“Actually, I did choose a good period to work in Yemen,” Gerrianne says jokingly. “During the corona crisis, the rest of the world was also locked down. As a result, people have come to understand a little better what it is like to function here, with so many limitations and uncertainty. What we experience here, is exactly that feeling of a lockdown. But then permanently.”
Blood, sweat and tears for the Yemenis
She was never afraid. But overtired – yes, by countless nights in the safe room. Gerrianne Pennings worked for ZOA in Yemen for two and a half years, where a civil war has been raging since 2015. She is now returning to her home country, The Netherlands, for the time being. “The Yemenis are the only reason I've managed to stay here for so long.”
Gerrianne worked for ZOA in Yemen
Living in a permanent lockdown
For two and a half years, the Dutch Gerrianne Pennings (30) gave her heart and soul to Yemen. From their 'Prison Palace' in the capital Sana'a, she and her teammates monitored the quality and progress of ZOA's projects in the war-torn country. Life in a permanent lockdown was hard for her, but she persevered. Only because of the Yemenis.
The war in Yemen broke out in 2015. It is a conflict of the population against those in power, and between the north and the south of the country. The interference of other countries has also turned it into an international conflict. In April of this year, the tide seemed to turn: a ceasefire was announced, which eventually lasted until the beginning of October.
“We all hoped that the ceasefire would be extended for a long time,” said Gerrianne, who celebrated her thirtieth birthday on the day it ended. “But unfortunately, that was not the case. The future is very uncertain for the Yemenis.”
It is the Yemeni people that Gerrianne has come to love more than anything in the past two and a half years, and she devoted herself “with heart and soul” to them. After her master's degree in International Migration and Social Cohesion, she started working for ZOA in Uganda in 2017. She left that country just before the outbreak of the corona crisis, to exchange it for Yemen after a short period in The Netherlands.
She started as a coordinator for Monitoring, Evaluation, Accountability and Learning and later took on the roles of Manager of Programme Quality and Grant Coordinator. She is mainly involved in monitoring the quality, progress and funding of ZOA's projects in Yemen. These mainly focus on providing emergency aid with cash vouchers and clean drinking water, as well as sanitation and awareness about hygiene. The support is desperately needed, because a large part of the Yemenis has been teetering on the edge of famine for years.
Gerrianne has a tough combination of functions, in an environment that is at least as tough. “Your whole life is your work here,” she says in her last weeks before leaving Yemen. She has been able to travel a few times to project locations in the country. But most days she spends entirely in the ZOA office and team house next door in Yemen's capital Sana'a.
“We call it our Prison Palace,” she says with a grin. “Here I work, I exercise, I cook and I relax. We can never just go out on the street. Never get groceries by ourselves. We need permission for everything.”
When she is allowed to go out with one of the drivers, she wears an abaya (long black dress) and a hijab (head scarf). “I just see it as my work uniform,” she says. “You get used to the clothing. But all in all, it asks a lot of you to give up so much freedom.”
Everything in Yemen is complicated, says Gerrianne, partly because of the conflict. “Everything takes time. A lot of time.” In Uganda she had already become accustomed to a looser culture. But to her, the uncertainty in Yemen is of a completely different order. “Everything is uncertain. You should always have plans B, C, D, E, F and G ready.”
At the beginning of this year, plan G had to go into effect almost daily as violence intensified in the country. Due to heavy air raids on Sana'a, the ZOA team spent night after night in the safe room. For two months straight.
“Almost every night we were woken up by the bombs and planes,” she recalls. “After a few nights like that, I started to take it into account. Before I went to sleep, I made sure to have my socks and charged phone ready. And we stocked up on cookies and chocolate in the safe room. That made the nights more bearable there.”
It was a very intensive period, also for the Yemeni team members. Gerrianne was not afraid. “But overtired, yes. Because of all those sleepless nights. In the meantime, we tried to keep the work going. At the same time, we sensed a special kind of togetherness. We were all just as exhausted.”
Hospitable and resilient
A period of relative calm followed. The big question now is what will happen to Yemen. The grueling two months at the start of the year contributed to Gerrianne's decision to leave the country – as difficult as that is for her. “At one point I noticed my body has been in an abnormal situation for too long. It's been enough. I have given my blood, sweat and tears to the people of this country. Now I long for a little more freedom. And especially for being with my family. I’ve missed them so much.”
Most Yemenis do not have the choice to leave – she is well aware of that. She lost her heart to the people of Yemen. “The Yemenis are the only reason I've managed to stay here for so long. They are such wonderful people. Extremely hospitable and resilient. Even after nearly eight years of war, they still don't hold up their hands to receive help. They choose to tackle their problems together. That is really special to see.”
Gerrianne's motivation is deeply rooted in the people she works for. She has realized this more than ever in Yemen. “It's not about me,” she says. “I only play a small role. It's about us together. In Love, with a capital L, we can make a difference.”
Gerrianne is going to miss the Yemenis; she is sure of that. But at the same time, she is looking forward to experience freedom in her home country without corona measures. An end to the lockdown. Finally. “The first thing I’ll be doing in The Netherlands is biking to the supermarket by myself!”