Alarm grows over Americans stranded in Yemen amid pandemic

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Advocates are warning that thousands of U.S. citizens remain stranded in Yemen more than three months after the country closed its borders to stem the spread of the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Approximately 300 of the stranded citizens were brought home by the State Department on two flights on June 28 and July 1, but advocates have expressed alarm about those remaining in the country in what they characterize as an increasingly desperate situation.

Yemen has been embroiled in five years of civil war, suffering under the worst human-made humanitarian crisis ever that is further threatened by rising cases of COVID-19 in a health system that has essentially collapsed.

“Every single American deserves to have their government protect them when they are in harm’s way in a foreign country and to be repatriated under a public health emergency that has really impacted the entire world,” said Ahmed Mohamed, litigation director for the New York office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR).

The U.S. citizens in Yemen are one of the few groups not included in the State Department’s efforts to repatriate over 100,000 Americans from 136 countries and territories. Those numbers were recorded up until June 10.

The oversight echoes criticisms the State Department received in the initial days of its repatriation efforts, with stranded Americans saying they felt abandoned by the U.S. government.

One of the stranded Americans is Miriam Alghazali, a 31-year-old mother of four, whose flight back to the U.S. was canceled in mid-March as Yemen closed its borders.

Miriam Alghazali’s mother, Izdehar Alghazali, is in New York and has been trying for more than three months to help her daughter and grandchildren return to the U.S. Like many other Americans stranded in Yemen, they had returned to see family for a months-long trip.

Miriam Alghazali had expected to come back to the U.S. before she gave birth to her fourth child, but went into premature labor in June in Sana’a, the rebel capital controlled by Iran-backed Houthis.

She has had to rely on the kindness of neighbors to help her and her children and get the family food. Her mother worries there’s a limit to the generosity, as all Yemenis are struggling under the civil war and the rising threat of COVID-19.

United Nations Secretary General António Guterres warned last month that Yemen is “hanging on by a thread.” An estimated four out of every five people are in need of life-saving assistance and millions of children are on the brink of starvation, a UNICEF report warned last week.

Izdehar Alghazali said she has tried everything to find a way to bring her family home. The State Department told her to register the family with the STEP program, the agency’s email update and advisory system, and stand by.

“We did that back in March, they said keep looking for the updates, which there weren’t any for the people in Yemen, and unfortunately they don’t have the U.S. embassy there. She’s trapped,” Izdehar Alghazali said.

U.S. embassies and consulates in Yemen had closed years before as the war became increasingly violent, so Izdehar Alghazali contacted U.S. embassies in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Djibouti and Jordan, seeing if maybe they could help her daughter.

Izdehar Alghazali said the U.S. government has failed to acknowledge the gravity of their situation.

“How does our government just turn its back on its citizens? As a mother, I’m just devastated. … It’s hard because I’m feeling like I’m failing her and the kids,” she said.

Miriam Alghazali’s case is now being handled by CAIR, who is advocating for her return with the State Department. The group has estimated that around 2,000 people need help returning home.

The State Department did not provide a number for how many citizens have requested assistance, but a spokesperson said, “Demand for these flights currently exceeds capacity.”

The cost of the flights has to be paid up front, totaling about $1,500 per person. This is in comparison to other repatriation flights where Americans were able to sign promissory notes to pay back the cost of the flight later or apply for financial assistance.

Rep. Max Rose (D-N.Y.), who has a large Yemeni American community in his district, said his office first started receiving requests for help at the end of May, and was able to help at least three families get on the State Department’s two flights.

But he warned that more needs to be done, and quickly.

“No embassy, no consulate in Yemen, no forceful American action for those who are trapped there — what you have represents a cruel and inhumane policy for the Yemeni diaspora and it’s sickening,” he told The Hill.

Ammad Wajahat Rafiqi, coordinator for civil rights and legal services for CAIR’s San Francisco office, said his group had called for the State Department to establish a channel of communication for American citizens in Yemen even before the COVID-19 pandemic.

A State Department spokesperson said the suspension of operations at the U.S. Embassy in Sana’a “has limited the U.S. government’s ability to provide emergency services to U.S. citizens in Yemen.” The pandemic has further complicated matters.

“Despite border and airport closures, we continue to assess potential repatriation options for all U.S. citizens stranded in the region,” the spokesperson said.

Where space is limited, the spokesperson said, the agency prioritizes those with the greatest medical needs first and in accordance with agency guidance and from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Izdehar Alghazali constantly worries that Miriam Alghazali and her children will get sick, unable to go to the hospital for fear of getting a worse infection. She’s scared they’ll run out of food. Even more, she worries for her daughter’s safety, being a woman alone in a country that affords them no rights and living in a city controlled by the Houthis.

“The big fear of the Houthis, they really don’t have any regards for women and kids,” she said. “We’re afraid for so many challenges and it’s like, you’re crying by yourself and you’re trying to reach out, but there’s no one at the end of the rope to pull you out of this situation that you’re in.”

Tags Coronavirus COVID-19 Max Rose State Department Yemen

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