Friday, May 24, 2019
A Look at the Victims of ‘the Biggest Humanitarian Crisis in the World’
Kendall Nelson chats with Naima Dido, whose parents fled Ethiopia as political refugees.
Thursday, February 28, 2019


It’s a country of more than 100,000 villages interspersed against beautiful mountains. And of women who dress colorfully, often adorned with splashy earrings and makeup.

But Yemen has gone behind the veil literally and figuratively since civil war broke out between the Yemeni government and the Houthi movement, which also claims to be the official government.

And now the beauty of the countryside cannot be enjoyed by foreigners, and the women wear black abayas that disguise who they are, except for those who recognize their walk or the purse they carry.

Bouwe-Jan Smeding said he was delighted to be among people so interested and concerned about what’s going on in the world.

Yemen, sadly, represents the biggest humanitarian crisis in the world, Bouwe-Jan Smeding told a room full of men and women at the Knob Hill Inn Wednesday morning.

Smeding, senior program advisor in UNFPA’s humanitarian office, spent six years on the front lines in Yemen until a security threat forced him out in 2013.

He spent a snowy Wednesday morning telling supporters of the Family of Woman Film Festival why he loves the country and yearns to return.

Smeding said the women used to wear colorful dresses before deciding that the black abaya was the fashion du jour.

Peggy Goldwyn, who founded the festival, said she was grateful that people had ignored the snowpocalypse to turn out for the POV Breakfast.

But their decision was not enforced on them by the government.

“When they were not allowed to wear the veil, they hated it because they wanted to choose for themselves,” he said. “They wanted freedom of choice.”

Although 99.9 percent Muslim, the Yemen people tend to be easy going people who accept differences. When Smeding gave an excuse why he didn’t want to convert to Islam, they pondered his answer for a minute then said, “Alright. Keep drinking. Keep doing what you’re doing.”

“People say always say, ‘You are my brother. And I still feel I’m their brother even though I can’t be among them,” he said.

When someone is born or dies, the women put tea on their heads and gather together for 14 afternoons. When 1 o’clock rolls around, the men even put down arms to chew qat.

Grown all over Yemen, it’s a stimulant that mimics lots of strong coffee and offers mild euphoria. And it quells appetite in a country that lacks enough food.

Next morning, Smeding said, the men resume work or war.

There are some mindsets that are difficult to overcome. Smeding recounted the case of male doctors who refused to listen to a midwife when she insisted that a procedure be delayed with a newborn whom she feared was too weak to survive it.

They kept flaunting their seven years of education until she finally reminded them that she knew five languages.

“What there are that many languages?” one of the doctors asked.

That kind of mindset might have shifted over 20 years if things had gone well, he noted. But not in the “horrible status quo where half the country is under control of the Houthis and women have much less freedom than they did before.

The civil war is being played out by a variety of groups, including Egypt and Al Qaeda.

Smeding called the civil war, which erupted in 2016, “a proxy war” between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

It’s all about oil, as Yemen has one of the biggest oil fields in the world. And it’s left three-quarters of the people are in need of something, from protection to food.

Malnutrition among children is especially worrisome since it will affect the intellect of a generation, Smeding said. Child marriages also tend to rise in countries in crisis because parents think their girls will be better protected if they’re married, he added.

UNFPA, or the United Nations Population Fund, is working with world food programs to make sure children and women are first in line. It’s also working to make sure medical equipment is available, that midwives are supported and that there are mobile clinics in areas with no bricks and mortar clinics.

In a country like Yemen with two governments, UNFPA has to discuss what can be done with both.

“Providing support for people is a political decision,” Smeding said. “We are asked why we need family planning. They ask: Are you against the Houthis or the others? But they appreciate the maternal health care because mothers and children are important to their society.”

The agency just obtained $2.6 billion to address problem, but that’s $2 billion short of what’s needed, Smeding said.

“People make money on war—there are so many triggers to keep the war going, and that makes it difficult.”

Some say war will start only when the war is over, Smeding added.

“That’s when you wonder who to trust. That’s when you have to learn to live with one another,” he said. “But I hope not just me but that everyone can one day return to Yemen.”

Teresa Bourke was among the men and women who have supported the Family of Woman Film Festival with donations. She lives in San Francisco but always makes her way to Sun Valley for the festival.

“It opens your eyes to the issues you have no idea about,” she said. “It informs you on what’s happening in the world.”


The Family of Woman Film Festival’s film lineup kicked off Wednesday night with the screening of “The Bleeding Edge.” It continues through Sunday with screenings at 3 and 7 p.m. at the Magic Lantern Cinemas in Ketchum.

  • THURSDAY, Feb. 28.: “THE JUDGE.” This 81-minute documentary from Palestine provides a rare insight in Shari’a law, an often-misunderstood legal framework for Muslims.

    Director Erika Cohn, who will field questions following both shows, tells the story through the eyes of Kholoud Al-Faqih, the first woman judge to be appointed to the Middle East’s religious courts. The film also offers an uncensored look at life for women under Shari’a law.

  • FRIDAY, March 1: “I AM NOT A WITCH.” This 93-minute drama from Zambia has been nominated by Great Britain for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. It follows a 9-year-old who is exiled to a traveling witch camp after a minor incident in her village. She is the only child among women accused of witchcraft and exploited as field laborers until a government official co-opts her to use her “powers” for his own gain. The film was inspired by actual witch accusations during a severe drought.
  • SATURDAY, March 2: “FACING THE DRAGON.” This 80-minute Afghanistan documentary follows Nilofar, a member of Parliament, and Shakila, a television journalist, as they’re forced to choose between motherhood and ambition as American forces and aid leave Afghanistan. Filmmaker Sedika Mojadidi’s film won the 2018 Human Rights Watch Nester Almendros Award for Courage in Filmmaking. She will field questions following both showings.
  • SUNDAY, March 3: “ON HER SHOULDERS.”This 94-minute documentary follows 23-year-old Nadia Murad, who survived the 2014 genocide of the Yazidis in Northern Iraq and escaped ISIS to become a beacon of hope for her people. Filmmaker Alexandria Bombach captures her as she testifies before the United Nations, visits refugee camps and conducts soul-bearing media interviews and one-on-one meetings with top government officials. Murad was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize following the completion of the film.


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