News Column

Striving for change in Yemen

July 22, 2014

In 2013 Nagi was honored with the Order of the British Empire in London as one of 80 people who have made inspiring changes in the world.

Nouria Ahmed Nagi is the director and founder of the Yemen Education and Relief Organization (YERO), which funds children's education and supports families in need through donations, micro-loans, and employment opportunities. In late November 2013, Nagi received the Order of the British Empire, making her the first Arab woman recipient. She won the award, according to Queen Elizabeth II's list, "for services to charitable work transforming the lives of women and children in Yemen." Nagi tends to shy away from talking about her personal life, saying that she believes actions speak louder than words. In an interview with the Yemen Times, however, Nagi opened up and discussed her life journey and her efforts to generate change in Yemen.

How did you start your life?

I started my life in Britain, where I studied business administration. Later, I worked as a businesswoman and got involved in several commercial activities, opening a real estate office and working in the field of fashion and design. Thankfully, I led a stable life.

What changed the course of your life?

Chance played a major role in changing my life. I spent a lot of time with a friend of mine, whom I never expected to lose, but who was stricken with cancer that eventually took her life. I felt I had lost a big part of my life. It was a very real shock that caused me to put my commercial life on halt and stay home for a long time. I could not imagine my life continuing without her.

How did you manage to overcome this experience?

The death of my friend left a great gap, but it also made me think about how to change my life. I got involved in anti-cancer activities in hospitals in Britain to alleviate the suffering of cancer patients. I continued doing so for months. At the same time, I felt my country needs my contribution to build it and help its people. Accordingly, I decided to return to Yemen.

What did you do after your return to Yemen?

When I arrived in Yemen, I sensed that people were suffering. The environment was fertile for many charitable activities. I started working with the Red Crescent for a considerable time, during which I learned a lot about the basics of charity. It was spontaneous that I thought of building an institution to care for poor street children.  

How did that happen?

During my visit with the Red Crescent to the [state-run] anti-begging center in Sana'a, I was surprised to see a nearly six-year-old girl in the center with her father. I got closer to that little girl, who was smiling despite her suffering. I started talking with her. I asked her if she loves school and why she does not study. The girl answered, "I love school and I want to study, but I have no money." I talked with her father, raising the same questions. He explained his miserable financial situation, saying he does not earn a sufficient daily income and it is obligatory that he goes to the street with his children. Sometimes they work and other times they beg.

Was this story a source of inspiration?

Yes, I kept remembering that girl all the time. And I began to establish the Yemen Education and Relief Organization, focusing on her and her seven siblings. I went to a school to help these children register and start their schooling like other children. It was difficult. I faced obstacles, and I am still facing them. I helped this family with foodstuff and school items. It was a personal effort. I used to go to this family's house and help the children with their homework. I also devoted a room in my house for them to study after school. I started gradually setting up this organization.

When did you actually set up this organization?

The organization was set up in April of 2003. At the time, the organization began receiving poor children who lived below the poverty line. We opened a file for every child and  contacted schools to help us identify children that need financial support to obtain their school items. We also launched some activities that aim to prepare children for schooling; children acquire some particular behaviors while living on the streets.

Some families depend on children to eke out a living. How do you deal with this situation?

This was a problem we faced from the start. The targeted families were all poor, and we could not offer food items for all of them. Therefore, we set up a sewing and embroidery factory and trained mothers to work there. We also trained them to market their own products and gave them loans to operate their own profitable businesses.

In addition, we do not prevent children from working after school. Those who study in the morning can work in the afternoon and vice versa.

Does your organization offer children any formal education?

They attend a few hours per week and we assist them in revising their lessons, in addition to providing classes  related to computer skills, English language skills, and other skills that help them be successful in their studies.

Have these activities qualified you to receive the Order of the British Empire?

For sure. This order is a tribute to my charitable activities, including this organization.

What does it mean to you?

I was honored in London as one of the 80 people who have made inspiring changes in the world. This meant a lot for me and pushed me to continue working enthusiastically. I dedicated this honor to Yemen and to those children I dedicated my life to.

Were you met with attention from the Yemeni government?

I received no response from the government until two weeks ago.

The Presidential Palace contacted me, asking me to attend a ceremony. I went and was honored along with a group of other figures.

You could live in Britain. What makes you stay in Yemen and continue in this field?

I could live in Britain and I still can live in Britain. What makes me continue my work in Yemen is the children's smiles, which remain despite their suffering.

Do you receive support from the government?

No, I do not get any support from the government. The only support we get comes from philanthropists.

We currently target 550 children as well as 331 families in Yemen, to whom we offer some aid. For your information, we even pay the rent of the organization headquarters ourselves, as  the government has not given us a plot of land so far.

Would you like to say the final word?

Personally, I do not want anything except health.

I also ask God to enable me to serve my country and bring smiles to children's faces.

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Source: Yemen Times

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