When we first came to Yemen, I was obsessed with keeping my children safe. All I knew about the country was what I had read in the Lonely Planet Guide for Yemen, and what people had heard from other people who had heard from other people…and you know how reliable that sort of information is. I was worried about everything from the very small- bacteria in the water and food- and the very large- kidnappers sporting AK-47’s.
As it turned out, worrying about either end of the spectrum was pointless. No matter how well I washed the fruits and veggies, or how careful I was with the water, for the first few months the children took turns experiencing various stomach and chest ailments. My husband and I figured it was simply because our bodies had never met up with any of the germs that were hanging out in Yemen, so we had no immunity to them. After a maybe four months or so, the frequency and intensity of the illnesses lessened until eventually we all must have Yemen-ized.
As for the gun toting tribal kidnappers, well, they never materialized either. In general we”ve found the Yemenis to be the most generous, good-hearted neighbors anyone could ask for. Often, in fact, the roughest looking characters end up being the kindest and most helpful. That being said, we did, and still do, keep a very close eye on our children, just as we would if we were in the States.
What do we look out for? Well, when we moved to Ma’bar, a small village not too far from Sana’a, a Somali friend who had been living there for a long time warned us not to let the girls play outside because there had been some children stolen in the area recently. There is a bit of a history of kidnapping foreigners in Yemen as well- it used to be they were held as leverage to get the government to build a school or water pump, were treated as honored guests and released. Nowadays, though, the Houthis and al-Qaidah have shown that all bets are off for hostages coming out alive. This type of kidnapping was never a major concern for us, though, as we don’t fit the profile of their hostages, with being Muslim and living with the people like we do. But a random kidnapping here, just as occurs in the States, is possible, so we don’t let them play outside unsupervised, and teach them how to deal with people they don’t know who approach them.
It’s a delicate balance with children- you don’t want them to be afraid of people, or think the worst of everyone, but you do have to teach them to pay attention to their surroundings and exercise caution when dealing with the unknown.
We teach them the value of good companionship, and warn them away from people who could influence them in a bad manner. We did this in America, and we continue to do this here. We monitor them, of course, making sure we are aware of who they are spending time with and exercising the right to say “no” to anyone we feel is not good for them. However, more importantly, we teach them to judge this for themselves, and have found that in general they learn how to weigh potential companions very quickly and do a good job of choosing who to befriend, who to be acquaintances with, and who to stay away from.
We try very hard to make sure that they know they can come to us whenever they have a problem or are unsure about something or someone. The lines of communication are always open, and we make sure they know that we will listen to them and take them seriously.
We have brought them up to be confident in themselves and their beliefs, and to not be afraid to be different or go against what many people may see as the norm. I remember when we lived in Colorado a group of older children threw stones at Mujaahid when he was playing outside our house. I became furious when I saw the blood on his little blond head, and wanted to call the cops and confront the parents of those children. Mujaahid, however, took it in stride. At five years old, he understood that the hatred they showed for him was baseless, and that nothing we did or said would change them. Instead, he knew he had to be cautious around them and know what was happening around him at all times.
There are many other things we do to keep our children safe, and most of them cross both physical and cultural boundaries. Rana DiOrio has written an excellent book for children on this subject, What Does It Mean To Be Safe? It covers all the bases, from buckling your seatbelt to being comfortable and safe in your belief system to how to deal with strangers in person and online. The author stresses both the importance of good communication between parents and children as well as a personal responsibility that encourages the child to be aware of his own ability to keep himself safe in many situations. My children thoroughly enjoyed the book. I read it to them as a treat after a particularly good day of homeschooling, and I heard them talking about it amongst themselves for days later. The language is simple and clear, and the topic is one that is vital for the well-being of our children.
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What Does It Mean To Be Safe? Find out for yourself. It is published by Little Pickle Press and is printed in an environmentally-friendly manner using recycled paper, soy inks, and green packaging. Readers of Yemen Journey will receive free shipping and a poster if they enter the code BBTSAFE at the check out.
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