- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 30, 2004

SAN’A, Yemen - “If we could lighten our black skin, we would be able to get jobs and support ourselves,” said Saleh Ali, 20. “We can’t do anything other than take the broom and clean the streets.” Mr. Ali is a member of the large Yemeni underclass known as Akhdam.

The Akhdam, literally “servants” in Arabic, is the lowest rung in the Yemeni caste system and by far the poorest. Marginalized and shunned by mainstream society, its members live in small shantytowns, mostly in big cities, including the capital, San’a.

In the shantytown near Bab Al-Yemen — the famous gate to Old San’a — families, often with more than a dozen members, live in one-room dwellings. Some are made of stones, but most have been thrown together using aluminum, cardboard or other waste material.

Although government projects have contributed electricity and better access to water, the communities still lack toilet facilities and a sewage system. Children here run barefoot on unpaved roads littered with human waste and garbage.

Fatima Hussein lives with her husband and nine children in a 7-by-7-foot shack in one of the capital’s 11 shantytowns. Holding a baby to her breast, she said: “My husband can’t find work, so I have to go out to beg.”

The men typically are hired by the city government as street cleaners or garbage collectors. The average monthly salary for a sanitation worker, around $50, is not enough to support a family, and the jobs are not secure, so women and children have to work or beg.

“I work as a street cleaner, but I’m not always needed,” said Adel Hussein al-Amri, a father of five. “There are no guarantees from the government for us to work.”

With the need for income, many children are unable to go to school because they are sent out to work. Those who try to get an education often drop out because of harassment. They frequently are mocked as “black,” “Akhdam” and “dirty,” and sometimes are made to sit in the back of the classroom. A World Bank study showed that 45 percent of children younger than 16 were enrolled in school in 1999, and another survey found the national literacy rate was 43 percent.

“The kids are beaten up in school because they are from our communities,” said Ismail Hassan, 22, married and a father of two. “The fact is that even if we study, we end up cleaning streets because that’s what society expects us to do.”

Society’s expectations stem from more than racial differences. The Akhdam were condemned to collect human waste before the advent of sewerage systems.

The common belief is that the Akhdam descended from the remnants of the Ethiopian kingdom in Yemen, defeated in the sixth century. Its soldiers were consigned to the lowest form of servitude. As a result, they are viewed as dirty and polluted. As one popular Yemeni proverb puts it: “Clean your plate if touched by a dog, but break it if touched by a Khadem” — the singular form of Akhdam.

“Once I joked with my brother that I had eaten with a Khadem,” recalls a student at San’a University. “He became angry and said: ‘Stay away from me! You’re a Khadem. They’re filthy, and they don’t pray!’”

In Yemen’s conservative Muslim society, Yemenis see the Akhdam as not fulfilling their religious duties, and therefore consider them impure. Huda Seif, a fellow at Emory Law School, said in a report last year: “The further condemnation of the ‘non-Arab’ as a fallen Muslim, who is unable to fully carry out the moral codes of Islam, only serves to legitimize the initial ethnic difference and prejudices, which are unequivocally proscribed in Islamic teachings.”

No official figures exist on the Akhdam population, but a study conducted by the United Nations Children’s Fund in the late 1990s estimated there were roughly 200,000 in Yemen.

Despite the social pressure, there were a few cases of Akhdam who moved out of shantytowns into neighborhoods and tried to integrate themselves into Yemeni society.

However, many of them moved back to the shantytowns “because they were harassed and excluded,” said Afrah al-Ahmadi, head of the health and social protection unit of the Social Fund for Development. “They couldn’t handle it.”

Some people believe the communities need to work from within on self-development and solving some of their problems. The Akhdam marry young, sometimes have more than one wife, and have large families.

They spend part of their income on qat, a plant stimulant widely chewed in Yemen.

“But there is an internal factor,” said Mr. al-Ahmadi. “They have very low self-esteem. They believe strongly that they cannot change.”

Although most international organizations in Yemen have overlooked the needs of shanty communities, the Community Empowerment Project of CARE International has the goal of changing their self-perceptions by helping them develop their own projects.

Some of these involve skill training, adult-literacy programs, and water distribution businesses. Three communities, for instance, were provided with water trucks and sell water to residents at an affordable price.

Eliminating social prejudices against the Akhdam and improving their living conditions will take time. “So much more needs to be done,” said Adam Taylor-Awny, program technical adviser at CARE International in San’a.

“This includes living conditions, sanitation, integration into society, education and health.” But some do not have much hope.

“It does not matter what we do. Nothing is going to change,” said Mr. Ali. “I wish I were like everyone else.”

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