Yemeni family left to sleep on the streets after Saudi government demolished their home

Night after night, my family and I slept on the cold streets, huddling together for warmth. As I laid there, my mind drifted back to my earliest memories of Saudi Arabia, after my father died. It felt like a simpler time, when I could look at the world through the lens of an innocent child.

  • 10 months ago
  • September 26, 2023
6 min read
The Saudi government issued eviction notices and demolition orders for homes in the country to give way to a development project. Foreign nationals received no compensation. The Saudi government issued eviction notices and demolition orders for homes in the country to give way to a development project. Foreign nationals received no compensation. | Representative image courtesy of Vincenzo Cassano from Unsplash
Anonymous silhouette
Mahfoodh Abobakr Balfaqih was born in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia in 1993. Because both of his parents were Yemeni citizens, the Saudi government refused to recognize the children’s citizenship. They could not get a Saudi passport, permanent residence, and struggled to receive medical care. After being unjustly evicted from their home and ending up on the streets, Mahfoodh sought refuge in Canada for he and his family, where they reside today.
In July 2021, Saudi Arabia announced new regulations prescribing the intended percentage of foreign workers in private sector establishments in the kingdom, capping Yemenis at 25 percent. This came as a shock to the Yemeni community in the country, among whom a wave of discontent erupted last August. The decision is expected to have profound political, economic, and humanitarian effects on Yemenis living in Saudi Arabia, as well as their extended families back home.

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — As a Yemeni citizen living in Saudi Arabia, I faced constant discrimination. When the Saudi government began issuing eviction orders and demolishing homes in my neighborhood in 2021, with no compensation for foreign nationals, my family and I faced homelessness.

Overburdened and exhausted financially, I tried to find work but despite our best efforts, we ended up sleeping on the streets. Years after my parents moved to Saudi Arabia – the country where I was raised – we feared being deported back to Yemen. Desperate and afraid, in 2022, we found safety and asylum in Canada.

As the son of Yemeni parents, Saudi Arabia never recognized him as a citizen

Both my parents grew up in Yemen but moved to Saudi Arabia, where I was born. As a young boy, I endured tragedy: my father passed away and suddenly the task of caring for my younger siblings fell upon my mother and me.

Yemeni immigrants face an insurmountable cost of living in Saudi Arabia, where we have to pay special fees just to live there. Without my dad to support us, my mother had no choice but to move us in with my grandfather.

All throughout my school years in Saudi Arabia, racism and discrimination tainted my experience. I felt like the country never fully accepted us. My Yemeni background left me feeling constantly alone. School personnel and students alienated me at every turn.

I faced death threats to become of one of Saudi Arabia’s first female tour guides.

I watched as my mother’s health deteriorated. She seemed constantly consumed with worry and powerless to stop the harm her children endured. When I finally graduated from university in 2019, a gnawing anxiety consumed me, taking the place of the pride and joy I should have felt.

This was the time in life when the world was supposed to open up to me, but in Saudi Arabia, the opportunities remained extremely limited for Yemeni nationals. I needed to earn an income to help my family but finding work as an immigrant proved nearly impossible.

My mother tried to help but so few women have full rights in Saudi Arabia. Working is rarely one of them. Her guilt worsened by the day as she struggled to secure a job. Months passed and we were caught between two dangerous choices. Back home in Yemen, the political situation worsened; we could not go there to find work. At the same time, tensions against immigrants in Saudi Arabia were growing dire. I even tried to find work in other countries, but nothing materialized.

The Saudi government demolished our home and left us to live on the streets

Night after night, I laid in bed, longing to hear my father’s voice. I sense of helplessness pervaded my being. “How can I make anything of myself here,” I wondered. “Will I be able to save my family from poverty?” It was as if we were stuck in place.

Then, things grew worse. We woke up one day to an eviction notice on our door. [As part of the Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s strategy to achieve “Vision 2030,” he ordered the demolition of homes in certain areas, in favor of a development project. Some residents were given 24-hour notice. The government offered some compensation to those affected – but not to foreign nationals.]

My heart sank in my chest. My grandfather became so fearful he went into shock and wound up in the hospital. All day and night, I tirelessly looked for a way to put a roof over our heads. My search became so frenzied, I barely processed the fact that the Saudi government had issued a demolition order for my grandfather’s home – the home that my siblings and I grew up in.

In search of opportunity in wealthy Saudi Arabia, woman faces devastating abuse.

Just when I thought it couldn’t get any worse, another terror gripped me. “What if the Saudi government deports us back to Yemen,” my mind pleaded. Back home, armed extremists like Al-Qaeda had spread in numbers as conflicts between the tribes in the south worsened. I heard stories about members of violent groups kidnapping young people and forcing them to bear arms. If you refused, they would make your life a living hell until you no longer had a choice.

Whether we stayed in Saudi Arabia or returned to Yemen, I knew we faced grave danger, and no one seemed to care.

With no income and no job, Yemeni man dreams of finding refuge

Soon, my family and I founding ourselves sleeping on the cold streets, huddling together for warmth. As I laid there, my mind drifted back to my earliest memories of Saudi Arabia, after my father died. It felt like a simpler time, when I could look at the world through the lens of an innocent child.

Now homeless and unemployed, it was as if I suddenly saw all the cracks in the picture. Saudi Arabia always had a troubled history, but I spent so many of my young years there. Never, in my wildest dreams, did I imagine the government would reject us this way. My heart shattered, seeing what we had become. I wished the world could hear our cries and help us.

Eventually, I did secure a place for us to live temporarily with distant relatives, but we were nine people crowded into a very small house. I had to do something; we needed to flee, to leave Saudi Arabia for good, but we could not return to Yemen.

In December 2022, I took a chance and traveled to Canada to apply for asylum. The country represented everything I wanted for my family: a fresh start, safety, opportunity, and a chance to build a home.

Family from Yemen finds hope in Canada and begins to heal

When my mother, siblings, and I finally got our approval for asylum and our airplane landed in Canada, it felt utterly surreal. We turned to embrace one another in this new country – in a place where we finally felt safe for the first time in years – and everyone began to cry.

With tears in our eyes, we welcomed the new life in front of us, eager to lay down roots. Our first night in our new apartment felt like a dream. Devoid of furniture, we all sat down on the floor together to eat our dinner. One small lamp lit up the room.

Outside the window, we could see the snow falling and gathering on the ground. Together, a feeling of peace washed over each of us. After all the turmoil and fear we endured, we finally took a long, deep breath. Although we had lost our childhood home in Saudi Arabia, now we had a chance to build a new life together.

[Amnesty International called the eviction and demotion of homes in Saudi Arabia – and the lack of financial support for foreign nationals – a violation of international human rights standards. The demolitions began in October 2021 and have continued intermittently since then. More than a half million people living in Saudi Arabia were affected.]

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