Interview with Hooria Mashhour

On the rebels′ blacklist

Fearing for her life in her home country, a former minister from Yemen applied to Germany for asylum. Now she′s working for the integration of refugees. Interview by Ali Almakhlafi

Ms Mashhour, you were human rights minister in Yemen for three years from 2011 as a result of the events of the Arab Spring. What compelled you to escape to Germany?

Hooria Mashhour: Although I'd travelled a great deal in the past, for the first time I had a sense of being homeless. It was as though I'd been shut out of my own country. This was because if I returned to Yemen, I would be in great danger. So I didn't have any other option. What was I going to do? Where else was I supposed to go?

And where do you live now?

Mashhour: At the moment I live in a small, quiet community in northern Germany, halfway between Hamburg and Kiel. For security reasons, I'd rather not tell you the exact name of the place. When I decided to apply for asylum in mid-2015, it was a hard decision to make. I cried many tears before I was finally ready to take this step.

What activities are you pursuing in Germany?

Mashhour: In the pretty place where I live I have everything that I need. There's also an adult education centre, where I'm taking an advanced German course and where I also help beginners to learn German. I go with them to public offices and interpret for them, in particular for Arab refugee women who don't feel at ease discussing personal matters in the presence of a male interpreter. For instance, I also go with them to the doctor's.

Hooria Mashhour accompanies a refugee to a job centre appointment in Schleswig-Holstein (photo: NDR)
Help for asylum seekers and refugees: 62-year-old Hooria Mashhour is a voluntary careers advice assistant and interpreter for Arabic refugees

Did you already have links with Germany before you came here? Compared to other refugees, your language skills are already much more advanced. You take part in monthly get-togethers between Germans and refugees to foster cultural exchange. How do these encounters influence refugees in your view? Can you cite some examples?

Mashhour: These cultural encounters prepare the refugees for integration into German society. They are important, because after all they plan to live, work and be productive in Germany long-term, while observing this society′s rules and regulations.

I've met refugees in Germany from a great variety of cultural, geographical and ethnic backgrounds. There are things that all people have in common, but every nation also has its unique characteristics.

For example recently, at one of the meetings between refugees and Germans, people prepared typical national dishes and sang songs. The Germans reacted very positively to the Arab music (including songs by Fairuz and Umm Kulthum), sampled the Yemeni and Syrian cuisine and participated enthusiastically in the Syrian dabke dance. Although there aren't many Yemeni refugees in Germany, they still take an active part in integration events such as these. Most of the refugees come from Syria.

You also hold lectures in Germany on Yemeni culture and politics, as well as on the human rights situation. Do you see any way out of the war in Yemen at the moment?

Mashhour: I give my lectures at universities, such as the University of Kiel, or at women's associations and other groups. My English skills make things easier for me. My lectures focus on Yemen and in particular the role of women and young people there.

Houthi rebels in Sanaa (photo: DW/Abdullah)
Salih′s late revenge: Shia Houthi rebels and their allies are at war with the supporters of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi. An alliance of Arab countries led by Saudi Arabia has been bombing rebel positions since March 2015. Peace talks to end the civil war began at the end of May in Kuwait

I believe their contribution was fundamental for the peaceful revolution of 2011, which itself grew out of the Arab Spring rebellions. I continue to hope that young people and women will drive forward the process of change, pursuing a path of peace and thus putting an end to the war in Yemen.

My connection to Germany goes back further. I studied here for two years in the 1970s. After my husband, who has since passed away, graduated in Germany, we returned to Aden, which was at the time the capital of the "Democratic People's Republic of Yemen". I completed my studies there. And now I'm back in Germany and am able to refresh a lot of what I learned back then in terms of language.

In your experience, how interested are Germans and other Europeans in what is happening in Yemen and the Arab world in the wake of the political setbacks there?

Mashhour: In general, people in Germany and in Europe are of course caught up with their own daily lives. But it's of particular interest to students here why the refugees have come to Europe. Many ask themselves the question how this collapse in Arab nations occurred. After all, the Europeans initially looked on in admiration at the Arab Spring, when the people took to the streets to demand change, to protest against dictatorship and corruption and thereby usher in a new era of democracy in the Arab world. The Germans and Europeans are most interested in the setbacks and debacles that have arisen there under the pressure of the regime and the counter-revolutions it controls.

Your escape to Germany was directly connected to the downfall of the Arab Spring. Why did you have to leave Yemen?

Mashhour: I wasn't the only person who saw escape from Yemen as their only option. The same applied to the entire Yemeni government as well as to representatives of the media. This was just one of the consequences of the brutal overthrow instigated by the former President Salih with the help of the Houthi rebels.

I became a target after 2011, during my time as human rights minister and in particular following the putsch of 21 September 2014. At that time, armed militias broke into the human rights ministry building in the capital Sanaa. Luckily I wasn't there, but they wanted to give me with a warning. They then circulated rumours that they had detained me and they posted photo-montages supporting their claims on the Internet.

Destroyed houses in Yemen (photo: Reuters)
A terrible balance: civil war has been raging in Yemen for nearly two years now. According to the UN, some 2.7 million Yemenis are displaced. Over 21 million people need humanitarian aid – more than 80 percent of the population. Food, clean water and medical supplies are in short supply

Following these dramatic events which unfolded in the Yemeni capital, in the course of which ministers and the President (whose bodyguard was killed) were besieged, I felt compelled to leave Yemen. Several ministers are still in detention to this day. There are tens of thousands of detained journalists, politicians and human rights activists in Yemen.

No one, not even the UN with its political clout, has managed to exert pressure on the rebels to free these people. These are representatives of civil society, not members of the military. They are not guilty of any crime that would justify their imprisonment. Some of them were taken to unknown locations, so that their families would have no idea what had happened to them. This was the situation at the time. So I had no choice but to find a safe place for myself.

Unfortunately there are several self-appointed "human rights organisations" in Yemen that have taken it upon themselves to defend the putsch and the rebels, irrespective of the serious crimes they have committed. These are not independent organisations, but claqueurs of the former Salih regime, prepared to travel to the heart of Europe – to Geneva – to spread their regime′s propaganda.

The Yemeni uprising against the former President Salih was peaceful. What has plunged Yemen into this war? And what can you tell us about the current humanitarian situation?

Mashhour:  The situation in Yemen in tragic and extremely fragile. There is neither sufficient water, nor power, food or medication. That's why peace is the only option – but it must be a just peace. Those who have led this putsch and plunged the nation into the abyss must be brought to court and called to account. This is all a direct consequence of the immunity that the former President Salih was assured in accordance with the Gulf Cooperation Council initiative in the year 2011.

Demonstration in Yemen: ″together against terrorism″ (photo: Saeed Al Sofi)
Keeping the terror in check: "There are tens of thousands of detained journalists, politicians and human rights activists in Yemen. No one, not even the UN with its political clout, has managed to exert pressure on the rebels to free these people," says Mashhour

Impunity leads to new crimes and to a continuation of the atrocities. I was always one of the fiercest opponents of immunity for Salih; I dedicated myself to bringing the crimes of the Salih regime and the plundering of public property to light. That's how I came to be a target myself.

How do you assess the role of the international community, in particular that of Saudi Arabia and Iran?

Mashhour: What was known as the "National Dialogue" took place in Yemen from March 2013 to January 2014, a process in which all the nation's political forces were represented – with significant results. The Yemenis were on the verge of agreeing the draft of a new constitution. The international community, including Germany, supported this dialogue in the hope that Yemen would begin a process of peaceful development and not backslide into violence, chaos and bloodshed.

But unfortunately the rebels – first and foremost the former President Salih and his allies the Houthi rebels – destroyed the fruits of this dialogue. The militias that emerged from the Yemeni army that was loyal to Salih launched air attacks on the offices of the transitional President Hadi, who was residing in Aden at the time, which in turn made him feel compelled to escape to Saudi Arabia. The Saudis forged a coalition to protect the legitimate government, while thinking of their own national security in the process – they were worried by the Houthi rebels' co-operation with Iran as well as by their provocative military manoeuvres along the southern border of the kingdom.

How were you able to leave Yemen in these circumstances and reach Europe? And do you hope to be able to return to Yemen one day?

Mashhour: In view of the difficult political and military situation and the sense of personal threat, I was advised to leave Yemen. Using my regular passport – not my diplomatic one – I was able to get through departures at Sanaa airport and fly to Cairo. I still had a valid visa for Europe from an earlier trip. So I was able to fly to Germany and apply for asylum there. Now I live on the upper floor of a house above a German family.

I've now settled in here well and I am grateful to the Germans for taking me into their country. But I won't stop campaigning for human rights (in particular the rights of women and children). As soon as the situation in my country becomes more stable, I will return and participate in the reconstruction of the nation along with everyone else.

Interview conducted by Ali Almakhlafi

© 2016

Translated from the German by Nina Coon

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