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Mahra Youth Unity Association

Photo Credit: REUTERS

Elisabeth Kendall is a senior research fellow in Arabic and Islamic studies at Pembroke College at Oxford University. She works on the intersections between cultural and political/militant movements in the contemporary Middle East, especially in Egypt and Yemen. She spends significant time in the field and is the author or editor of several books, including Reclaiming Islamic Tradition (with Ahmad Khan, 2016), Twenty-First Century Jihad (with Ewan Stein, 2015), and Literature, Journalism and the Avant-Garde: Intersection in Egypt (2006). For the past five years, she has acted as an international adviser to a cross-tribal council in eastern Yemen that promotes social and political cohesion as a counterweight to Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and Islamic State expansion. Previously, she held tenured lectureships or fellowships at the Universities of Edinburgh, Oxford, and Harvard. Before returning to Oxford in 2010, she served as director of the Centre for the Advanced Study of the Arab World, a UK government sponsored initiative aimed at building Arabic language-based research expertise, with a research focus on jihad and martyrdom. She holds a BA, MA, and DPhil from the University of Oxford in Arabic and Islamic Studies. 

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How did you come to be involved Mahra Youth Union Association?


In 2010, I was introduced to Salem bin Ashour, the son of the leader of eastern Yemen’s cross-tribal council who was executed in the early 1970s when Marxist rebels overran the region after the British reneged early on their protection agreement. Salem is held in high esteem by local tribes and he asked for my help in trying to devise and implement ways to stabilize and develop the region. In 2011, he founded the MYUA as the vehicle for these important activities.


What Are Your Plans for 2019? 

There is strong evidence from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq to suggest that greater involvement of women in society helps to safeguard against conflict and extremism. The MYUA would like to implement three ideas in the coming year, pending funding.


To undertake a comprehensive survey of Mahri women to find out their hopes, aspirations and development ideas. This will ensure that future projects are genuinely local, self-generated and popular. It will give a credible and undisputed voice to women and remove any suspicion of western ‘interference’. The results can be fed through to regional and national government bodies, as well as the UN and aid organizations. It means that women will be speaking for themselves, rather than relying on male councils of tribal elders or political parties to pursue agendas that they believe to be in women’s best interests.


2-Women’s Newspaper

To launch a newspaper specifically by and for local women. The newspaper can be used for women to share ideas, tips, concerns, news and to propagate new projects that will be designed on the basis of the survey results. A group of prospective women editors and writers has already met with the Director of the MYUA to discuss a name, logo, timeline and workplan.


3-Health and the Environment

To start a weekly women’s group that can exercise safely together by walking vigorously (the traditional abaya robes preclude actual jogging!) along Mahra’s vast beaches. This would be coupled with a litter-picking remit, so the women will be armed with plastic sacks to start cleaning up their beautiful environment from the vast quantities of plastic bottles and wrappers that ruin their beaches. Their hope is that this will catch on.


What can the people reading this do?


This grass-roots charity in eastern Yemen welcomes any donation, no matter how small. Our overheads are tiny and we mobilize volunteers, so virtually 100% of any gift is directly injected into the community. Our projects are not geared towards humanitarian aid (many international charities are already doing this) but instead focus on long-term strategies to stabilise society, halt the cycle of conflict and empower women and youth. If you’re able to help publicise our work, or just wow us with a bright idea, that’s also fantastic!


What are your immediate funding needs?


The projected costs of keeping the “Ana wa Nahnou” (Me and Us) Education Programme for Peace and Stabilisation going for one full year in 50 schools with already trained teachers is £22,059. This includes £3,894 for printing 1,500 bespoke programme books. This cost is high because printing supplies are currently prohibitively expensive (partly owing to the Saudi blockade), the nearest printing facilities are in Mukalla which is a 1,000 km round trip, and the Egyptian NGO that originally authored the books requires a royalty fee.


What gets you out of bed in the morning?


Aside from a strong joie de vivre? A drive to make a difference, to make my education and experience count. A thirst to know and understand more. (And a somewhat addictive need to find out what happened overnight in the encrypted jihadist groups I follow.)

Yemen is the poorest country in the Middle East, with historically weak state institutions, fraught by civil war, with disparate groups vying for control of government. Mahra is one of the least developed regions of Yemen and has struggled recently with a deteriorating security situation and renewed recruitment efforts by extremist groups. Much of the population live in small communities with minimal educational opportunities. Even in larger towns where schools exist, education is marred by poor attendance, scarcity of learning materials and a lack of qualified teachers.

The Mahra Youth Unity Association (MYUA) helps to build strong societal relationships and bolster communities in the east at a volatile time (war, militant jihadist extremism, smuggling, militia recruitment, organised crime). Their work is especially strong in engaging youth and women. It helps to create opportunities and alternatives to criminal and extremist activity, and results in stabilization.

Education Programme for Peace and Stabilization

The MYUA has launched a programme called “Ana wa Nahnou” (Me and Us) in schools around Mahra. The programme is designed to promote stability by encouraging long-term thinking among Mahra’s next generation, both boys and girls. It trains existing local teachers to act as ‘facilitators’ to impart the programme’s principals in a fun and interactive way. These include: planning ahead, personal responsibility, community responsibility, linking actions to consequences, defining ambitions and necessary steps to achieve them, empathy, and seeing problems from the point of view of a different tribe or community. 

During 2018, the programme ran successfully in 28 schools for both boys and girls. In September, the MYUA ran an intensive training session, using a professional brought from the Ana wa Nahnou ‘mother’ programme in Egypt. 52 Mahri teachers were brought to Oman for the training – around half were new teachers, and half were trained the previous year so that they could compare best practice, offer advice, and receive refresher training. The training was a great success, with teachers enthused about what they might achieve. 

MYUA workers and volunteers continue to teach the programme in 28 schools, but are actively pursuing further funding before rolling out into 24 extra schools.


Fishing is a fundamental cornerstone of the (licit) economy in Mahra and supports a huge number of families. During 2018, the MYUA launched practical courses to help Mahri fishermen improve their skills, and therefore their catch and income, to compete with foreign trawlers in their waters. Their logic was also to support Mahra’s vital fishing sector to ensure it remains a viable alternative to smuggling and organised crime, which is rife along Mahra’s 560 km coastline. 

Courses were limited to 20 attendees owing to limited capacity and to the fact that not every fishermen can take a day off to attend a course. However, each attendee will share his knowledge with at least two of his fellow fishermen. Hence the class of 20 reaches 60. Each fisherman supports roughly 10 dependents. Therefore this initiative helps around 660 Mahris.

Three courses were completed during 2018: outboard motor maintenance; and two courses on how to use GPS for locating fish and for safe navigation. A future course is scheduled on how best to make and repair fishing nets. This will be attended by fishermen’s wives (there are no fisherwomen in eastern Yemen.. yet!) 

If you would like to support MYUA's work, donations can be made online by clicking here.

In The Spotlight: Dr Elisabeth Kendall