Using a scrunched up piece of tissue between her fingers, 20-year-old Gada dabs at her eyes between the slit in her black niqab face veil. After more than a minute's silence it is obvious she can't conjure words to answer the question: how bad was it in Yemen before you left?
During 2015, escalation of fighting in Yemen led to a mass exodus, with thousands fleeing to Djibouti on the opposite side of the 30km stretch of water known as Bab-el-Mandeb, meaning the Gateway of Tears – based on the long history of people perishing when trying to cross it – and which is the southern entrance to the Red Sea.
Many settled in a refugee camp outside the small town of Obock, an inhospitable sun-blistered corner of the Horn of Africa. There, an American Catholic missionary has single-handedly run a school and education courses for Yemeni children and young adults.
"Education is obviously important, and the school gives parents a much-needed break from their kids in the cramped camp, but this is more to do with showing the refugees that they matter and have a future – that they're not left out," says Marianne Vecchione, a Los Angeles resident who has spent the past year in Obock.
This endeavour has included bringing to Djibouti City, the country’s capital on the other side of the Gulf of Tadjoura, eight students to take primary school exams so they can progress to high school, and 12 students to take exams for their high-school completion certificates so they can progress to university.
“I had everything, a job and an internet shop, but the Houthi rebels took it,” says 25-year-old Saddam from the city of Alhodida, finishing grade 12 in the hope of eventually studying marine engineering. “Everything’s gone. The shop was probably worth $25,000.
“Mum and dad are still there, my sister is in Ta’izz [another city in Yemen], and I have two brothers in the camp, but we don’t know where my other brother is – he’s lost somewhere.”
One fighter bomb destroyed the school and home, and killed the father, of 18-year-old Issa from Sana’a, the largest city in Yemen.
“We lived next to a military camp,” says Issa, another student taking exams to finish grade 12 but who is unsure whether he’ll be able to use the high-school completion certificate in Yemen. “My future used to be in Yemen when I had a father with an income. But if we go back we’ll be starting from scratch. Before, we depended on ourselves, but how do we do that now?”
Between exams, the students live and study in a ramshackle apartment on the edge of Djibouti City’s African quarter, the poorer side of town.
“I try not to visit the apartment too much as, if the locals see me, there’s a good chance they’ll increase the rent,” Vecchione says.
She's operating on a tight budget. Though she was able to get funds for the school in the camp – about $5,000 from Caritas Canada, a Catholic relief, development and social service organisation, and about $8,000 from the United Nations Children's Emergency Fund – she had to raise about $1,000 from family and friends to take students to the city for their exams.
Under a loud, rackety fan in each of two rooms in the apartment – one for the males, one for the females – students study from bindings of great wads of paper which together constitute the entire Yemeni curriculum.
“We printed more than 500 of these text books,” Vecchione says of her simple but trusty HP2035 printer in Obock. “Whenever I heard someone was going back to Djibouti City I’d ask them to buy more printer cartridges.”
Djibouti’s government comes in for a fair share of criticism for overseeing a mushrooming economy derived from its expanding port network, while little apparently trickles down to help large numbers of unemployed and impoverished people. But Vecchione notes how its ministry of education has co-operated fully with her and helped facilitate the students’ exams.
"The government does have challenges, but they are showing the way internationally [with refugees]," says Tom Kelly, US ambassador to Djibouti. "They've saved thousands of lives. It deserves credit for opening its borders to people who had nowhere else to go."
Having completed exams, the students returned to Obock and the drudgery of camp life, especially during the Ramadan fast, with daily temperatures of 38 degrees and above. During long torpid days with nothing to do, there’s plenty of time to reflect.
“There’s nothing like home,” says Dina (44), who went to Djibouti City as a female chaperone for the four female students, including Gada, taking the grade-12 exam.
“Even if you are somewhere better, you can’t compare with it – where you had your childhood, the traditions, the parks, the mosques and culture. We miss everything, the breath and waves of Yemen. We even miss the shopkeepers, as that meant daily life.”
At the height of the exodus, the camp was crammed with 3,000 refugees, though now 1,000 remain. Many have returned to Yemen or managed to move to Djibouti City or elsewhere. Some of those remaining in the camp don’t hold out much hope for a return to Yemen.
“When will there be peace? Maybe in 30 years if the old generation dies and the young are more peaceful and loving,” says one 45-year-old Yemeni who, back in Yemen, is head of a tribe and didn’t want his name to be used due to his position.
Yemen has fallen foul of a proxy war being waged between Saudi Arabia, supporting Yemen's government forces, and Iran, backing the Houthi rebels who, according to Yemeni in the camp, have committed the most and worst atrocities.
Suspicious of missionary work
Despite the refugees’ dire situation, Vecchione encountered opposition to her endeavours to help. She has been accused by some of trying to convert students to Christianity – even though the school teaches the Yemeni curriculum, including lessons on the Koran and Islam.
At one stage, tensions were such the Catholic Church hierarchy in Djibouti was considering pulling her out of Obock. But she stayed.
“I come from Italian-American stock, we don’t tend to back down,” Vecchione says.
She admits, however, to being exhausted and frustrated after a year of such tribulations, the heat and loneliness – at one point she was the only foreigner living in Obock – but wouldn’t change her decision to help.
Everywhere she goes around the camp and small town she is accompanied by a common refrain from both young and adult voices: “Marianne! Marianne!” Clearly some Yemeni appear to appreciate what one Christian volunteer has done for them.
“I love how they treat me at the school and help me,” says Aida (19), whose parents were reluctant initially to let her attend, and who previously studied alone in her family’s tent while doing her chores. “With the teacher explaining things it is so much better.”