Stories of Change
Wajdi in his office at StARS.
I fled war and corruption in Yemen. Here’s how CWS’s partner in Cairo has helped my family and me build a new life.
Told by Wajdi Mansour Al Mowafak, the Director of Finance at St. Andrew’s Refugee Services (or StARS) in Cairo. CWS supports StARS as they reach tens of thousands of refugees in Cairo each year with education, medical, legal, housing, vocational and other assistance.
Before the war, I was the audit manager for the Central Organization for Control and Auditing in Yemen’s capital city, Sana’a. I also had my own auditing firm where I had 10 people working with me.
Life was good. It was peaceful. I had my own home and my own car. Everything was very good.
Then the war started. My house was bombed by tanks in 2014. The government in the north couldn’t afford to pay salaries for government employees, so they stopped our salaries. We worked for a year without pay. Because of the war, many companies stopped requesting audit reports. I had to close my auditing firm, and life began to be really difficult without the firm or my government salary.
Then I was expected to audit the largest oil and gas company in Yemen. Oil companies are the most difficult to audit because most of the corruption is in this field. I discovered some corruption, and they requested that I not submit my report about it. When I thought about submitting this report, I thought about my co-workers. Two were killed because of auditing reports they submitted, and another had acid thrown on his face.
I was scared to submit the report, and I knew that I needed to leave the country. So I submitted it on a Friday evening and left at dawn the next day. I went to Aden, which is a city in the south of Yemen that still had an airport. There are only two countries that receive Yemeni refugees: Egypt and Jordan. It’s difficult to move to Jordan, so I chose Egypt.
In order to enter Egypt, I needed to have a medical reason. My father has Parkinson’s, so I brought him with me, along with my mother and sister. This also gave me a plausible reason for leaving that I could tell my employer. I left my family behind in Sana’a.
We took a bus from Sana’a to Aden, which took about 16 hours. We went through more than 100 checkpoints. At one of them, the guards told me to get off the bus when they learned that I worked for the Central Organization for Control and Auditing. They told me it meant that I was working for the regime in the south, and they told me, ‘Come down from the bus.’ But the other people on the bus, they said, ‘No, his father is sick. He can’t leave his father alone.’ Then the officer said, ‘Okay, but if your father wasn’t with you, I would take you to jail.’ All because I was working with the government.
We made it to Egypt in December 2016. It’s very difficult for non-Egyptians to find work here, especially for refugees. At first, I lived off my savings. Then I found a job with a company, but soon that company moved from Egypt to Dubai.
One day, I came across a Facebook post that said that StARS was hiring a finance officer. It was the first I had heard of StARS. I submitted my CV and cover letter, but I was surprised when they called me because I am a refugee. But they called me to come in and interview, and I got the job.
Meanwhile, my family was still in Yemen. They weren’t safe. When my office received my report, they tried to contact me about it. They threatened me, and they used my family to threaten me. I told them that I couldn’t come back. I said that my father was sick and that I needed to stay with him in Cairo while he got his medication.
After two years apart, my family came to join me in Cairo. Tickets from Yemen cost $1,200 each, and I have three children. I told my wife to sell some of our things to pay for the tickets. I told them that now that I had a job, we could all live here together.
I have been working for StARS for 15 months. Now I’m the Director of Finance and lead a team of six people. My son Mohammed is 15 years old now, and my daughters Alaa and Maria are 11 and 6. All three are students in the StARS school. They study science, math, Arabic, English…a whole variety of subjects.
StARS is a safe place. And when I want to see my children, I can just go down to the courtyard and see them. Sometimes they come into my office to get water or papers or something. And as students at the StARS school, they study with children from many nationalities and many religions. When you see the children here, they are all studying and playing together. It makes you wonder why as adults, as governments, we can’t act like these children do. They don’t think of religions between them. They don’t think of a variety of nationalities. They don’t think of discrimination. All of them play together. All of them laugh together.
StARS is a unique place here in Egypt. Most staff are refugees. So whenever someone supports or donates to StARS, they are directly supporting refugees. Even the funds that go towards paying staff salaries, they are going to refugees like me to help us live in this host country.
I miss Yemen a lot. I miss the weather, which is very beautiful. Yemen is very beautiful in general. My close family are all here in Cairo, but I miss my neighbors, my cousins and everyone back in Yemen. They are still suffering. I wish everyone knew how tough things have been there. The conflict has caused more than 300,000 people to die. Now disease is spreading. We have cholera. People are starving. Government workers don’t have salaries. The worst humanitarian crisis in the world is now in Yemen. People die from disease, from starvation and from war.
For a year after I came to Cairo, I was scared whenever I heard airplanes. In Yemen, every time we heard airplanes, we would hear and feel the bombs. When my children arrived in Cairo, it was the same thing. Every time they hear airplanes, they say, ‘Dad, they are bombing now.’
I am grateful, though, that my family is here now. My wife and children are safe. My salary from StARS meant that they could leave Yemen and be here with me, where I can see them every day. And StARS is an amazing place. It’s my first time working with so many nationalities and religions. No one asks you about it here. We just work together. We are one family, and it’s difficult to find that anywhere.