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 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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