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Maria and one of her students, Anas.

Maria Mulcahy: To Yemen and Back … a Different Person

By Morgan Anderson

On October 15th, I sat down to lunch at The Rocket with Maria Mulcahy, a twenty-seven year old Newfoundland native, to discuss her recent six month experience in Yemen. Maria intended to spend longer than six months in Yemen, teaching English to adults at a non-profit college, but she evacuated the country last month as her home in the capital of Yemen, Sanaa, had become a chaotic, dangerous place to be.

Many Canadians realize that there is turmoil in the Middle East, but are unsure as to why. Maria, however, knows from experience that there is a better way to understand what is occurring in the Middle East than watching the news and reading current events online. While not everyone can travel and immerse themselves in a different culture as she did, to truly understand the Yemen culture, one must speak to its people. Maria is adamant about this. “You don’t need to know the language or the politics, you just need to know that everyone is a human being, and once you talk to someone about their life, and where they grew up, then you will be less afraid.

“Yemen is a country rooted in contradictions,” states Maria. On one hand you have a country with beautiful landscapes, people and culture, while on the other, there exists a long history of conflict. She gave a brief overview of the most recent troubles in Yemen. There has been tension between the Yemen rebel group, Houthis, and the Yemen government since about 1962. Recently however, tensions have escalated. The Houthis are a minority group from the North of Yemen and their relationship with the government has been long and complicated. The Houthis feel as though their culture and traditions have become lost and as a result they have become more militant and political. The Houthis want more representation in the government, and this along with the government cut backs on fuel subsidies has contributed to the Houthis taking over the city.

Maria lived very close to government buildings in the country’s capital. On September 9th, Maria and her housemates watched the news as the government opened fire on unarmed protestors, killing eleven of them. Simultaneous to the televised gun shots, Maria and her American roommates heard gun shots outside.  It was then that they decided it was time to leave the city.

Now that she’s back home, she feels it’s important for people of the Western World to understand what is going on in the Middle East. “With these political situations there is no clear bad guy. There are multiple groups in Yemen with different ideologies, politics and ideas, all trying to gain power. When you combine that with people who are heavily armed it, leads to complete chaos. It creates this vacuum effect where everyone wants to be in power.” Despite the political climate, Maria strongly emphasised that she learned a lot from the average Yemeni person. She stated that they are welcoming, cultured individuals who treat everyone with respect, regardless of their income status or other material factors. To the average Yemeni, all are considered equal.

Life in Yemen is very different than life in Newfoundland.  Upon arrival, Maria allowed herself a multitude of emotions; she was scared, embarrassed, and uncomfortable. As time went on, Maria found herself appreciating the Yemen way of life as much as she was missing her Newfoundland lifestyle. She realized that material objects are not a necessity for a happy life. For instance, she frequently lost electricity for up to twelve hours a day. Instead of dwelling on this, she realized how happy she could be with very little.

In Maria’s role as a teacher, she realized that her students faced many problems.  More problems in fact, than many of us face in a lifetime. A common every day issue could be the loss of a family member during combat. Despite living against a backdrop of violence, students still managed to drive two hours (each way) to get to class to learn something new. However, Maria feels it important that we realize that the western model of learning does not always work in other societies. We need to understand the individual difficulties within individual societies. To expect an education system like ours to work in a setting like Yemen, with its constant threat of shootings and bombings, is unrealistic.  Maria talked about how fortunate we are to live in a society where we are free to go to class and learn without fear.

Maria also talked about how the media portray the Middle East and thus affect how we understand it. She feels that the media and its audience view the Middle East though a filtered lens which hinders us from understanding its culture. The media also sensationalises Yemen’s political uprisings, rather than critically considering, and explaining the problem. This evokes fear. Seldom do we read an article that places Yemen’s political crises into a historical context. Seldom do we research what we have heard, read, or seen to test its validity and gain a truer understanding of the current situation.  What the media should also include in its coverage is the focus Yemenis have on Family. Family is of the upmost important to the people there, a value Maria feels we are starting to lose here.  If the media focused more on the everyday people in Yemen, you would see an entirely different side to the culture.