The minute she closes her eyes and covers her head under a thick blanket to keep away cold spells creeping in through the broken windows she is woken up again by a roommate who stumbled on her way to the WC outside this small poorly ventilated prayer room housing them.
“Asmaa” is taking refuge in this room, part of the female student hostel belonging at Sana’a state-run University, a poorly maintained, dirty and overcrowded facility housing female students from all Yemeni governorates.
Like Asmaa, Ilham, Nisreen, Sarah and Intissar have no choice but to accept these poor living conditions. Otherwise, they will have to disrupt their education and return to their underdeveloped villages in a conservative country that places restrictions on female education.
These girls have no other option in a country that forbids women from living alone before marriage.
The total population of Yemen is estimated at 24.4 million, 49% of which are female. The United Nations Development Fund calculates that 61.6% of the women are illiterate (one of the highest figures in the world) compared with 29.6% of men.
This old dormitory lacks clean drinking water and hot water for bathing. Meals are not provided to residents after closing hours. Foul smells emit from cat droppings, which are everywhere and are trampled upon by the students, mingle with odours coming out of dirty kitchens and bathrooms.
What those students in the prayer room have to endure is common in all the other overcrowded rooms. The building houses 462 residents, double the original capacity. Female students have no other choice as this is the only hostel provided by a state-run university in Yemen. The numbers of resident students keep increasing.
Over a period of six months, this reporter documented problems facing these girls: long queues in front of only two washrooms or trying to prepare a meal in a dilapidated kitchen after closing hours. This reporter has also documented how the students resort to sleeping on floor mattresses because of a lack of registration notification. The university’s negligence is evident; favouritism plays a role and accusations fly between the university and the hostel administrators.
Overcrowding is rampant as the hostel also provides housing to graduates who have finished their studies at university and even students from the capital. This is in blatant violation of the rules, which include giving priority to students from rural areas.
The hostel consists of 250 rooms prepared for an equal number of students. The Kuwait Fund provided all necessary equipment and services for the building. But when Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, the Fund’s projects in Yemen were suspended.
The Egyptian staff who had supervised the hostel since 1985 also had to leave.
The hostel is made up of two wards: the Western and Eastern units. Each consists of three floors with two wings. Every wing houses between 70 and 75 students. The washrooms are divided amongst the rooms: one for every three bedrooms. The students using these toilettes have keys to these outlets that they do not share with others. Every wing has one kitchen which lack basic equipment and cooking utensils, even gas cylinders, ovens, cupboards, sinks, boilers, refrigerators and soap.
Some of the rooms (the biggest measuring three-and-a half metres by three-and-a-half metres) house up to four students. Those with the right connections can each share a room on their own. And sometimes, some rooms are closed for the same reasons, according to Bushra Hamadi, the hostel’s director.
The prayer room is basically an entry area to the second floor that was turned into a space for prayer. It was not meant to house those desperate for a place to stay.
“The hostel is not a five star hotel. It provides adequate housing even if it were in shambles,” says Dr. Sinan Al Marhadi, vice-president of Student Affairs at Sana’a University. However, he admit that the girls are suffering but believes that “suffering breeds excellence!”
Gaining admission into the hostel is not an easy matter for a new student hoping to have her own room. It has come down to simply having a small area in which a student can feel safe. Girls do not give up hope.
Asmaa, who hails from the governorate of Reema, 200 km west of the capital Sana’a says: “I commenced the hostel admission process at the start of the academic year in 2013. They asked me to carry out the required medical tests: hepatitis and AIDS and then pay the 11500 Riyals ($53.49) fee per year.”
However, when she finished all procedures she was disappointed. “I met with the hostel director who told me there was no place although she did ask for all the admission papers and the receipt proving that the fee had been paid.” She adds: “A few days later I returned to get my file only to be told that she had no papers.”
Asmaa was forced to live at a friend’s house for a year. “When I went back to the hostel in search of a place, all I could find was the prayer room,” she says with sorrow.This investigation shows that the prayer room has become the last resort for many students who have no choice but to seek shelter, to return home or to give up on attaining a university degree.
Asmaa shares the floor of the prayer room with 15 other students, five from the governorate of Hijja, two from Amran, two from Al Hadeeda, three from Ta’ez and two whose families live in Saudi Arabia. Children of Yemeni expatriates are not permitted to seek university education in that kingdom.
The girls share the room with cats that sneak in through the open door and the uncovered windows. Paper sheets had been glued in an attempt to replace curtains. Luggage is strewn all over the place. In one of the corners stands a makeshift partition which girls use as space to change their clothes. In front of this partition are empty bottles of water and bags filled with soap, which the girls use to wash kitchen utensils since they are not permitted to use the kitchens in the hostel.
With the absence of a washroom in the prayer area, the students have to plead with one of the girls in possession of a key to the locked toilette space.
Ilham says, “the situation is very bad.”
Intissar recounts how she once got up in the middle of the night needing to go to the washroom only to find that it was locked with the room number written on the door. She had to wake up one of the supervisors to ask her to intervene with the girls so she could use the washroom.
She asked the supervisor: “what can I do should this happen again?” she was told that her only resort was to establish a friendship with one of the girls who has a key.
The hostel director Bushra Hamadi informed the vice-president for Student Affairs, Dr. Sinan AL Marhadi, in a report she presented in April 2014 that the director-general for university’s housing, Mohammad Al Zalab, housed 15 students in the prayer room “in cold conditions without washrooms or kitchen.”
Al Zalab says he is forced to accept female students there as they come with their parents to his office “and beg me to find them shelter anywhere, no matter the conditions so that they are not forced to return home without university education.”
He adds: “I find myself put in a situation where I have to let them stay in the prayer room.”
The hostel doctor does not have a clinic. The director says the private clinic was closed by the housing director to make room for students.
The hostel lacks internal regulations. But officials spend too much time talking about admission requirements.
The vice-president for student affairs says that hostel requirements stipulate that its residents should come from rural areas or from the applied and science colleges. However these rules are not respected.
He confirms that violations exist. Some residents come from other faculties such as education, commerce and art and not from rural areas, he says.
Dr. Al Marhadi believes that the problem at the hostel reflects the overall situation of the country. “Yemen is on the verge of bankruptcy. And when we see the dire situation we are in and the limited resources owned by the state, it is a wonderful thing that we are still alive.”
Dr. Al Marhadi says that the university put down regulations 20 years ago to organize the hostel and carry out maintenance work. However, these regulations have not yet been signed.
Bushra Hamadi, whose previous work experience includes a stint as a supervisor at the Science and Technology University Hostel – private investment – says she had attempted to apply the regulations that had been in place at her former place of employment to the Sana’a University hostel.
“But this did not work because of lack of cooperation from the university’s higher administration”.
Hamadi accuses the university’s administration of disrupting her duties: “I tried to the best of my ability to keep matters under control here at the hostel however I got no help from anyone. Any decision I took which the university approved would later be rescinded and they would take matters into their own hand.”
She adds: “I don’t have any authority and there are no regulations in effect at the hostel.”
All this forced her to stop working until a more cooperative administration was put in place to support her decisions, not undermine them.
The university’s disciplinary council had issued an order for the dismissal of five students from the hostel based upon a decision from Bushra Hamadi who cited “issues of morality and conduct that contravened with regulations”. This dismissal decision was signed by the university’s president on February 4, 2014.
But then it was overturned.
The president of Sana’a University, Dr. Abdul Hakim Al Sharjabi, however, said that all “decisions and punishments taken by the director of the hostel are immoral and illegal.” He said she was taking decisions based on factional reasons. He said though he had approved the decisions of the disciplinary council and the investigative committee, he also had the authority as university president ‘to change my mind and rescind any order even after I have approved it.” Yemen has eight state-owned universities in Sana’a, Thimar, Ta’ez, Hadramout, Al Hadeeda, Aden, Ibb and Al Baydaa. Sanaa University, which was established in 1971, is the largest.
This investigation revealed that the hostel had no rules to run the place and organise the distribution of rooms, as well as entry and exit of occupants. This means that 23 women employed at private and public corporations after their graduation from Sana’a University, still had rooms there.
Bushra Hamadi confirms the figure and says some of them had graduated in 2010. Others could not complete their studies due to low academic achievements but were still at the hostel though she had asked for their dismissal.
Mohammad Al Zalab, the director of housing, says he has nothing to do with these over-staying students. “It is Hamadi herself who has kept the girls at the hostel instead of asking them to leave as per the regulations”.
What is available to female student at hostels at Damascus University, a state-run facility in Syria, a country similar in resources to Yemen?
A supermarket with a grocery store selling fruits and vegetables, ready-made meals a falafel stand, pies, pastries, communications, hairdresser, photographer, bakery, and a dressmaker. All these services are offered at nominal fees that most students can afford. There hostels also have a sports facility and a centre to fill up gas cylinders for free, a laundry room and hot water and phones in every room to allow contact other residents. This information came from the website of the student hostel in Damascus.
But Sana’a University hostel has the following services, according to what this reporter uncovered: 9 Computer terminals that do not operate, an empty kitchen, faucets without running water, boilers that do not work, no meals and internet, a doctor with no clinic, community room with no television sets, a library with no books, empty refrigerators, and cookers with one burner. No water is available in underground storage tanks feeding the hotel. As a result, running water does not exceed one hour a day. Residents constantly complain of the shortage in the clean potable water supply.
Bushra Hamadi says housing director Mohammad Al Zalab is in charge of water supplies. The latter, however, explains that water supplies for the hostel were provided by the Faculty of Agriculture and its pipes are no longer in service. The water now comes from tanks of one of the nearby hostels.
Mohammad Makram, director of maintenance, says that the intentional control of water supply is “a form of collective punishment because the girls do not appreciate the cost of water and hence they waste it.”
Water pollution is no longer a suspicion. It is a fact. Sarah, one of the residents in the hostel says that she and her friends “repeatedly suffer from cases of diarrhoea due to the water they drink from faucets.” On one occasion she filled up a plastic bottle with water from the tap but forgot to drink it. After three days she found that the water had a foul smell.
Since then she became certain that the illnesses she suffered from were as a result of the water she was consuming.
“We asked the hostel administration repeatedly to provide us with clean potable water but no one has responded,” complains Sarah. They have to resort to buying water bottles from the nearby grocery store.
However most of the students who come from the rural area do not have the means to afford bottled water like Sarah. They are forced to drink the filthy tap water, as is the case with Nisreen from the governorate of Hijja – 123 km northwest of the capital. Nisreen suffers from an increase in sodium levels in her kidneys caused by drinking from the hostel’s tap water. “I can barely meet the living expenses and the education costs, how would I pay for drinking water?” she wonders.
She adds: “every now and then my kidney troubles come back and it is all because of the water.”
According to a questionnaire distributed by this reporter to 150 students at the hostel “the average amount paid by a student on water per month equals 1500 Riyals ($7). This means that over a period of six months a student would have to pay almost $45 — one quarter of an individual’s monthly income in Yemen.
The survey also reveals that one five-litre bottle lasts three days – at best. This means that each student needs 50 litres of water a month or ten bottles.
This reporter took samples of water from the hostel taps and analysed them at a central laboratory. Results proved that the water was contaminated with bacteria, human faeces and animal droppings present in underground water tanks. These pollutants cause diarrhoea and stomach complications and contravene the Yemeni drinking water specifications.
Residents had no choice but to go hungry or prepare/buy their own meals as well as cooking utensils.
The daily suffering of students does not stop at water shortages, lack of meals, overcrowding, living in the prayer room and administrative chaos. The building has had no serious maintenance since it was built in 1985. The hostel’s six bathroom, each with ten toilettes, are in poor condition and do not meet the basic requirements. Most have leakage problems. Humidity has infiltrated most walls.
Abdullah Masoud, a civil engineer who owns an office in the capital, says the moisture and humidity threaten the structure of the building and the health of its residents. Regular maintenance is necessary and on a yearly basis, says Masoud.
Dr. Mohammad Yousef, respiratory and chest diseases expert, says “humidity in walls can cause respiratory difficulties and chest ailments.”
In January 2012, the Sana’a Municipality started some maintenance work on the building but work stopped after six months due to lack of funds. President of the University, Dr. Abdul Hakim Al Sharjabi, refutes this saying that no maintenance work has been carried out on the building.
Maintenance director at the university Mohammad Makram says his annual budget of 400 thousand Riyals ($1860) from the overall university budget of 13 billion Riyals ($60 million) does not account for that.
While waiting for miracle to ease overcrowding and improve living conditions including a decent meal and clean water, Sarah and her friends have no choice but to live in an unhealthy condition or return home after giving up on their dream for a better future as university graduates.
This investigation was completed with support by Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism and coached by Sa’ad Hattar