Accessibility links

Americans Struggle to Get Families Out Amid Yemen Conflict

Instead of getting married earlier this month, Summer Nasser was in the mountains of Yemen, a twisting, perilous five-hour drive from her fiance.

The American college student of Yemeni descent is hiding out in her family's ancestral village with her mother and four siblings, waiting for a break in bombing and rebel clashes before returning — either to their temporary home in Aden, or their real home, New York.

The shopkeeper holding on to her wedding dress called last week to say he had also fled the southern port city, as violence accelerated and the Saudi Arabia-led air raids against Houthi rebels showed no sign of relenting.

She couldn’t blame him, Nasser said, speaking by phone from the Yafa region.

“I did expect some type of security deterioration, but no one expected a 10-country bombardment,” she said.

As Saudi Arabia continues air raids against the rebels, Yemeni-American families who did not get out in time are weighing their options.

There aren’t many.

Stuck in Yemen

Through dozens of warnings over the years, the United States told Americans living in Yemen to have contingency plans for emergencies and, unlike Canada, Russia, India and Somalia, has not announced an official evacuation.

The U.S. closed its embassy in Sana'a in February. Airports are shut for commercial travel.

"We have to make a decision based on the security situation and what is feasible to do," State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said at a news conference in Washington. "And given the situation in Yemen, it's quite dangerous and unpredictable. Doing something like sending in military assets, even for an evacuation, could put U.S. citizen lives at greater risk."

She reiterated that there were no plans to evacuate Americans. A State Department message to citizens in the country on April 5 included information on how to cross into Djibouti by boat. It also indicated that a French cargo ship off the coast of Aden could accommodate a few hundred passengers, but "people will have to find their own way to get out to it."

Subsequent messages said U.S. citizens might be able to board flights organized by the International Organization for Migration or India.

The United States has evacuated Americans before, though often in situations that escalated without the ongoing warnings: the bombing of the Lebanese capital by Israel in 2006, and Egypt in 2011, when protests against then-President Hosni Mubarak turned deadly.

Yemen is a politically complicated country. It has been for decades, as tribal and regional allegiances within its borders collided. Even its borders have changed, with the unification of North and South Yemen in 1990.

Families in the U.S. and Yemen contacted by VOA agreed on what the difference is this time: Until now, they felt that Yemen’s problems were all Yemeni.

"There’s always been some kind of threat. The difference would be, it was always internal. … When it’s internal, we don’t consider that to be very dangerous,” said Nasser’s aunt, Sylvia Muchinsky, who is trying to raise awareness of U.S. citizens stranded in Yemen from her home in Brooklyn, New York, by petitioning the White House.

“I can’t describe it. It’s almost like when you live in the ghetto and you see gang violence. You know it’s there; true, you can get hit in a drive-by … but it doesn’t really affect you in the day to day,” she said.

"Even during our civil war, people weren’t this afraid. People functioned. A foreign threat is so much more difficult to surmount than an internal threat," Muchinsky added.

Nasser, whose family moved to Yemen last year to save money for the older siblings' college fees, keeps in touch over mobile phone with other Americans stranded in Yemen. She estimates at least 300 people are in the same situation as her family.

Jamal al-Labani was one of them. At the end of March, he was killed by shrapnel from a mortar strike while returning from Friday prayers at a mosque in Aden, his family told U.S. media.

Three civil rights organizations in the United States launched the Stuck in Yemen website to log cases. And last week, Arab-American civil rights groups filed a lawsuit against the U.S. secretaries of state and defense on behalf of dozens of U.S. citizens stuck in Yemen.

“I don't see the State Department doing anything. It’s unfortunate. … The State Department has a duty to protect you,” said Abed Ayoub, legal and policy director at the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, one of the groups involved in the website’s creation.

Ayoub said those official alerts aren’t heeded because there are just too many.

“Unfortunately, the U.S. has travel warnings in a number of countries, and they're not taken seriously," he told VOA. "They've watered-down warnings. It still doesn't take away from their responsibility to protect U.S. citizens. That doesn't go away just because they gave a warning or two.”

"Just come back"

And families are complicated. Not everyone agrees on how to handle a crisis, or even to what degree there is one.

Sarah Alsaidi’s 78-year-old grandfather, Mohammed Quhshi, returned to Yemen in October to check on family properties, as he often does, and to avoid New York’s winters. His wife, children and granddaughter all want him back in the United States, where he holds citizenship. But people tried to lay claim to his property in Yemen in his absence, and he wanted to make sure the family’s assets were cared for.

“My uncle, who owns the building, told my grandfather, ‘I don't care, just come back,’ ” said Alsaidi. “Everyone's been frustrated with him.”

Late Monday, she got the news: After weeks of looking for ways to get out of Yemen, her grandfather was on a 22-hour bus ride to Saudi Arabia — without help from the U.S. government.

Alsaidi knows he prioritized the properties over his own safety by waiting. But she also knows her grandfather’s personality: He’s proud, he’s Yemeni and he had faith that the country will be OK.

Yemen may inspire patriotism, but political inconsistency is a hallmark. In Mohammed Quhshi's lifetime, he's seen the formation of two Yemens, political violence that killed thousands of people, reunification, civil war, the rise of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, and the beginning of Western counterterror operations.

In the last decade, the Houthi insurgency, deadly bomb attacks, the Arab Spring, and the takeover of the capital by Houthi rebels have continued to cloud the political horizon for a country where more than half the population lives in poverty.

Alsaidi said her grandfather downplayed the situation for his family in New York, maybe to keep them calm. He’s seen the country go through a lot.