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

May 2012

cca may 2012 'Where 2 or 3 are gathered toghether'“Your calls,” said the voice on the phone from several thousand miles away, “are like a good injection in the arm.”

I could not ever recall having a good injection in the arm but Mansour’s experience has been a more positive one. Now we speak every week for a mutual ‘shot in the arm’ and update on the work of Christ Church and the clinics. We try to do this on the same day each week around 9 am local Yemen time, an hour or so into the working day. This started soon after our abrupt departure from Aden, about two months ago. We dispense with the usual extended Middle Eastern greetings – asking about each other’s welfare and that of our respective families when all other business has been completed.

Here is a collation of the last two conversations – by topic:

The general situation

“It is,” said Mansour (today), “good and bad.”

A foreign employee of the oil company Total was killed along with a local colleague at an unofficial, rogue check point this week near Mukallah, and another foreigner working with the Red Cross based in Sana’a was kidnapped. We have not heard who was responsible, and while much mischief is quickly and probably wrongly attributed to Al Qaeda, evidence suggests that the organization continues intent on causing harm specifically to foreigners in the country.

There are power cuts every day, but for only a couple of hours at most, and conveniently, often at night. Diesel, used for the generator, is once again readily available and our reserve tank is full.

Former President Ali Abdullah Saleh still lingers on in the country and jokes abound about him waiting now for the biggest bribe he can land as inducement to leave. Meanwhile his successor, President Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi, makes what progress he can and in recent days has succeeded, with some outside help, in getting close relatives of the previous president holding prominent position in Yemen’s military, to step down. It is no small achievement and widely approved

The clinics

Both eye and medial clinics continue to function well. Last month Dr Loween performed 35 cataract operations. Rana, who returned to us recently after working in Sana’a for several years, is updating the job descriptions of all the team and preparing to resume responsibility for the operating theatre when Kusumam returns home to India with her husband Seji and son Clarin. She has been a really conscientious, able, supportive member of the eye team. Her husband has been a teacher at the Gandhi International School and held in great esteem and affection. As a family they have been members of the little Roman Catholic congregation worshipping in Crater. They will all be missed in Aden.

Drs Jihong and Sunghye, who were with us briefly in Aden during our recent visit, and who left at the same time as we did, have now relocated to a hospital in Addis Ababa. Like us, they are missing Aden.

There had been hopes of re-starting the programme of regular eye screening in the local schools, and when the head teachers were contacted last week all were enthusiastic and appreciative of the offer but asked that the programme be deferred. One reason is that 74 of Aden’s schools are occupied by refugees – 20,000 of them displaced by fighting in nearby Abayan province. Now at least 20 people live in each classroom. The schools that have not been occupied take children in three shifts – the youngest from 8-11 am, the older from 11–2 pm and the oldest from 4.30pm. Another reason for deferring – and half hearted attempts are being made to relocate the refugees – is that the ‘academic’ year ends in three weeks time.

The price of drugs has gone up over the past year by 55% and many basic ones, antibiotics included, are very scarce. The budget has been amended to cope with the rise and economies made elsewhere, but tracking down the drugs is still a challenge.

In the week in which we left, Ras Marbat clinics hosted for the Ministry of Health a major vaccination programme for children. It was a busy week with lots of buzz and bustle pierced occasionally with squeaks from protesting, apprehensive youngsters.

Measles is sadly on the increase. It claimed nearly 150 lives in the south of the country last year. All were of children under five years old. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO) measles outbreaks can be particularly deadly in countries recovering from conflict. Damage to heath infrastructures and health services interrupts routine immunization, and overcrowding in residential camps increases the risk of infection.

According to UNICEF, 58% of Yemen’s children are stunted and chronically malnourished – the second highest rate in the world after Afghanistan.

Yemen’s new President Hadi described the situation in his country recently as “harsh”. He was not exaggerating.


No day passes without at least two or three people meeting in Christ Church to worship. Every day of the working week begins for the Christian staff in prayer. On Thursdays the Ethiopian congregation gathers, many of them coming long beforehand to pray, and on Fridays, Gashu, Rex or Nazir lead the worship for those who come. Rarely has the promise of Jesus to be among his people when they meet in his name seemed more pertinent, poignant or precious. Numbers are few but the joy, I am assured, is great. May God bless them and keep them all.

Peter and Nancy

Flight from Aden

The cat moved delicately around the edge of the bean bag before settling comfortably in the ray of spring sunshine in the front of our son’s home in Reading. The cat, though far from obese, is fatter than any we ever saw in Yemen and, if a week ago, or even three days ago we had been told that we would today be watching Holly on her bean bag, we would have been surprised. But, as a friend of ours once said, ‘in the Middle East things can take a long time to happen, but when they do – they happen fast.’

Over the last weeks there have been fire fights across Aden almost daily and often well into the night. There have also been occasional roadside bombs. A few days ago, Mansour, our administrator told Nancy and I that we should leave the office and go to our less exposed apartment for ‘security reasons’ for the rest of the day. The next day, Joel, an American language teacher was gunned down in Taiz, two hours drive away. A few days before, a Swiss woman was kidnapped in the Red Sea port of Hodeidah, where she too had been working as a language teacher. Both were known to be devout Christians. The group who took the one and murdered the other, is openly affiliated to Al Qaeada and singled Joel out for his Christian zeal. The organisation has promised to kidnap others. We thought it unnecessary to further test their resolve or to put ourselves and those we love and work with in Aden, at further risk by staying.

We flew out with Royal Jordanian via Amman yesterday. Today the lovely Korean couple, Drs Jihong and Sunghye, who had come from Korea to join us for a few weeks, have reluctantly taken the same decision as ourselves and flown out.

It was hard to leave without saying good bye to the staff, which we thought it best not to do. Before dawn, Mansour drove us in a beat up, nondescript car by a circuitous route to the airport.

Waiting to leave Somalia for Yemen

Waiting to leave Somalia for Yemen

A few minutes before the clinics closed on our last morning, a tired young Somali lad called in wanting help. He was from Mogadishu and had arrived by boat ten days earlier. The crossing had taken 40 hours. There were 120 squeezed aboard. Each one had paid a million Somali shillings – equivalent to US$50 for the trip. The only thing he brought with him other than his clothes was a plastic bottle of water. He is 17. He is just one of hundreds who make the perilous journey every week. He left his family and a city in flames for a refugee camp and a country itself, teetering on the brink. We flew home, thankfully, yesterday – swiftly and in comfort to security, friends and our family. I think the young Somali’s name was Omar.

Remember him in your prayers, Joel’s family too, and Jihong and Sunghye as they ponder their next step, and all who continue to work so faithfully and well back at Christ Church. Thank you for your support and your prayers.

Holly the cat, has now moved into the window, in pursuit of the sun.

With much love and our very best wishes in Christ

Peter & Nancy


March 2012

Dr John operating on his cake!

The knife hovered above the eye. Fellow surgeons and other observers of the operation looked on with keen interest. ‘I think it will be a small incision’, said one watching the doctor, knowingly. Another, her mobile phone held high, edged closer to take a photograph and, as the knife lowered, the camera flashed to catch the moment. The cut was made. The doctors and other observers applauded enthusiastically as visiting surgeon and long standing friend of the Eye Clinic, John Sandford Smith, cut the first slice of a great cake on the top of which had been printed a picture of a very large and beautiful eye. He beamed and set to dissecting the rest of the cake for all the staff gathered for mid-morning tea in the community room.

It was a good conclusion to ten days of very intense surgery and training by John, and his thirteenth visit to us. He came first in 2001.

Dr John supervising a trainee surgeon at the Ras Morbat ClinicIt was wonderful to see both clinics – the general medical clinic and the eye clinic buzzing, the courtyard and covered waiting areas bustling. Most eye patients had at least one relative, friend or supporter with them, some as many as three or four. Recreational facilities here are few and a day at the clinic makes for a change. Most came from across the city, ten or fifteen from Dhala, two hours drive away and two from the Red Sea port of Hodeidah.

One hundred and thirty seven cataract operations were carried out. Most were performed by John but five or six each day were done by our local Yemeni surgeons under supervision. John is confident that Dr Loween, the senior one, can handle ten or twelve cases each week now on her own.

Over the next three months we hope to welcome back two other surgeons for further short stints of operating and training – an exciting and encouraging prospect.

Operations ceased for two days for ‘the election’ We flew in the day afterwards to see many streets covered with debris, burnt tyres, rubble, bricks and broken glass from  the noisy protests and shooting that accompanied election day. The familiar stern and swarthy face of previous president Saleh has disappeared from all public places to be replaced by the more benign face of his successor Abdrabba Mansour Hadi. Opinions on the future of the nation are as varied as the people one talks to. For the moment there is a welcome breathing space from strife and agitation. It may be short.

Yesterday, Friday, we worshipped together in the morning, just eight adults and four children – Filipino, Eritrean, Pakistani, Ethiopian, Indian and ourselves. We sometimes wonder what nationality we are! We whooped with joy to learn Wales had beaten England in the rugby recently, which must indicate some loyalty there! In our worship we followed loosely the order of worship for Morning Prayer. A space for open praying was quickly filled with fervent praises and prayers for Yemen and Syria, and after the blessing at the end there was a request for ‘more singing’. The redoubtable and self deprecating surgeon John had accompanied the worship with his clarinet. We thought it was great. Afterwards, Sameera from the congregation roasted, ground and poured Ethiopian coffee. Today the aroma still lingers – deliciously.

The weather is warming to the high seventies and thankfully there’s little humidity. Two snakes were spotted in the garden last week. (We have never seen one in the country). The guard asked for dried red chili to chase them away. You learn something new every day!

With our warmest thanks for your support and interest & our very best wishes in Christ.

Peter & Nancy

December 2011

The gravediggers were wreathed in dust as they furiously scraped, shoveled and filled the grave. I was standing only feet away but they were almost invisible in the swirling cloud. For a brief moment I caught sight of a red peaked cap, a yellow T shirt and a raised shovel.

The service at the graveside had been a simple thing. None of the twelve men and women gathered there minutes earlier around the rough plywood box knew or had even seen the deceased except when they collected her from the hospital freezer, put her in the box and loaded her onto the back of the old pick up truck. I had not known or seen her either.

We only learned her name, Shawa, from the death certificate held in the hands of young Abdullah, faithful keeper of the cemetery and gravedigger. The certificate had been issued by the UNHCR, who had phoned the previous evening to say that they had the body of a Christian Ethiopian woman for burial. I then contacted Abdullah to ask him to prepare the grave.

Somehow, the leaders of the Ethiopian congregation, who worship at Christ Church on a Thursday evening, all of whom are refugees, undertook to make a coffin and to help with the burial. And so it was that late yesterday afternoon, as the day cooled and the sun began to set that we buried Shawa. I was very proud of the twelve friends who had come across the city to pray and to help. I have since learned that Shawa had only arrived on the shores of Yemen a few days earlier, having made the dangerous crossing over from Somalia in a little open boat. She had made it to the main refugee camp on the outskirts of Aden where she was found, slumped and semi conscious, lying against the wall of a little clinic. From there she had been brought to the old government hospital in the centre of town where she died soon after admission. She remained lucid long enough to indicate that she was a Christian.

At the graveside, I spoke of Jesus’ teaching about God knowing even when a sparrow dies, and told them God knew and noticed when Shawa died. Alone in death, I thanked those gathered fervently for being her family for the minutes we were there together at her graveside. They had, I said, done a good thing. I know them all.

Today, one of the staff, a local, Yemeni male nurse and Muslim, expressed his sadness at the death of our unknown friend, and offered me a coffin used to transport a relative of his back to Yemen, who had died in Jordan. Muslims bury their loved ones in a shroud, not a box, so the coffin used to transport his uncle remained unused. I know we shall use it, and I expect to soon.

Life here is harsh and often short, but in this environment gestures of kindness and love shine very bright – and they are not rare.

It is good to be here.

Peter & Nancy

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Yemen - Heartbreak and Hope by Peter Crooks

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