carried out by the Saudi-led coalition intervening in Yemen – has ravaged Yemen’s economy.
Millions of people in Yemen go without the income needed to afford basic necessities such as food or electricity. This financial burden is exacerbated in student households where some families have to choose between affording a meal and affording tuition.
“We couldn’t afford food, it got so bad in the beginning,” Al-Kibsi said. “My family couldn’t afford to get the most basic things, like our house tank filled with water.”
Yousef Hamidaddin, a former World Bank advisor on Yemen, said the collapse of Yemen’s economy will have lasting effects for generations to come. “It’s just an explosive situation to be in where your children are not going to school,” Hamidaddin said. “It’s like all the doors are shutting in the face of this generation.”
According to UNICEF, at least two million children are out of school and half a million students have had to drop out. Hamidaddin said calling this population of students a “lost generation” would be an understatement.
Al-Kibsi said she’s grateful for the relatively good fortune she’s had. Her dad, a business owner, has closed 11 of his storefronts but has been able to maintain some semblance of financial stability throughout the war. “I’m one of the few lucky ones,” she said. “War has affected me, but not as much as other people in Yemen. Other people are starving; they dropped out of college just to make a living.”
If it’s not dropping out to work, Al-Kibsi said students have had to forgo attending college purely because of transportation costs. She said gas prices would fluctuate beyond the point of affordability. “We couldn’t afford petroleum sometimes,” Al-Kibsi said. “Sometimes students have to drop a semester because they can’t afford the fuel. And I’m not talking about school fees, I’m talking about the fuel that gets you there.”
Assuming the college fees and transportation costs have been taken care of, basic school supplies act as an additional roadblock. Al-Kibsi said textbooks have been all but abandoned and substituted with downloadable PDFs because, like her, students are unable to afford books.
For other class materials, she said, some students have to rely on the kindness of strangers. “It has become very hard to get school supplies; when we went to buy my little sister’s supplies, we saw tons of children begging.”
At the root of this education affordability crisis lies Yemen’s currency, the rial. According to a report by the Congressional Research Service, a branch of the U.S. Library of Congress, a depletion of currency combined with over eager money printing has caused the value of the Yemeni rial to plummet. Data from Statista shows that from the beginning of the war in 2015, the inflation rate of the Yemeni rial has nearly doubled. This has affected the price of many basic food items that people depend on. Al-Kibsi said the cost of bread in Yemen, for example, has spiked to 20 Yemeni rials from the 10 Yemeni rials it costed before the war began.
“It’s important not just to highlight the humanitarian crisis,” Hamidaddin said, “but that this crisis has a cost and a dollar amount that’s going beyond the capacity of Yemen to rebuild itself.” He said the fact that some Yemenis have stopped earning income entirely has only intensified the situation. “The Central Bank and the government not dispersing payroll and salaries for the last two, three years creates a multiplier effect that’s hitting the dignity of human beings.”
This issue is ongoing, and for Yemenis who do receive their salary, the amount they earn can leave them frustrated. Al-Kibsi said, “A lot of professors leave college almost every semester because they think their salaries are too low.” She said some of the professors at her university feel they are paid too little and that students have to pay too much.
But in spite of the challenges Al-Kibsi has faced since that first, terrifying night so many years ago, she said she maintains a positive outlook on the future and that the situation, at least where she lives, has improved. “Things are now much better; we rarely hear rockets here in Sana’a,” Al-Kibsi said. “Although we’ve lost almost every essential resource of life, we’ve managed to survive and there’s still hope.”
To handle the stresses of war on top of her university studies, Al-Kibsi said she tries to keep the two lives separate. “My college life is one thing and my ordinary life is another. I drop all of my problems at the gate of the university,” she said.
This mental practice has worked well for Al-Kibsi as she enters her third year studying at LIU. She said she has been able to focus on her studies and receive straight A’s in courses like financial management, intermediate accounting, and English. But, if anything, Al-Kibsi said she wants people to understand not her own struggles as a university student, but those of the Yemeni people: “I just want people to know that these minor problems I call mine are nothing compared to the atrocities happening to my people around the country.”
Payton Bruni is a journalist and student at the University of Oregon, School of Journalism and Communication. His work is centered around photojournalism and freelance reporting. He is the current Photo Editor of Ethos Magazine and has published freelance work with KVAL News, KEZI News and journalism.co.uk.