In a dramatic wartime scene, the Yemeni scholar Nadia Al-Sakkaf managed to escape from Sana’a in disguise, with the help of the United Nations, in April 2015. That was a few months after she had served as Yemen’s minister of information, and the first woman to hold a prominent government post in the country.
Al-Sakkaf told Al-Fanar Media that she was forced to leave her country surreptitiously on a United Nations employee plane because the Houthi movement, which had seized control of the capital, Sana’a, considered her an “enemy” and a “target for assassination.”
Even after she left the country, she was surprised by the death sentence issued against her and other officials of the ousted government, in 2020, by a Houthi-controlled court.
Al-Sakkaf is currently the director of research at the Arabia Brain Trust, a Yemeni-led think tank based in London. Al-Fanar Media presents her story as part of a series of articles to commemorate World Refugee Day, which was observed on June 20.
World’s Worst Humanitarian Crisis
Al-Sakkaf: Scholars from conflict zones are “oppressed” by an internal psychological struggle between the need to achieve success in their country of asylum and a longing to return to their homeland.
Yemen has suffered violence and chaos since 2014, when the Iran-backed Houthi rebel movement gained control of much of northern Yemen. The situation escalated in 2015 when a coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates entered the conflict.
Reports indicate that since 2015 at least 370,000 Yemenis have been killed and millions are now living in extreme poverty as a result of a war the United Nations describes as the “world’s worst man-made humanitarian crisis.”
Al-Sakkaf’s escape flight first took her to Ethiopia, before she moved to Egypt and Jordan, where she stayed with relatives for months. Later, she moved to Britain on a scholarship to study for a doctorate in political science at the University of Reading. In 2019, she got her Ph.D. with a thesis on “Policies for Empowering Women in Yemen”.
She had previously earned a master’s degree in information systems management from Britain’s University of Sterling, in 2011, and a Bachelor of Engineering in computer science at India’s Birla Institute of Technology and Science.
Struggles of Scholars in Exile
Al-Sakkaf, who was born in Taiz in 1977, believes that the only way to resist the challenges of diaspora is to be armed with science and employ new methodologies in conducting research on her homeland.
Speaking to Al-Fanar Media via Zoom, she said that scholars from conflict zones are “oppressed” by an internal psychological struggle. On the one hand they feel a need to prove themselves, to achieve successes that guarantee their stay in their country of asylum. On the other hand, they are also preoccupied with longing for their homelands and the desire to provide knowledge and skills that help restore stability there.
“I faced difficulties in getting a job, due to difficult working conditions and the complexities of obtaining a work visa. … There was also the constant feeling that I lacked stability.”Nadia Al-Sakkaf
A brother of Al-Sakkaf’s, Walid Al-Saqaf, is an associate professor of journalism and media technology at Södertörn University, in Sweden. He agrees with his sister about the difficulties that academics from conflict countries face in Europe and the United States.
In a telephone interview, he told Al-Fanar Media that upon joining Western universities, these scholars discover a need for research tools that qualify them to integrate into the scientific community in the host country. Such tools were not available to them in their countries of origin, he explains.
New Responsibilities in Exile
Unlike her previous travels to study abroad, Al-Sakkaf now feels she bears the responsibility of representing her country and conveying its issues to the world.
While she acknowledges the difficulty of returning to Yemen, she says she has not yet fully settled into British society.
“I faced difficulties in getting a job, due to difficult working conditions and the complexities of obtaining a work visa,” she said. “Besides the limited academic and research work opportunities, there was also the constant feeling that I lacked stability.”
Walid Al-Saqaf said that the biggest difficulty his sister may have faced was in the transition from being the minister of information to an academic scholar.
“That transition is likely to have created a barrier between her and some researchers who are looking at her as someone with a different experience,” he said. This required her to “use her political experience in networking with the research community, and use it as a means of influencing,” he added.
Policies alone will not improve the situation of women, says Al-Sakkaf. Issues like access to reproductive health care, education, and economic resources also need to be addressed.
He also believes her expatriation experience have increased her strength and perseverance, and her success in obtaining a Ph.D. has helped her gain the confidence of the academic community despite the difficulties.
Failure of Strategies to Empower Women
Besides her work with the Arabia Brain Trust, Al-Sakkaf is also seeking to revive the Yemen Times, an English-language news site she used to lead in Yemen.
In her current work, Al-Sakkaf benefits from research she conducted with several Oxfam humanitarian programmes in Yemen between 2003 and 2005.
In 2013, Al-Sakkaf received the Oslo Business for Peace Award, whose honourees are chosen by Nobel peace and economics laureates. The award recognizes leaders in the private sector who have “demonstrated transformative and positive change through ethical business practices”.
Al-Sakkaf was also recognised by the BBC as one of 100 women who changed the world in the same year.
Much of Al-Sakkaf’s research has focused on the empowerment of Yemeni women and their political representation. She has also published studies monitoring political transformations, transitional processes, sustainable development, climate change, armed conflict issues, and peace-building policies.
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On women’s empowerment, Al-Sakkaf thinks that the strategies launched in this regard since the late 1990s have “largely failed to improve the situation of women.”
“Improving the situation requires more than top-to-bottom policies,” she explained. “Development indicators also need to be addressed, such as the spread of reproductive health care, school attendance, and access to economic resources.”
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