Un­wel­come to Canada

We opened our homes and hearts to refugees flee­ing war in Syria. Why aren’t we do­ing the same for Ye­me­nis?

The Walrus - - CONTENTS - By Ka­mal Al-so­laylee

We opened our homes and hearts to refugees flee­ing war in Syria. Why aren’t we do­ing the same for Ye­me­nis?

The bare-bones of­fice of the As­so­ci­a­tion for Ye­meni Refugees, in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, with its mix-and-match fur­ni­ture and wafts of curry from the restau­rant be­low, of­ten gets busy in the evenings. The as­so­ci­a­tion lends its space for classes and work­shops, in­clud­ing sub­si­dized English-lan­guage lessons for the thou­sands of Ye­me­nis who have fled the war in their home­land and ended up in the Malaysian cap­i­tal. On this Sun­day af­ter­noon in late Au­gust, a few days be­fore Eid al-adha (one of the two holy feasts on the Is­lamic cal­en­dar), a group of twenty-five to thirty refugees, uni­ver­sity stu­dents, and vis­i­tors whose visas have ex­pired gather in the small re­cep­tion area. The older among them grab the few avail­able chairs while the younger set leans against the walls. Women sit in a sep­a­rate room un­til the men call on them to join the con­ver­sa­tion. Many at the as­so­ci­a­tion come with griev­ances against the Malaysian gov­ern­ment and pleas for Cana­dian politi­cians to in­clude them in what they be­lieve to be this coun­try’s gen­er­ous open-door poli­cies for refugees, cit­ing the rapid ad­mis­sion of 25,000 Syr­ian refugees in 2015 and 2016 as a model.

I’m vis­it­ing the as­so­ci­a­tion at the in­vi­ta­tion of its chair­man, Mo­hamad Al-radhi, a for­mer lec­turer in in­ter­na­tional law at a Ye­meni navy col­lege who now makes ends meet by rent­ing out cheap apart­ments in Kuala Lumpur and sub­let­ting rooms to new­com­ers. A refugee from the city of Ibb, in south­west­ern Ye­men, who has been sep­a­rated from his fam­ily for over three years, Al-radhi wanted to give me a taste of the prob­lems he and his mem­ber­ship try to solve on a daily ba­sis. Over the course of two hours, this sam­pler will turn into a cat­a­logue of mis­ery.

I haven’t spent this much time with or seen this many peo­ple from my birth coun­try of Ye­men since I last vis­ited my fam­ily in the cap­i­tal, Sanaa, in 2006. Eight of my si­b­lings and most of their chil­dren and grand­chil­dren still live in Sanaa and have been caught in the vi­o­lence and dev­as­ta­tion of the war; my con­tact with them takes place over land­lines and emails, trans­mit­ting voices and words from an­other world. The trip to Kuala Lumpur is my first faceto-face en­counter with the war and one of its un­der-re­ported lega­cies: the more than 200,000 in­ter­na­tion­ally dis­placed Ye­me­nis scat­tered around the world. The United Na­tions puts the in­ter­nally dis­placed pop­u­la­tion at a fur­ther 2 mil­lion.

The sto­ries keep com­ing, a rush of si­mul­ta­ne­ous con­ver­sa­tions in my na­tive but rarely de­ployed Ara­bic. Yusra, a hair­dresser, ran a nurs­ery from her home, but had to stop work­ing af­ter she broke her leg. She lost con­tact with her hus­band more than a year ago and is not sure if he is still alive in Ye­men. A sur­geon is now work­ing un­der the ta­ble as a waiter for ap­prox­i­mately 1,300 Malaysian ring­gits (about $415) a month. “You can’t refuse work,” he says, al­though I can’t tell if this is out of shame or re­silience.

Malaysia doesn’t re­quire Ye­me­nis to ob­tain a visa be­fore they en­ter the coun­try — one of only a hand­ful of coun­tries in the world to al­low this — and has emerged as a pop­u­lar choice for those flee­ing the war. When they ar­rive, Ye­me­nis are given a sin­gle-en­try visa, which is valid for three months. Those who man­age to se­cure refugee sta­tus from the lo­cal United Na­tions High Com­mis­sioner for Refugees, or at least an ap­point­ment card with the UNHCR to in­di­cate that their case is be­ing as­sessed, are able to stay longer but do not have the right to work.

Many fam­i­lies live on one meal a day, Al-radhi says. When the women join the con­ver­sa­tion, one of them de­scribes her ex­is­tence as one of “slow death.” Her son barely eats, and it shows. “For­get cloth­ing, for­get birth­days. I don’t have enough to buy him a bag of po­tato chips,” she says. “He cries and goes to sleep hun­gry.”

Al­most ev­ery­one in the as­so­ci­a­tion’s of­fice is count­ing on Canada to ac­cept them. The Canada they’ve cho­sen to be­lieve in — per­haps out of des­per­a­tion or be­cause re­ports in Ara­bic-lan­guage me­dia tended to praise Canada for the way it wel­comed Syr­ian refugees — is a utopia where tol­er­ance and re­spect for Is­lam pre­vail and Cana­di­ans wel­come refugees at the air­port with ban­ners, warm cloth­ing, and fully fur­nished apart­ments. Prime Min­is­ter Justin Trudeau — “that hand­some, young, hu­man­i­tar­ian man,” as one el­derly Ye­meni man de­scribes him — has ac­quired a near-bib­li­cal sta­tus as the liberator of the op­pressed and des­ti­tute. For some in the room, Trudeau’s clos­est pre­de­ces­sor is not his fa­ther, Pierre, who took in South Asians flee­ing Idi Amin’s purge of Uganda in the 1970s, but King Na­jashi, who ruled over what is now Ethiopia and a part of Eritrea in the sev­enth cen­tury and re­fused to ex­pel a group of Mus­lims flee­ing from their en­e­mies once they’d been granted refuge.

In March 2017, the Cana­dian gov­ern­ment com­mit­ted $34 mil­lion in “life­sav­ing hu­man­i­tar­ian as­sis­tance” to con­flict-af­fected peo­ple in Ye­men, with a spe­cial fo­cus on chil­dren and women. A few months later, it al­lo­cated an ad­di­tional $7.7 mil­lion through its Famine Re­lief Fund, and in Jan­uary, Marie-claude Bibeau, the min­is­ter re­spon­si­ble for in­ter­na­tional de­vel­op­ment, an­nounced an ad­di­tional $12.1 mil­lion in aid, to be split among the Red Cross and var­i­ous UN agen­cies. It amounts to about $54 mil­lion—a small frac­tion of what we spent to bring Syr­ian refugees to Canada. De­spite at­tempts by some mem­bers of the Cana­dian pub­lic and me­dia to high­light the hu­man­i­tar­ian cri­sis in Ye­men, the fed­eral gov­ern­ment has not an­nounced any ma­jor refugee-re­set­tle­ment plan.

An es­ti­mated 10,000 Ye­me­nis have died since the start of the war in March 2015. The num­ber of cholera cases has crossed the 1 mil­lion mark. About 2 mil­lion chil­dren suf­fer from acute mal­nu­tri­tion, and an es­ti­mated 60 per­cent of the coun­try’s pop­u­la­tion of nearly 29 mil­lion is food in­se­cure: many Ye­me­nis don’t know where their next meal will come from. Ex­perts have said Ye­men is likely to be the first mod­ern coun­try in the world to run out of us­able wa­ter, which could hap­pen within a decade.

It’s a hu­man­i­tar­ian cri­sis born out of a widen­ing ri­valry be­tween Saudi Ara­bia (pre­dom­i­nantly Sunni) and Iran (mostly Shi­ite) over geopo­lit­i­cal con­trol of the Mid­dle East. The war’s ori­gins go back to the po­lit­i­cal void cre­ated af­ter pop­u­lar up­ris­ings in Ye­men in 2011 led to the removal of Ali Ab­dul­lah Saleh, who had been pres­i­dent since 1978, and the trans­fer of power to his deputy, Abed Rabbo Man­sour Hadi. By Septem­ber 2014, Houthi rebels (al­legedly with sup­port from Iran) had ad­vanced on the cap­i­tal, send­ing Hadi into hid­ing and forc­ing his gov­ern­ment to re­treat to the south­ern city of Aden. A coali­tion led by Saudi Ara­bia (with lo­gis­ti­cal sup­port and in­tel­li­gence from the United States) be­gan air strikes the fol­low­ing spring with the goal of restor­ing the in­ter­na­tion­ally rec­og­nized gov­ern­ment of Hadi to power.

Three years later, the sit­u­a­tion is at best a stale­mate and at worst a quag­mire for Saudi Ara­bia. The war in Ye­men — some­times de­scribed as Riyadh’s Viet­nam — is just one of the bat­tles Crown Prince Mo­hammed bin Sal­man is wag­ing. Whether stage-manag­ing the res­ig­na­tion

Em­pa­thy is not neu­tral; it is an op­por­tunis­tic, se­lec­tive, and of­ten capri­cious hu­man phenomenon.

of the prime min­is­ter of Le­banon (and fail­ing at it) or po­lit­i­cally iso­lat­ing Qatar for its sup­port of the Mus­lim Brother­hood, the am­bi­tious prince is set­ting the stage for his even­tual rise to the throne of one of the world’s rich­est and most pow­er­ful na­tions. Ye­men, by com­par­i­son, was al­ready one of the Arab world’s poor­est coun­tries be­fore the war: it came in at num­ber 168 out of 188 coun­tries, one place above Afghanistan, on the UN’S 2016 Hu­man De­vel­op­ment In­dex.

The sit­u­a­tion in Ye­men has been called — by the press, NGOS, and in­ter­na­tional or­ga­ni­za­tions, in­clud­ing Amnesty In­ter­na­tional — the “for­got­ten war.” Ne­glected by Western me­dia and politi­cians alike, Ye­me­nis have come to rely on the in­ter­na­tional-aid sec­tor to min­i­mize the war’s ef­fects and man­age a refugee cri­sis that could equal Syria’s.

Even if the war ends soon, there’s no func­tion­ing econ­omy for refugees to go home to. Ac­cord­ing to the World Bank, the coun­try’s GDP has con­tracted by 37.5 per­cent since 2015. Close to 40 per­cent of house­holds have lost their pri­mary source of in­come: the un­em­ploy­ment rate hov­ers near 17 per­cent and is 32 per­cent among youth aged 15 to 24. Most pub­lic-sec­tor work­ers have not re­ceived their reg­u­lar salaries for well over a year.

At the refugee as­so­ci­a­tion’s of­fice, my eyes set­tle on Ta­lal and Enas, amar­ried cou­ple, and their three chil­dren. (Their last names are be­ing with­held for safety rea­sons.) While any­one in the room could have passed for a rel­a­tive of mine, this par­tic­u­lar fam­ily re­minded me the most of my strug­gling neph­ews and nieces in Sanaa — peo­ple in their twen­ties or thir­ties who mar­ried young and are rais­ing chil­dren against a back­drop of war and famine. Enas and Ta­lal’s el­dest child, Ruaa, eight years old, is limp­ing; bandages seem on the verge of fall­ing off one of her feet. Enas tells me that she stepped on bro­ken glass in the bath­room, but they couldn’t af­ford to take her to hos­pi­tal.

Like their com­pa­tri­ots, Enas and Ta­lal be­came des­per­ate long be­fore they fled to Malaysia: Ye­men is near des­ti­tu­tion, and the war has only ex­ac­er­bated con­di­tions for those who live there. Al­though he’s a uni­ver­sity grad­u­ate, Ta­lal ac­cepted a job a few years ago as a se­cu­rity guard for an oil com­pany to pro­vide for his fam­ily. When a cousin in Kuala Lumpur stum­bled upon an on­line mar­ket­ing scheme that promised to dou­ble ini­tial in­vest­ments, he en­listed

Ta­lal to be his rep­re­sen­ta­tive in Sanaa. Ta­lal and his friends, neigh­bours, and fam­ily mem­bers in­vested up to $5,000 (US) each — a small for­tune in a coun­try where mil­lions live on $2 (US) a day — be­fore the plan col­lapsed. Ta­lal spent two months in prison be­fore get­ting out on bail.

A con­di­tion for his re­lease was re­turn­ing ev­ery­one’s money — some­thing Ta­lal couldn’t dream of do­ing. He said good­bye to his fam­ily and fled to Kuala Lumpur in Novem­ber 2016. Enas and the chil­dren stayed with her in-laws at first. It wasn’t long be­fore some of the in­vestors came call­ing, forc­ing

Enas to pull Ruaa from school and hide with a ro­tat­ing cast of fam­ily mem­bers. “They threat­ened to kid­nap my daugh­ter,” she tells me.

Enas moved from one form of self-im­pris­on­ment in Sanaa to an­other in Kuala Lumpur when she and the chil­dren joined Ta­lal a few months later. The fam­ily’s apart­ment, in a shabby res­i­den­tial com­plex eu­phemisti­cally called Ser­dang Skyvil­las, is steps from the of­fice of the As­so­ci­a­tion for

Ye­meni Refugees. As a rule, the fam­ily doesn’t leave the im­me­di­ate neigh­bour­hood, known for its refugee and for­eign-stu­dent pop­u­la­tions, for fear of get­ting busted by Malaysian im­mi­gra­tion au­thor­i­ties. While Ta­lal car­ries a refugee card from UNHCR,

Enas and the kids, who have yet to re­ceive an ap­point­ment card, are “over­stay­ers” and can be de­ported at a mo­ment’s no­tice.

Two months af­ter the fam­ily re­united, Ta­lal lost his off-the-books job as a waiter. The fam­ily now lives on hand­outs from the com­mu­nity and what­ever Enas col­lects from sell­ing home­made sweet and savoury baked goods — a mar­ket that’s be­com­ing com­pet­i­tive among the Ye­meni women in Kuala Lumpur, for whom this is now the only ac­cept­able means of con­tribut­ing to their house­holds.

Enas and Ta­lal’s rent comes to 1,000 MR (about $320) monthly. Tak­ing a room­mate of any gen­der goes against con­ven­tional Ye­meni val­ues for a fam­ily like theirs, so they live as fru­gally as pos­si­ble. “The kids watch trains go by and dream of rid­ing one of them,” Enas says. “When the kids see their friends rid­ing bikes, they cry and want the same. But I can’t. I can’t give them that. I keep telling them to wait an­other week.” Enas, who dropped out of uni­ver­sity to raise her fam­ily, sees the ed­u­ca­tion of her chil­dren as an es­sen­tial part of a plan to re­store nor­malcy to a life she de­scribes as full of “trou­ble, tears, and strife.” Canada is the one place that can make this dream come true, she says.

Be­fore he can­celled his home in­ter­net ser­vice to save money, Ta­lal would spend nights watch­ing videos of Trudeau wel­com­ing Syr­ian refugees at the air­port or be­ing vis­i­bly moved when hear­ing their sto­ries. One clip, in which Trudeau wipes tears away with a white hand­ker­chief af­ter a con­ver­sa­tion with some of the refugees and their spon­sors, stunned Ta­lal. “I watched and heard a lot about Canada and its prime min­is­ter,” he tells me. “A true hu­man­i­tar­ian, kind and proud. In Ye­men, I lived like an out­cast. Same here in Malaysia. In a coun­try like Canada, an im­mi­grant is treated as an equal.”

Ta­lal’s path to Canada de­pends on what hap­pens to his file at the UNHCR of­fice in Kuala Lumpur, where more than 150,000 peo­ple from nu­mer­ous coun­tries are regis­tered as refugees and asy­lum seek­ers. Those in a hold­ing pat­tern are given ap­point­ment cards, which in­di­cate sim­ply that the UNHCR will be in touch, with­out spec­i­fy­ing a date or ap­prox­i­mate wait­ing pe­riod. Peo­ple can­not make refugee claims at the Cana­dian high com­mis­sion or ap­ply di­rectly to come here: the UNHCR, other re­fer­ral or­ga­ni­za­tions, or pri­vate-spon­sor­ship groups iden­tify refugees for po­ten­tial re­set­tle­ment in Canada.

In 2007, there were five Ye­meni asy­lum seek­ers regis­tered with the UNHCR in Malaysia. By 2016, that num­ber had jumped to 1,864, and by the end of Jan­uary of this year, the num­ber of regis­tered Ye­meni per­sons of con­cern — a catch-all term that in­cludes refugees and asy­lum seek­ers — was 2,610. There are thou­sands more peo­ple who haven’t ap­plied, ei­ther

be­cause they find the process too dif­fi­cult or be­cause they have lit­tle faith that the UNHCR will suc­cess­fully re­set­tle them. Many peo­ple flee­ing Ye­men have flocked to other coun­tries, in­clud­ing Egypt, Jor­dan, So­ma­lia, and Su­dan; due to dif­fer­ing en­try re­quire­ments, peo­ple who know they will be de­nied visas else­where tend to grav­i­tate to Malaysia.

When I ar­range a visit to the UNHCR, I am in­structed to en­ter via a dif­fer­ent en­trance than the crowded ones used by refugees. Even though my ap­point­ment falls on a Fri­day — tra­di­tion­ally the qui­etest day of the week as the ma­jor­ity of refugees come from Mus­lim coun­tries where it’s the day of rest — about 100 peo­ple are wait­ing their turn to speak to reg­is­tra­tion of­fi­cers. Cov­ered with cor­ru­gated metal to shield vis­i­tors from the sun or rain, this part of the com­pound serves as a clear­ing house for the twen­ty­first-cen­tury brown and black hud­dled masses. As Brian Gor­lick, a Cana­dian who works as a deputy rep­re­sen­ta­tive for the UNHCR in Malaysia, guides me through, he stresses im­prove­ments the UNHCR has made to keep the sit­u­a­tion as tol­er­a­ble as pos­si­ble for refugees, such as adding food stalls, in­for­ma­tional screens, and a play area.

De­spite the in­ten­sity of the war in Ye­men and the hu­man­i­tar­ian tragedy there, one staffer tells me over lunch that the UNHCR doesn’t con­sider the Ye­meni refugee cri­sis, par­tic­u­larly in Malaysia, to be “mas­sive” just yet. (Staffers’ names are be­ing with­held for se­cu­rity rea­sons.) In a fol­low-up email, Gor­lick ex­plains that while the level of forced dis­place­ment is “very sig­nif­i­cant,” the Ye­meni refugee sit­u­a­tion “has not reached the scale of the Syr­ian cri­sis....we all hope there is still room for a po­lit­i­cal so­lu­tion to the cri­sis.”

No one both­ers mak­ing reser­va­tions or ask­ing for the menu at Al­hamra Restau­rant. This pop­u­lar hang­out for Ye­meni stu­dents, refugees, and stranded trav­ellers fea­tures run-of-the-mill cafe­te­ria food and also spe­cial­izes in a num­ber of Ye­meni dishes, in­clud­ing mandi, a chicken or lamb­based rice meal. Al­though the food is cheap, even by Malaysian stan­dards, some of the clien­tele loung­ing on the makeshift ter­race limit them­selves to tea or cof­fee to cut down on ex­penses. Af­ter talk­ing to a hand­ful of the peo­ple there, I won­der how they can pay for even a cup of the pop­u­lar Adeni tea — flavoured with nut­meg and sweet­ened with con­densed milk and mul­ti­ple spoons of sugar — which costs less than one Cana­dian dol­lar.

Mustafa Al­muntasser, thirty, a fa­ther of two who dreamt of start­ing a new life in New York City, falls into an­other Ye­meni group: United States–bound trav­ellers who came to Kuala Lumpur to com­plete their im­mi­gra­tion pa­per­work, only to be stuck in Malaysia once Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump is­sued a travel ban, in Jan­uary 2017, bar­ring travel to the US from sev­eral ma­jor­ity-mus­lim coun­tries, in­clud­ing Ye­men.

Al­muntasser thought the pro­cess­ing of his US visa was go­ing rea­son­ably well un­til a rou­tine in­ter­view, dur­ing which he was asked to pro­vide his tran­scripts from grades one to eight. Mirac­u­lously, his rel­a­tives back home tracked the pa­per­work down, only for the visa of­fi­cers to tell Al­muntasser that the con­sis­tency in his marks was sus­pi­cious. His ap­pli­ca­tion was re­jected, the of­fi­cial email no­tice sug­gested, be­cause of his in­abil­ity to “pro­vide rational and con­vinc­ing ev­i­dence to es­tab­lish [his] iden­tity and the ed­u­ca­tion re­quire­ment for this visa.” It was the eighth year in a row he had ap­plied and the first time his ap­pli­ca­tion had been se­lected for con­sid­er­a­tion.

The US travel ban was still in ef­fect when I met him in late Au­gust, and for a while, Al­muntasser was de­ter­mined to by­pass it. “I want the visa that I came to Kuala Lumpur for,” he told me. By early Oc­to­ber, he be­gan look­ing into Canada: Al­muntasser sent me a mes­sage af­ter I left Malaysia, ask­ing how long it would take to process a visa to re­set­tle here. Shortly af­ter, I lost con­tact with him.

For these stranded Ye­me­nis, the travel ban crys­tal­lized their per­cep­tion of the dif­fer­ences be­tween the United States and Canada. The for­mer closed its doors to them im­me­di­ately af­ter an elec­tion

cam­paign in which the now pres­i­dent talked about a Mus­lim reg­istry, among other race-bait­ing poli­cies. The lat­ter reaf­firmed its mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism and, with its wel­come of Syr­ian refugees, demon­strated that, un­der cer­tain and ex­treme cir­cum­stances, its doors were more open than those of its neigh­bour to the south.

This per­cep­tion of Cana­dian open­ness was not born in a vac­uum. One day af­ter Trump is­sued his ban, Trudeau tweeted: “To those flee­ing per­se­cu­tion, ter­ror & war, Cana­di­ans will wel­come you, re­gard­less of your faith. Di­ver­sity is our strength #Wel­come­to­canada.” The mes­sage went vi­ral and, within hours, was retweeted more than 150,000 times and re­ceived over 250,000 likes. The Con­ser­va­tives jumped on that mes­sages, say­ing it was giv­ing asy­lum seek­ers who were cross­ing into the Cana­dian bor­der from the US “false hope.” In due course, the Lib­er­als, and Trudeau him­self, di­aled back the tweet’s sen­ti­ment by em­pha­siz­ing the reg­u­la­tions gov­ern­ing Cana­dian im­mi­gra­tion and asy­lum poli­cies.

The his­tor­i­cal Syr­ian ini­tia­tive aside, the Trudeau gov­ern­ment con­tin­ues to move to­ward poli­cies that favour eco­nomic im­mi­grants over other groups of new­com­ers, in­clud­ing refugees. (Ahmed Hussen, min­is­ter of im­mi­gra­tion, refugees, and cit­i­zen­ship, de­clined in­ter­view re­quests for this story.) Last year, Canada an­nounced plans to let in nearly 1 mil­lion im­mi­grants over three years: in 2020, we will ad­mit about 15 per­cent more im­mi­grants over­all than we did in 2016. Ad­mis­sions of refugees and pro­tected per­sons will al­most be 17 per­cent lower.

In 2016, the UNHCR es­ti­mated the num­ber of refugees glob­ally to be about 23 mil­lion; the to­tal num­ber of forcibly dis­placed peo­ple was 66 mil­lion — the largest since the af­ter­math of the Sec­ond World War. That same year, Canada ranked fourteenth among OE CD coun­tries that take in refugees.

Em­pa­thy is not neu­tral; it’s an op­por­tunis­tic, se­lec­tive, and of­ten capri­cious hu­man phenomenon. In the weeks lead­ing up to the Oc­to­ber 2015 fed­eral elec­tion, the Syr­ian cri­sis af­forded Trudeau a plat­form to dis­tin­guish him­self from then prime min­is­ter Stephen Harper, whose ap­proach to im­mi­gra­tion was shaped by se­cu­rity con­cerns and a ten­dency to view im­mi­grants and refugees, from ma­jor­ity-Mus­lim coun­tries es­pe­cially, with sus­pi­cion if not out­right hos­til­ity. While Trudeau promised to bring in 25,000 Syr­ian refugees by early 2016 in that cam­paign, Harper pro­posed in­creas­ing the num­ber of refugees from both Syria and Iraq by 10,000 over three years.

The Cana­dian pub­lic was moved into greater ac­tion on the Syr­ian cri­sis by news re­ports of refugees drown­ing in the Mediter­ranean Sea and es­pe­cially by the pho­to­graph of three-year-old Alan Kurdi, who drowned off the shore of Bo­drum, Turkey, in 2015 as his fam­ily was try­ing to reach Greece ; his aunt, who lives in Bri­tish Columbia, was at­tempt­ing to help the fam­ily reach Canada. For many vot­ers, Harper’s re­sponse was slow and on the wrong side of his­tory. Trudeau won the elec­tion, and by early 2017, Canada had taken in an es­ti­mated 40,081 Syr­ian refugees. (This in­cludes gov­ern­ment-as­sisted, pri­vately spon­sored, and a blend of both.)

Im­ages of starv­ing or dead chil­dren since the start of the war in Ye­men — or South Su­dan, for that mat­ter — have yet to prompt Cana­di­ans into ac­tion in the same num­bers and with a sim­i­lar ded­i­ca­tion. No “mobs of do-good­ers,” as the Toronto Star de­scribed Cana­di­ans who hounded then im­mi­gra­tion min­is­ter John Mccal­lum in 2015 to help Syr­ian refugees, have turned up for the Ye­me­nis.

“I be­lieve Cana­di­ans feel that we were so in­cred­i­bly gen­er­ous...that we can rest on our lau­rels,” says Se­na­tor Ratna Omid­var on the phone from her of­fice in Ot­tawa. The founder of Life­line Syria, a non-profit that helps Toronto-area res­i­dents of­fer pri­vate spon­sor­ships to Syr­ian refugees, she be­lieves that the cur­rent fo­cus on the Ro­hingyas flee­ing Myan­mar, and the un­cer­tainty of asy­lum seek­ers cross­ing the Us-canada bor­der, may have di­verted Cana­di­ans’ at­ten­tion from the sit­u­a­tion in Ye­men. She also doesn’t rule out resid­ual racism as a fac­tor in how we de­cide who we’ll bring over and who we’ll leave be­hind. “Syr­i­ans could be mis­taken for any­one,” she says, de­scrib­ing

dif­fer­ences in how peo­ple from Syria and Ye­men may be per­ceived. “A brown child or a black child is un­likely to get the same [re­sponse].”

In his book Against Em­pa­thy: The Case for Rational Com­pas­sion, Yale psy­chol­o­gist Paul Bloom ar­gues that em­pa­thy is “a spot­light fo­cus­ing on cer­tain peo­ple in the here and now.” He adds that “spot­lights only il­lu­mi­nate what they are pointed at, so em­pa­thy re­flects our bi­ases.” Those out­side our im­me­di­ate world and gaze can’t rely on our col­lec­tive em­pa­thy, even if their need is as great as in those places where we do shine a spot­light. Ye­men’s lo­ca­tion on the south­ern tip of the Ara­bian pen­nin­sula, and, in broad his­tor­i­cal terms, its po­lit­i­cal and so­cial iso­la­tion from power cen­tres in Europe and North Amer­ica, mean that only the very geopo­lit­i­cally en­gaged or those who de­vote them­selves to hu­man­i­tar­ian aid will — ab­sent cir­cum­stances like a photo that makes the front pages or a politi­cian who chooses to fo­cus on it — likely no­tice the coun­try or its peo­ple. “Change starts with peo­ple know­ing about the sit­u­a­tion,” says Omid­var, who be­lieves that Ye­me­nis suf­fer be­cause they lack a cham­pion in Canada.

It’s also pos­si­ble that the Cana­dian gov­ern­ment may not wel­come an in­creased aware­ness of the cri­sis in Ye­men. Saudi Ara­bia is one of Canada’s ma­jor trad­ing part­ners and was the largest non-us ex­port des­ti­na­tion for Cana­dian mil­i­tary goods in 2016. (We are the sec­ond-largest ex­porter of weapons to the Mid­dle East, af­ter the United States.) Canada con­ducted $3 bil­lion worth of bi­lat­eral trade with Saudi Ara­bia in 2016, in­clud­ing over $454 mil­lion in the sale of tanks, ar­moured ve­hi­cles, and parts.

Canada be­gan try­ing to sell lavs to Saudi Ara­bia in the 1970s—ef­forts which started bear­ing fruit in the 1990s, says An­thony Fen­ton, a Van­cou­ver-based re­searcher who stud­ies eco­nomic ties be­tween Canada and Ara­bian-penin­sula na­tions. In mon­i­tor­ing the Mid­dle East “arms bazaar mar­ket” over the last decade, Fen­ton has no­ticed that the num­ber of Cana­dian com­pa­nies trad­ing in the re­gion has grown “in part be­cause [they] had con­tin­u­ous help from Cana­dian trade com­mis­sion­ers, from Cana­dian state agen­cies like Ex­port De­vel­op­ment Canada.”

In 2014, the Harper gov­ern­ment an­nounced a $15 bil­lion deal be­tween Lon­don, On­tario-based Gen­eral Dy­nam­ics Land Sys­tems Canada and Saudi Ara­bia to man­u­fac­ture an undis­closed num­ber of light ar­moured ve­hi­cles. The Trudeau Lib­er­als signed off on the ex­port per­mits in 2016, re­mov­ing the fi­nal ob­sta­cle in the sys­tem of checks and bal­ances gov­ern­ing arms ex­ports. The Cana­dian gov­ern­ment has ad­mit­ted that Saudi Ara­bia is free to use these ve­hi­cles in Ye­men, if it so wishes. (There have been sev­eral re­ports of lavs and drones made in On­tario, or in the United Arab Emi­rates by a Cana­dian-owned com­pany, be­ing used by Saudi Ara­bia in Ye­men.)

Daniel Turp, a pro­fes­sor of in­ter­na­tional and con­sti­tu­tional law at the Univer­sité de Mon­treal (and a for­mer Bloc Québé­cois MP), sued the Trudeau gov­ern­ment in 2017 to block the lav deal in light of Saudi Ara­bia’s dis­mal hu­man rights record. His case hinges on the “rea­son­able risk” that these ve­hi­cles could be used in the war in Ye­men. In Jan­uary, a fed­eral judge re­jected the gov­ern­ment’s mo­tion to dis­miss the case. In an ear­lier, re­lated suit about the same is­sue, a gov­ern­ment memo de­scribed Saudi Ara­bia as a “key part­ner” and “im­por­tant and sta­ble ally”

in a re­gion “marred by in­sta­bil­ity, ter­ror­ism and con­flict,” and went on to say that “Saudi Ara­bia is a key mil­i­tary ally sup­port­ing in­ter­na­tional ef­forts to counter isis in Iraq and Syria as well as coun­ter­ing in­sta­bil­ity in Ye­men. The ac­qui­si­tion of state-of-the-art ar­moured ve­hi­cles will as­sist Saudi Ara­bia in these goals, which are con­sis­tent with Canada’s de­fence in­ter­ests in the Mid­dle East.”

“The Cana­dian gov­ern­ment seems to be com­mit­ted to trade re­la­tions with Saudi Ara­bia and not to do any­thing that could threaten the $15 bil­lion [deal] or up­set the [Saudi] regime,” Turp tells me. “It up­sets me so much that trade is more im­por­tant than hu­man rights.”

Canada is “deeply con­cerned by the on­go­ing con­flict in Ye­men,” ac­cord­ing to a spokesper­son for Global Af­fairs Canada. (The fed­eral depart­ment is re­spon­si­ble for en­cour­ag­ing in­ter­na­tional trade, in ad­di­tion to over­see­ing hu­man­i­tar­ian aid.) “We rec­og­nize the im­por­tance of re­gional sta­bil­ity and sup­port ef­forts to pro­tect the le­git­i­mate Gov­ern­ment of Ye­men....canada was the spon­sor of a Unhcr mo­tion, adopted in Septem­ber of [last] year, call­ing for a full in­ves­ti­ga­tion into hu­man rights abuses in Ye­men.” Fen­ton sees Canada’s in­volve­ment in this in­ves­ti­ga­tion as part of “overt at­tempts by the gov­ern­ment to ap­pear even-handed.” Turp is less char­i­ta­ble: “They talk from both sides of their mouths.”

Con­ven­tional Wis­dom holds that jour­nal­ists are sup­posed to be ob­jec­tive, de­tached from the sto­ries they cover. But the peo­ple I met are from my home­land; I wanted to write this story in the first place to high­light their sit­u­a­tion. The idea that I can en­tirely sep­a­rate the re­porter from the hu­man be­ing in writ­ing about this cri­sis may be a con­ve­nient prop for jour­nal­ism as it wres­tles with chal­lenges to its cred­i­bil­ity, but it fails on ev­ery hu­man and psy­cho­log­i­cal level I can think of.

Dur­ing my trip, Tareq Al­moslmi, a PHD stu­dent in com­puter sci­ence who in­tro­duced me to mem­bers of the Ye­meni com­mu­nity in Kuala Lumpur, had been col­lect­ing money to give to refugees and peo­ple stranded in Malaysia be­cause of the US travel ban. In one of my con­ver­sa­tions with Ta­lal that week, I learned that his daugh­ter Ruaa would have to miss an­other year of school be­cause he couldn’t af­ford her tu­ition. I had $190 (US) left in my wal­let shortly be­fore I left — the hard cur­rency I had not yet con­verted to Malaysian ring­gits and that I had set aside for emer­gen­cies. I asked Al­moslmi to give it to Ta­lal, for him to put to­ward Ruaa’s tu­ition, with­out men­tion­ing my name.

Through­out my time in Malaysia, the Ye­me­nis I met would ask me for help, ad­vice, or con­fir­ma­tion that Canada was in­deed as idyl­lic a place as they imag­ined. I tried to cor­rect mis­un­der­stand­ings, list­ing this coun­try’s short­com­ings on mat­ters of race, Indige­nous re­la­tions, and ris­ing an­tiMus­lim sen­ti­ment. Was I try­ing to warn them? To stop them from com­ing here al­to­gether? I don’t think so. Al­though I hoped to be proven wrong, part of me knew that Canada was still a long way from leap­ing into ac­tion on their be­half. For most of them, it seems the fan­tasy of Canada will re­main just that.

When I spoke to Ta­lal in late Jan­uary, he told me that Ruaa was in school. I found out later that she could only go for the first se­mes­ter; the fam­ily couldn’t af­ford to keep Ruaa in school for the sec­ond term. Her brother hasn’t been able to at­tend this year at all.

Like many other Ye­me­nis, Ta­lal and his fam­ily were in­spired

by Canada’s ac­cep­tance of Syr­ian refugees.

From left to right: Ta­lal, Ruaa, Mustafa, Enas,

and Mariam.

Enas’s home kitchen, where she bakes

Ye­meni bread. Enas sells the bread and other baked goods to help sup­port her fam­ily. Refugees do not have the le­gal right to work in Malaysia.

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