November 2012

Dear FriendsBougainvillea frames the old Flagstaff Station, Aden, Yemen

In a few days’ time we shall take our suitcases from the top of the wardrobe, dust them down and start packing, filling any empty corners with packets of mocha coffee, and head home. It has been a good visit. We have been here five weeks. It seems much longer. Nancy says that coming to Aden is like entering Narnia – the magical world of author C.S.Lewis’ creation, encountered in his children’s books.

There are some similarities between the waning power of the dreadful white witch in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe – the first of the chronicles of Narnia – and that Enjoying  tea with friends during the eid holiday at Christ Church Adenof Yemen’s previous president, who still lingers on in the country causing mischief. We’ve not encountered the books’ magnificent lion, Aslan, who represents God, or more particularly Jesus, but we have certainly sensed his presence around. However, I do not think that any of these things were in mind when Nancy mentioned Narnia. It was rather the sense that in Aden, as in Narnia, time seems different to what it is in other places and that within what seems an incredibly short time a lot can happen – both wonderful and sometimes rather horrible.Apprentice guard dog in the garden at Christ Church Aden

Fortunately, we have not encountered anything very horrible though I did have a moment’s horrible reflection: On a rare occasion when I ventured to drive ourselves rather than have someone else drive us, I parked the car in an empty parking lot and an hour or so later returned to it. As I turned the ignition key, I suddenly thought, ‘I hope we don’t blow up’. Obviously, the car did not blow up but those sorts of things do sometimes happen here. It was a sobering moment.

Sadly, much more common and now often reported in the local media is the kidnapping on their arrival by sea on Yemen’s shores of some Somali and even more Ethiopian refugees. Those who take them appear to be Yemeni thugs, people-traffickers who hold their victims – some of them very young – until their poor relatives can send $300 for their release. Each of them will already have paid $50 for their long and hazardous passage over to Yemen. Those held are frequently tortured, abused and even sometimes killed.

Joining in celebrations at nearby St Francis Church in Aden, YemenLess anguished, nearer home but also tragic, is the plight of many Yemenis who go to bed hungry every night. Dr Nada, of the General Clinic has just informed me that 60% of the patients whom she has seen this morning are suffering from malnutrition evidenced in the rough, peeling skin of young children and their dark, crinkly, brittle hair. Some of them, with their families, subsist on a daily diet of sweet black tea and cheap bread. We try our best to help as we can. The situation is apparently worse in rural areas where 70% of the population live.

The country’s Government of National Unity, under leadership of interim President Abdo Rabba Mansour Hadi, has actually achieved much, not only in holding the country together but also in conferring with almost every party and grouping in the land from Yemen’s neglected and shunned akhdam or gypsies to the still hopeful and energetic youth of the Arab Spring, in anticipation of a significant conference to be held imminently in Aden on the nation’s future. There has not been a lot of energy left over to address the nation’s dire economic and humanitarian needs.

When last we wrote, we were poised for the visit of Bishop Michael. It was brief but very happy, encouraging and useful. One evening we had a party in the garden for the staff and their families. We Remembrance Service - Aden, November 2012were about 40. The food, a traditional lamb dish called, Zorubian, was delicious. Food, overseen by Mansour, always is! The atmosphere was wonderful – hard adequately to describe – an excited buzz and an enormous innocent delight at simply being together.

Children laying the wreaths at our Remembrance Service - November 2012It was just one of a whole kaleidoscope of encounters, experiences and meetings that have made up our brief visit. When we return home, some neighbours will probably say that they never realised we had been away and we, like the children in Narnia on their return home, will do our best to tell them of this troubled land and its remarkable people.

With our love and sincere best wishes in Christ

Peter and Nancy

PS. We have just learned of the appointment of the new Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby. He preached here at Christ Church a few years ago when one of his sons, Peter, was working here as a volunteer. Justin is a fine person – so is Pete.

Yemen – Heartbreak & Hope

Dear Friends

The title above sums up pretty fairly the condition of Yemen today – with the qualification that sadly, there’s probably more heartbreak than hope.

The following e-mail received two days ago from a western friend newly returned to work with refugees in Aden was, however, encouraging. “Aden is quieter, more settled and peaceful than at any time I can remember since January. No gunfire at night, no little zips of tracer fire – nothing. The tanks have gone, the road blocks have gone. People are busy – and the electricity is back to normal or better, and heat – it’s stinky hot at the moment.”

This morning Peter spoke to Mansour, the clinic administrator in Aden, who continues most conscientiously to hold the reins at Christ Church. He reported happily that both clinics are busy, the eye clinic seeing forty patients a day, which is about capacity.

Operating theatre without tiles
Operating theatre with new tiles (nearly)

A fortnight ago he phoned to report that a wall of tiles in the operating theatre had ‘got tired’ and slipped to the floor. They have since been put up and steps taken to make sure the theatre is better ventilated. He also told us of the soaring price of drugs, and in the same breath, of romance on the campus. One of our newly qualified eye doctors has got engaged to one of our eye technicians. Both are Yemeni and great workers. We are intrigued to know how the romance began.

On the wider front, Yemen’s relatively new, interim President Adrabbah Mansour Hadi faces awesome problems – political, economic and humanitarian. The friend from whose e-mail I quoted earlier wrote in it of grinding poverty and widespread hunger and of the country’s almost complete economic collapse. But the long and irresponsible rule of the previous President, Abd-al-Saleh is thankfully over and the dire prediction of the country’s descent into civil war have mercifully not been realised up to now.

We hope we shall be able to write more authoritatively on these things when we return to Aden for another short stint in a few weeks’ time. While there, we look forward to welcoming back Drs Adel Wahba from Egypt and Jihong from Korea for intensive bouts of cataract surgery and the further training of our own eye team. Bishop Michael is also due to visit, which is exciting.

Yemen - Heartbreak and HopeWe look forward to returning with our usual mixture of eager anticipation and apprehension! The last months at home have been good and we have enjoyed getting to know grand daughter Jessica better. Peter has finished writing the book whose draft cover page is shown here and which we hope will be published before the end of the year.

We extend our heartfelt thanks to you all for your continued encouragement and support of the ministry of Christ Church and the clinics. It is a good work.

God bless and keep you. With our love and best wishes,

Peter and Nancy

March 2008

Maggie Le Roy - visiting Christ Church Aden in Yemen

Maggie Le Roy

It was, she said, the most exciting journey in her life. The aged Peugeot estate was crammed. The road and dust were visible through the holes in the floor at her feet. Fumes from a tired muffler came into the car through them. The driver’s side window was largely obscured by an old T-shirt to shade him from the sun, and his vision from vehicles approaching on that side. Despite these handicaps and the almost unprecedented absence of a working horn, the journey from Ibb to Aden was managed without incident, which is more than could be said of our journey to Sanaa two days ago with Maggie le-Roy, the Diocesan Retreats Adviser, whose travels we have been describing.

It was Maggie’s second visit to us to lead a retreat and it was great. We shared a little of her disappointment that while twenty four appeared the first evening of the retreat, only fourteen remained till the next morning. But, there were good reasons for the fallout. Several could not get the day off; one person was taken ill, while another cheerful, loyal member of the congregation confided he found the ‘clay modelling and pebble collection too much’. Still, those who completed the course seemed well rewarded and very grateful, both for the teaching and the space for quiet that followed each session.

One friend from Kenya said she had been ‘holding on’ till the retreat. At the end she was radiant, which also had something to do with the signing of a peace agreement back home. Another participant from a Roman Catholic background told how Maggie had helped him merge attention to Scripture with use of extended quiet and reflection. Whether it’s retreats or conferences, it seems there is a good work to be done here serving foreigners across the country who need space, quiet and spiritual refreshment. Maggie is an unfussy, thoughtful and wonderfully encouraging teacher and retreat leader – and good company.

And in the last months we have not lacked for ‘company’! At Synod on Cyprus we reported we had had close to 900 ‘guest nights’ – nights of occupancy of the guest rooms. Recently some backpackers showed us our entry in an up to date German equivalent of the Lonely Planet Guide for Yemen. It was complementary and even stated that Christ Church is ‘a holy place’! At the time of writing, we have eight guests from Latin America, tomorrow a young American family. Nancy handles the bookings while Yerusalim, a lovely young Ethiopian mother looks after the rooms and the laundry.

Significant amongst recent visits to us was that of our new bishop – Michael and his wife Julia. It was their first visit to Aden and after a few days, Bishop Michael ventured that he thought the city Bishop Michael, Julia and doctors‘endearing’. Interestingly, another person, who visited last year and stayed much longer, pronounced it ‘a dump’. After nearly four years here we think it’s both and a bit more beside!

Little Ben on the hill near us, a smaller version of London’s Big Ben, is cute. The flaking the exterior of the Crescent Hotel with its high ceilings and shuttered windows where a very young Queen Elizabeth II once stayed a night is still lovely. The observant may spot a valiant Bedford truck hauling sacks of sugar from the port, and there’s a retired Morris Traveller that’s a backyard store for a building merchant near us.

Since being here, much has been tidied up in the city. There are pavements, effective street lights, clean main roads and a really attractive harbour side corniche. But off the main streets much remains squalid, scruffy and desperately poor. While the powerful and rich of Sanaa expropriate with impunity for themselves the prime sea view real estate to build villas, the poor scrabble to build cinder block or plywood huts on Aden’s bleak and precipitous crater slopes. An ‘endearing dump’ is perhaps not a bad description. With the Bishop and Julia, we viewed the port on a new pilot cutter, visited the work of the Sisters of Charity (Mother Teresa), admired the lonely beauty of the cemetery at Silent Valley and spent time with the local staff and members of the congregation. We seemed do a lot of eating too. It was touching to see how quickly and warmly the staff took to Bishop Michael and Julia. Michael, they feel, is their bishop too – a little like a sheikh.

Bishop Michael meets the congregation of Christ Church Aden in YemenAfter meeting people and reviewing the work here, Bishop Michael, who is a good listener and keen observer said he thought it was ‘precious’, not in a negative sense of delicate or pampered, but rather in the sense of something valuable, unique and to be cherished. We were glad.

While he was here we discussed some of the pressure points and needs of the work, amongst them – and long overdue – the need for a consultative medical council, an overall medical director and more. During his visit, we found ourselves approached by a delegation from the Canadian Embassy, who enthusiastically approved our medical clinic as the centre in Yemen for processing medically all those persons accepted here for resettlement in Canada. And this week we hope to formalise an arrangement with the UNHCR to test the eyes of children in the two refugee camps, and when necessary to operate on them.

We did manage a day’s outing to Taiz with Michael and Julia, stopping on the way in the refugee camp of Basateen to meet with forty or more of the 120 Somali fishermen, whose enormous overdue wage claim we are trying hard to settle. Sadly, those who should be championing their case locally seem either unwilling or impotent to help, while the fishermen and their families grow daily more desperate. They have a terribly touching trust in the ability of ‘the church’ to resolve their problem. All are, of course, Muslim.

Involvement in this as in similar cases previously, carries the risk of intimidations and threats but that is part of the course. So does handling people coming through our gates, as they do, enquiring about the Christian faith. We try our best to deal with them openly, honestly and wisely. It seems we are called to this rather exposed way of being. It is perhaps something of what Dietrich Bonhoeffer meant when from prison he famously wrote, “we must embrace … this worldliness, abandoning any attempt to make something of oneself … By ‘this worldliness’ I mean living unreservedly in life’s duties, problems, successes and failures, experiences and perplexities. In so doing we throw ourselves completely into the arms of God, taking seriously, not our own sufferings, but those of God …

I mentioned at the outset our journey back to Sanaa with Maggie le-Roy. We were also accompanied by Pete, our volunteer, and Gabriel, a great friend of our son Tim. Peter and Gabriel from Christ Church AdenGabriel had just come out to visit us. An hour and a half into the journey, on a steady incline between very bleak rugged hills, we fell in the hands of a small group of about fifteen well armed, Yemeni tribesmen. They had partially blocked the road and indicated that we should pull over and stop. Up until this point we had, as on many journeys, been accompanied by a blue and white Yemeni police patrol car with flashing lights and feeble siren. On seeing our predicament it turned and bolted. The senior tribesman promptly unshouldered his Kalashnikov and prepared to fire after it. He didn’t, but the driver, seeing him in his mirror wove back and forth furiously hoping to avoid any bullets, at the same time managing to throw one of his fellow policemen from the vehicle into the road with the action. It was an unnerving moment. A little later we were reminded not to move and the little armed group proceeded to inspect and process the passing traffic. From time to time they waved or shouted to their fellows posted strategically on ledges or in crevices in the overlooking hills.

Nancy's SketchMeanwhile, volunteer Pete resumed his reading of an old volume on American democracy; Maggie rigged a sun shield in the front window of the car; Gabriel read his apportioned Bible reading; I tried to be friendly to our ‘detainers’ and Nancy sketched the view through her window. After a while a Russian Embassy pickup was pulled over and told to park in front of us. Then, about an hour after it all began, it ended with a flourish as several police cars summoned, we think, by our fleeing policemen, appeared. Out of them burst two enormous officers who took the tribesmen aside and gently ticked them off – and waved us back onto the road to Sanaa. We still do not know what it was all about. Two days later we passed through the original check point where we had picked up the police escort. We were greeted enthusiastically. There was no explanation of what had happened nor apology for our sudden abandonment. ‘Smile,’ beamed the sergeant, ‘you’re in Yemen.’ We did.

With our warmest thanks for your support, interest and encouragement and very best wishes in Christ

Peter & Nancy

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Yemen - Heartbreak and Hope by Peter Crooks

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