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Americans Struggle to Get Families Out Amid Yemen Conflict


Shiite rebels known as Houthis gather to protest against Saudi-led airstrikes, during a rally in Sanaa, Yemen, April 1, 2015.

Shiite rebels known as Houthis gather to protest against Saudi-led airstrikes, during a rally in Sanaa, Yemen, April 1, 2015.

Instead of getting married last Friday, Summer Nasser was in the mountains of Yemen — a twisting, perilous five-hour-drive from her fiancé.

The American college student of Yemeni descent is hiding out in her family's ancestral village with her mother and four siblings, waiting for a break in bombing and rebel clashes before returning — either to their temporary home in Aden, or their real home — New York.

The shopkeeper holding onto her wedding dress called last week to say he had also fled the southern port city, as violence accelerated and the Saudi Arabia-led air raids against Houthi rebels showed no sign of relenting.

She couldn’t blame him, Nasser said, speaking by phone from the Yafa region.

“I did expect some type of security deterioration, but no one expected a 10- country bombardment,” she said.

As Saudi Arabia nears a third week of air raids against Houthi rebels in the country, Yemeni-American families who did not get out in time are weighing their options.

There aren’t many.

Stuck in Yemen

Through dozens of alerts over the years, the United States warned Americans living in the country to have contingency plans for emergencies and, unlike Canada, Russia, India and Somalia, has not announced an official evacuation.

The U.S. closed its embassy in Sana'a in February. Airports are shut for commercial travel.

"We have to make a decision based on the security situation and what is feasible to do," State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said at a news conference in Washington last week.

"Given the situation in Yemen,," she added, "it's quite dangerous and unpredictable. Doing something like sending in military assets, even for an evacuation, could put U.S. citizen lives at greater risk."

She reiterated on Monday that there were no plans to evacuate Americans. The State Department's most recent message to citizens in the country on April 5 included information on how to cross into Djibouti by boat.

It also indicated that a French cargo ship off the coast of Aden could accommodate a few hundred passengers, but "people will have to find their own way to get out to it," the message said.

The United States has evacuated Americans before, though often in situations that escalated without the ongoing warnings as was the case during the 2006 Israeli bombing of the Lebanese capital and when protests against then- President Hosni Mubarak turned deadly in Egypt in 2011.

Yemen is a politically complicated country, with ribal and regional allegiances colliding within its borders for decades. Its borders have also changed with the unification of North and South Yemen in 1990.

Families in the U.S. and Yemen contacted by VOA agreed that the difference this time is that until now, they felt that Yemen’s problems were all Yemeni.

"There’s always been some kind of threat of some kind. The difference would be, it was always internal … when it’s internal, we don’t consider that to be very dangerous,” said Nasser’s aunt, Sylvia Muchinsky.

Muchinsky, working from her home in Brooklyn, New York, is trying to raise awareness of U.S. citizens stranded in Yemen by petitioning the White House

“I can’t describe it," she said. "It’s almost like when you live in the ghetto and you see gang violence, you know it’s there. True you can get hit in a drive-by … but it doesn’t really affect you in the day-to-day."

"Even during our civil war, people weren’t this afraid," Muchinsky added. "People functioned. A foreign threat is so much more difficult to surmount than an internal threat."

Nasser, whose family moved to Yemen last year to save money for the older siblings' college fees, keeps in touch over mobile phone with other Americans stranded in Yemen.

She estimates at least 300 people are in the same situation as her family.

Jamal al-Labani was one of them. He was killed by shrapnel from a mortar strike while returning from Friday prayers at a mosque in Aden, his family told U.S. media.

Three civil rights organizations in the United States launched the Stuck in Yemen website last week to log cases.

“I don't see [the] State Department doing anything. It’s unfortunate … [The] State Department has a duty to protect you,” said Abed Ayoub, with the Legal & Policy Director at American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), one of the groups involved in the website’s creation.

Ayoub said those official alerts aren’t heeded because there are just too many.

“Unfortunately, the US has travel warnings in a number of countries, and they're not taken seriously," he told VOA. "They've watered down warnings. It still doesn't take away from their responsibility to protect US citizens. That doesn't go away just because they gave a warning or two.”

"Just come back"

Families are complicated; not everyone agrees how to handle a crisis, or even to what degree there is one.

Sarah Alsaidi’s 78-year-old grandfather Mohammed Quhshi returned to Yemen in October to check on family properties, like he often does, and to avoid New York’s winters.

Construction is ongoing at one home he is building in Ta’iz, and he is waiting on his son’s building to be vacated at the end of the month, Alsaidi told VOA. He’s pragmatic and invested. His wife, children, and granddaughter — they all want him back in the United States, where he holds citizenship. But people tried to lay claim to his property in Yemen in his absence. Her grandfather wants to make sure the family’s assets are cared for.

“My uncle who owns the building told my grandfather ‘I don't care, just come back,’” said Alsaidi. “Everyone's been frustrated with him.”

Originally scheduled to come home in March, Alsaidi is unsure when he’ll make it to New York.

"I knew I couldn't put any pressure on my grandfather to come back until the airstrikes started ... he missed his opportunity [to leave]," he said.

Alsaidi knows he’s prioritizing the properties over his own safety. But she also knows her grandfather’s personality: he’s proud, he’s Yemeni and he has faith that the country will be okay.

“If he had the opportunity to leave, I’m not sure he would,” said Alsaidi.

Yemen may inspire patriotism, but political inconsistency is a hallmark. In Mohammed Quhshi's lifetime, he's seen the formation of two Yemens along north-south lines and political violence that killed thousands of people.

Then came reunification, civil war, the rise of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, and the beginning of Western counterterror operations.

In the last decade, the Houthi insurgency, deadly bomb attacks, the Arab Spring, and the take-over of the capital by Houthi rebels have continued to cloud the political horizon for a country where more than half the population lives in poverty.

Alsaidi said her grandfather is taking a fatalistic view of his current circumstances.

"He feels very connected [to Yemen] ... he wants to be safe," she said. "But he thinks that if something horrible were supposed to happen to him, it would happen, he can't run away from it."

She knows that he might be downplaying the situation for his family in New York, but it’s hard to tell. He’s seen the country go through a lot.

"He has hopes that Yemen will come around," she said.

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