By Maram Alabbasi
Taking a quick look around Yemen’s capital city, it’s clear that the amount of people begging on the streets has significantly increased in the past two years.
“Begging is my job,” Akram Ahmed said.
The activity isn’t limited to any one demographic; people young, old and in-between can be seen around Sana’a asking for spare change or a bite to eat. People with physical handicaps are particularly visible.
“We have no alternative to begging,” said Om Mokhtar. “Even if we were to find employment, we would not be paid a full wage.”
Many of Yemen’s most marginalized are employed as street cleaners. Om Mokhtar explains that the working conditions are unfair and that the Muhamasheen make half the wages of ‘white’ Yemenis.
Many Yemenis were evacuated from their homes during the uprising that first started two years ago.
“They kicked us out of our homes. Now we live with seven other families in one house. We haven’t been compensated, they compensated the whites only,” Om Mokhtar said, referring to Yemenis not of Muhamasheen descent.
In addition to surviving the everyday grind, Om Mokhtar says her husband is ill with a heart condition and needs YR 500 thousand for the surgery. She has 10 children, and with begging as her only source of income, has not been able to save any money for her husband’s medical needs.
“How do I make that kind of money begging on the streets? How do I even feed my children?”
Muhamasheen face discrimination in many parts of their lives, including their educational studies.
“My children attend public schools, where they are discriminated against because of their backgrounds. The administration is corrupt and children with families have some money can buy the teachers off,” Om Mokhtar said. “Poor children, whose parents can’t afford bribes, are wronged.”
Ahmed, able-bodied, is told that he is young and strong, and should be working for a living instead of begging.
“I tell them to find me a job and I will work.”
Ahmed used to be a street cleaner, but the city always made-up excuses to dock his pay, he said, sometimes up to half his wage.
With six younger brothers, Ahmed had to quit school at a young age and help care for his siblings after his father died. He was an undocumented worker in Saudi Arabia for year before being caught and deported back to Yemen.
He earned a good salary in Saudi Arabia, he says, SR 1000 per month working in restaurants.
Back in Yemen, Ahmed purchased a motorcycle to supplement his income by operating it as a taxi, but it was stolen. The police were able to locate it, but refused to give it back to Ahmed.
“Their excuse was that I didn’t have ‘witnesses’ to prove that it was mine.”
Beggars are often arrested by security forces and only released by paying a bribe, Ahmed claims.
“If you have money, you can pay them off. If not, you’ll spend a month or two in prison, easily.”
A mother of three, Fatin says she does not consider herself a beggar; she sits on the sidewalk with her children but does not beg. If people offer her money, she takes it, she said.
Her husband is a street cleaner. Like other parents, she wants a better life for her children. Her daughter, a fourth grader, wants to be a doctor when she grows up.
“I can’t say I’m very hopeful. It seems we’ll always be on the streets, no matter what.”
Fatin was born in Saudi Arabia. She left that country after the firsts gulf war when Saudi Arabia kicked out hundreds of thousands of Yemenis to punish Yemen for its vote against the war. After marrying, she and her husband were smuggled back into the country, but were later deported.
“I wish we could go back. We used to make a living wage, we had work and didn’t have to resort to begging.”
Treatment from the public varies.
“I don’t give them money because they’ll grow complacent. They teach their children to beg, preventing the cycle of begging from ending,” Shaima Ali said.
Mohammed Abdullah disagrees.
“No one chooses to beg, they’re forced to do so by their poverty,” he said.
The government has an obligation to take of its citizens, Abdullah believes.
“Our government should do something about this issue. For example, it should provide jobs and housing for the homeless.”