TAXILA: Ruby Riaz, 28, and her sister Saba, 25, had left their homes in search of a better life for them and their family. But war and a cruel twist of fate has brought them full circle, and the two sisters who went to Yemen to earn a living find themselves back home, empty handed.
From their house in the ancient city of Sarai Khola, near Taxila, the two sisters recounted their escape from the war-torn Middle Eastern country and lamented that after abandoning their livelihood abroad, they were left with nothing and had been reduced to living off scraps.
Their story is not unique, though. At least 17 women teachers from Taxila and Wah Cantt were forced to flee the fighting in Yemen, leaving behind all that they had worked so hard to build. Most of them are single women in their 20s and hail from predominantly middle-class families who were working to support their relatives back home. Now, they are even more uncertain about the future.
“Why do you think two young women would go abroad? We weren’t there for pleasure, we were working to support our eight-member family. Now, our life is in tatters; we spent all our money on securing visas and now we are left with nothing,” said the elder sibling.
Take a look: Tears of joy as Pakistanis return safely from Yemen
“Even though we made it out of Yemen safe and sound, the tragedy doesn’t end there for us,” said the younger Saba, trauma and dejection writ large on her face.
Traumatised and penniless, most of the women who taught at Pakistani schools were primary earners for families back home
“There were 16 women from this area working in five different branches of the Pakistan National English School who were stranded for nearly a week and were only evacuated when a Chinese ship rescued them,” Abida Daud told Dawn.
Ms Daud is the head of the Pakistan National English School in Yemen, which has branches in the cities of Ibb, Taiz, Hodeidah, Aden and Mukkallah. She said that as soon as the fighting broke out, the women were invited to take refuge in the main school building in Aden where they remained until their evacuation a week later.
“Those seven days were the worst days of our lives. We had guns aimed at us and couldn’t sleep because of the incessant sound of bombs and gunfire,” she said.
The situation was fine in Aden until last Wednesday, when all hell broke loose, she said.
“For many days we survived on water, juices and biscuits, and the Yemenis exploited our plight and sold the food to us at exorbitant prices. We were paying up to $400 for water,” she recounted.
Her husband, Asim Khan, said he went to Yemen eight months ago and has had to return empty-handed.
“I cannot sleep at night because I saw death so close. A bomb exploded right outside my building and we came under heavy fire,” he said.
Fizza Iqbal, 23, a resident of Nawababad, told Dawn she went to Yemen to earn for her seven sisters and two brothers, but the situation changed overnight and her dreams of having a better life have been shattered. She said she hid under her bed for many nights, during heavy fighting in Aden.
“Now I don’t know if I will be able to go back,” she said.
Hira, 25, said the last few days were especially horrible.
“I still have nightmares of war-torn cities. We are safe now but what is our future,” she said.
Mahwish Shahid and Anam Shahid, residents of Wah Cantt, told Dawn they also went to support their family.
“We are six members of the family and my father’s meager salary from the government is not enough to survive on. So I took up work in Yemen,” said Anam Shahid.
“The window panes and doors at the school were shattered by the gunfire,” she said.
“One can only imagine what a girl living in a foreign land, away from family can feel in such a situation,” she added.
Mahwish Shahid, 26, joined the school around one year back and was posted in Aden just before the situation there spiralled out of control. She told Dawn she had gone to join her sister in Yemen to help earn more for their family back home. Now, they were penniless and burdened by uncertainty and unemployment.
Waseem Sadiq, vice principal of the Pakistan School in Sanaa, told Dawn that Pakistanis who were uprooted by the first Gulf War were still struggling to obtain compensation and said that he was not optimistic about the prospects of the government doing much to help them.
However, he urged the government to form a committee to look after the affairs of Pakistanis who had been affected by the war in Yemen, in collaboration with the Overseas Pakistan Foundation and provide necessary compensation and job replacement to help them deal with their trauma.
Published in Dawn, April 6th, 2015