He was easy to miss, unless you looked for his eyes hidden deep behind thick rimmed glasses, sad but filled with resolve. A young man of slight stature and a timid gaze, Hamza Shaiban could easily be overlooked as the president of the Yemeni Community in Canada, a nonprofit organization that promotes peace in Yemen.
“I know I look young. Well that’s because I am,” he chuckles, sitting tense on his chair. “Many Yemenis here are afraid to speak out, especially older ones; they’re trying to build their lives here, and with everything going on in Yemen, I had to take on the initiative.”
Though the coffee shop is boisterous and his voice soft, every word Shaiban speaks of Yemen’s ongoing conflict is as clear as it is agonizing. His downcast eyes, looking up only occasionally, conveys the tragic tale of the country’s revolution against Saudi Arabia, a conflict many have never heard of, and one that has overwhelmed the few who have with incessant statistics and graphic images.
Yemenis, including Shaiban, had hoped that the outrage over the recently viral photo of a Yemeni father sitting beside his two brutally murdered children would cause much needed change, but even that was short-lived and subsequent action close to nonexistent. Living alone in the bustling city of Toronto, he often thinks of his family back home in Sanaa, Yemen. His father and two brothers are doctors, which is why they wouldn’t leave even if they could. “They’re doing all that they can. They’re serving people who really need their help,” he says, with a wince. “So, I have to do my part here, [to] raise as much awareness as I can.”
As leader of the Yemeni Community in Canada, he has helped organize protests, spoken at local colleges and universities, passed out pamphlets, and advocated for an end to the Canadian-Saudi arms deal, particularly in the wake of journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s brutal murder and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s willingness to freeze armored vehicle exports to Saudi Arabia. Shaiban explains that Canada should not depend on a country like Saudi Arabia, especially with a leader as unpredictable as Mohammed bin Salman. Earlier this year, following a tweet from Canada’s foreign minister calling for the release of jailed human rights activists in Saudi Arabia, bin Salman withdrew more than 15,000 government-funded Saudi students from Canada, imposed economic sanctions and severed diplomatic ties with the country.
“I can do more from here, than I could over there,” says Shaiban, though he has been facing a lack of response from Canadian media. “I know it seems a bit idealistic, its $15 billion and 3,000 jobs for Canadians that we are saying to end with the arms deal, [but] we can live without them.”
The numbers agree with Shaiban. The United Nations World Food Programme estimates 20 million Yemenis will be food insecure without any aid, one child dies every 10 minutes and millions more are in need of humanitarian aid.
Shaiban explains Yemen’s situation did not simply happen overnight, but represents the natural outcome of a people rising against their long-time tyrant, Saudi Arabia.
Beginning with a wave of protests in 2011 that called for the Saudi-backed President Ali Saleh to resign after three decades of power, civilians were dejected with the country’s squalid conditions and bleak future. Such rising tensions ensued until a major party, the Houthis, rose to power.
The Houthi’s staunch position for the country’s self-autonomy, says Shaiban, left disgruntled administrations in Saudi Arabia and the United States in disarray and consequently, continued to win the support of northern Yemenis.
Rather abruptly in March 2015, the US evacuated its troops from Al Anad Air Base near Aden, and the same month, Saudi Arabia launched an attack on Yemen with the support of eight gulf countries, the US and the European Union.
“The worst part,” adds Shaiban, “is that US media [have] been consistently saying Yemen is backed by Iran. Not only is this untrue, they’re deliberately disregarding Yemen’s situation. Unlike Syria, [which] has its allies, Yemen is totally alone, with all its land, ports and airspace controlled by Saudi [Arabia], [which] isn’t allowing people to leave, nor allowing food to come in.”
Conditions today are worse than ever, Shaiban notes, and in what seems to be purgatory for those who stand up to Saudi tyranny, Yemen is engulfed in catastrophic tragedies, endless cases of cholera, continuous food shortages and scores of innocent children and families dying from starvation.
Noting Yemen is poor, Shaiban says he fails to understand why the coalition is hell-bent on making Yemenis suffer. “It might be because Yemenis didn’t want foreign intervention, but it might also be because of the oil,” he suggests, pensively. “And that means no one cares about human lives when it comes to oil and resources.” Yemen’s geographic location has put it at the epicenter of the world’s largest crude oil flow, the Bab-el-Mandeb chokepoint, estimated to be at around 3.8 million barrels per day — seemingly, its only sin.
Further, when US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made no mention of the US-made missile that killed 40 children in a school bus during a diplomatic conversation with Prince Mohammed Bin Salman afterwards, Shaiban wasn’t the least bit surprised.
“If you want to understand hypocrisy, you just have to look at how Saudi [Arabia] and the west are treating Yemen,” he says quietly. “They champion democracy and human rights, but on the other hand, are openly killing innocent people with our tax dollars, without us even agreeing to all this.”
Looking down at his phone constantly, he explains he chronically checks to see if there is any news of his parents being killed, now a force of habit. Already having lost hundreds of friends and cousins he has grown up with, family who were struck in their living rooms watching TV, he expresses he has nothing to lose anymore.
“I’m speaking out for my people,” he says. “It’s not just about my family, it’s about everyone’s family; they have mothers, they have children. I want to spread awareness because I know Canadians and Americans won’t like it if they knew the truth.”
Given the recent developments in the US, with the Senate Joint Resolution 54 ending US support in the war on Yemen, a truce being negotiated in Stockholm, Sweden, and Yemen being in recent headlines, Shaiban is wary.
“The truce is important because Hodeidah port is the main channel for 90 percent of the food to flow [to] 28 million Yemenis,” he says. “[The] Houthi leader proposed this truce eight months ago, but the Saudi coalition [has] been refusing. It was only signed because of the pressure from the United Nations, but Saudi [Arabia] broke this agreement once again as they just launched airstrikes on civilians in Hodeidah.”
Unfortunately, he says, President Trump will never stop supporting Saudi Arabia, which is why he will veto the bill. Given the slim chance that the bill materializes, it will still allow US troops to stay in Yemen by justifying a presence of al-Qaeda in their target areas, even though it is Saudi Arabia that is bringing in these fighters to infiltrate Yemen’s lands. Though Yemenis are attacked from all sides, he feels hope is on the horizon, and that it lies with citizens who will put continuous pressure on their government through grassroots efforts.
Gripping the ends of the table tightly until the pinks of his knuckles bleach in color, he leans in, wounded. “Yemenis have been destroyed again and again, used, blamed, abused, lied about, blacklisted, and now bombed and starved,” he says. “Until when will they continue to destroy us?”