Back in 2015 I was living and working in Cairo, Egypt for the second time. I was between jobs and staying as a guest in the spare room of a friend of a friend. This friend turned out to be a “camera man” for a famous and globally recognized news media production company. I absolutely loved listening to their stories of adventures as a camera man. Because of the nature of their work, they were often the very first on the scene for various revolutions, wars and conflicts. I mean, duh, they had to film all the stuff we all see on the television! When others were fleeing countries due to crisis, they were flying INTO the fray.
In 2015 when the conflicts in Yemen blew to surreal proportions, guess who was attempting to sneak into this country? That’s right. My new media friend. Upon his return from a successful video shoot, where he encountered dangerous Pirates while attempting to cross into Yemen by sea from ANOTHER country in crisis, I was sold. One day, I would go to Yemen.
And that was that.
My opportunity came in April 2018. The opportunity came mostly because I MADE it come. I decided that enough was enough. I was tired of watching the news and the media and hearing only negative television, articles and words against the country. Surely, I rationalized, not every one in Yemen is a terrorist. Surely not everyone is anti-American. Surely not everyone is going to try to kidnap me or attack me. Surely.
I went online and found a way into Yemen. I contacted a tour company, the only one I could find that seemed to somewhat still be active and I sent a blind email. Before I knew it, my mom had joined in on my plan and I booked us two flights to Oman where we would attempt to go across the border into Yemen, overland.
The plan was simple. Spend 5 days on mainland Yemen. Fly from Seiyun to Socotra Island (from the ONLY airport and airlines still willing to fly there) and spend 5 days on Socotra before rendezvousing back to Seiyun for the long drive back across the border into Oman. Easy.
Without giving too much away, (I’m planning to release a documentary on the adventure in the near future) let’s just say… things didn’t really go as planned.
YES I did make it to Yemen.
YES I spent 5 days on the Mainland with my MOM.
NO we did not make it to Socotra Island.
YES Yemen is extremely dangerous and NO I do not recommend any tourists go there. (At least not in the near future.)
Here’s a brief summary of our adventure.
We cross the border into Yemen and meet our Guide for the trip. He hands us a bag of black clothes and tells us that we must wear full burqa and nicab in order to avoid being spotted by the terrorists or “bad guys” as he likes to call them. We do our best to wear the attire correctly, however the men have never actually helped their wives or sisters in the process and have absolutely NO CLUE how to help us tie our hijabs and niqabs correctly. We make do and begin the long, long, long, LONG drive towards Seiyun. It takes us two days to reach there.
On the route to Seiyun we are stopped by over 40 military checkpoints. My mom and I have a 3 second warning before each checkpoint to put an extra veil over our eyes and cover ourselves completely so as not to be discovered. When the military officers pull our driver over and notice a pair of ladies in the backseat, they wave us onwards without much hassle. (Well, except for that one time…but that’s another story.) The military checkpoints are well equipped with Machine Guns, turrets, armored vehicles and men carrying rifles wearing bullet proof vests. To be fair, nearly every other man walking down the city streets has a rifle on his shoulder. That’s just the way things are here it seems…
We reach Seiyun and are shuffled around so as to try and confuse any potential spies in the area who might be searching for us. We are in active terrorist areas and it is vital that we remain undiscovered. (Another key point in the story, also to be revealed at a later time.)
During our meals, our guide must search out a “family style” restaurant for us so that we can lock ourselves in a small room and unveil ourselves. This is very common in Yemen and allows the women to remove their niqabs and eat freely and without disturbance. The only men permitted in these rooms are the immediate family members and, in our case, the guide and his sidekick.
The food in Yemen was some of the BEST FOOD I’VE EVER EATEN! I loved each and every dish and I’ve never experienced such flavorful and delicious food before. I love Middle Eastern food and have experience with a variety of cuisines but I found the food to be very unique and distinct from other Arabic countries. I miss it already!
We spend two days exploring Hadhramaut and it is absolutely stunning. The mud houses, the scenery, the camels wandering freely, all add to the charm. I am amazed at the beauty of the country and even more amazed at the horror stories shared to us from our Guide about the current situation.
We learn many, MANY things while exploring this country. None of which can be googled. All of which was very moving and personal in so many ways. We stayed in a homestay with a house full of ladies and (thankfully!) my Arabic kicked into full gear as I spoke to the women throughout the night while they decorated us with traditional henna. We learned about their lives and talked and laughed and shared photos with one another well into the late hours of the night.
In the day, the men took turns driving us around while our Guide explained many things to us. We avoided a few VERY close call situations and got to know some of the Yemeni people on a very personal level.
The Yemeni people were extremely generous, funny, kind, warm and hospitable. They had a great sense of humor and a very strong sense of protection over us (their new American family.) They took our safety very seriously and kept us (mostly) out of danger.
Socotra Island was up next for the agenda but we learn on our 4th day on the Mainland that it’s a “no go.” We rally up a Plan B but decide that risking a pirate-sea-crossing with just us ladies on a local fishing boat just won’t do so the next day we make a mad dash for the border before we are discovered by the “bad guys.”
After leaving Yemen, so many questions and answers have continued to reveal themselves to us. I still keep in touch with my new big brother in Yemen (our Guide) and a part of me really wishes that there was more I could do to help better the people’s situations in that beautiful country.
Lila dreams of being a Scientist in a world where "tradition" is key.
Lila is a 19-year-old Yemeni woman and the daughter of our Guide, my newfound big brother. He has three daughters and Lila is his eldest. In a country that favors boys, he couldn’t be prouder of his three girls, especially Lila. This year she is trying to enroll into University in Sanaa but because his main income source was tourism (which died out 4 years ago with the start of the conflict) he doesn’t have a steady income and is unable to afford the fees to her University.
Lila wishes to be a scientist. A Geologist to be exact. She loves the Earth and wants to continue her education and studies unlike many of her friends who have already left school and have gotten married to begin their families. If Lila doesn’t go to University, she would have to stay inside the home, get married and carry out her duties as a woman to cook and clean and care for her family.
But Lila is not having any of it and neither is her father. He is very proud of his daughter’s dream of becoming a Geologist and supports her 100%. Yesterday I launched (with their permission) an online fundraiser page to gather the funds to pay for Lila’s University. Within 24 hours we raised almost enough to send her to Uni for one year. My mom and I collaborated and shared the difference and sent the money straight to Lila.
Tomorrow morning, first thing, she enrolls in University!
Here’s where you come in.
It’s not enough to just send Lila to school for one year! If you would like to help pay for Lila’s tuition fees it costs $950 per year. We need at least another $2850 to pay for her ENTIRE University fees for the next four years! Please show your support, love and kindness to this beautiful and strong Yemeni girl who dreams of being a scientist in a world where tradition is key.
If your unable to donate, you can help by sharing the link to your family and friends! Regular updates are being posted on the fundraiser page as well as my Facebook page so be sure to LIKE US and send Lila your love!