Walking and collecting, Yemeni keeps hopes alive in exile
The first was a habit he fell into when he was a young roads surveyor in rural Yemen, tramping for hours in the heat to scout the path ahead. It helps him meditate, he says. The second, he does because he “admires…strange things.”
The problem is, Abdillahi, who is now 63, is today stuck in a refugee camp in a foreign land, far from his favourite hikes. His coin collection – “thousands and thousands of coins” – he left behind in Aden when he fled.
Nonetheless, he still walks, around and around the camp. “Twenty kilometres a day,” he says. “Twenty thousand metres.” And along the way, he still collects, finding discarded oddities and objects to decorate his tent and its small, dusty garden.
Here at Markazi camp, Abdillahi and his “museum of curiosities” are famous. Twisted twigs lie by the bleached bones of long-dead animals. There are stones and seeds, an old sponge, sea shells, a small doll, a wooden spoon, badges and pins, and even an old army helmet.
He may be unconventional, but Abdillahi is an inspiration to his fellow refugees here not to give up, to keep up some of the passions and routines of home, even as a refugee.
Such inspirations are welcome as Yemen marks a year since civil war broke out last March, when years of political instability, economic hardship, and sectarian tensions boiled over into conflict that continues today.
The fighting has forced 173,000 people to find safety in foreign countries. Some 19,000 of them currently live in Djibouti, about 20 per cent in Markazi Camp.
“I escaped from death, from the bombs and from hell,” he says. Although he is not married and has no children, Abdillahi left behind a large family with many brothers and cousins. “My life has turned upside down, and as a result of the circumstances, one loses one’s mind,” he says.
But amid the anxieties and uncertainty of his circumstances, he knows what to do to stay strong. He moves: “El haraka baraka,” he says. It is a well-known Arabic proverb, meaning “there is blessing in movement.” Walking, he says, “provides peace and tranquillity.”
Now his little wonderland of curiosities is somewhere he can retreat to, a unique place of refuge where he can forget the world for a moment. Children come to look at his collection, and he tells them stories and urges them to be productive and useful. He leaves food scraps and fresh water for the birds. He finds great pleasure in hearing their chirping in the morning, he says.
Nonetheless, Abdillahi is conscious of the difficulties that surround him. UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, helps him and other Yemeni refugees at the camp with the basics – shelter, health care, some schooling – but life is a challenge.
In part of his garden Abdillahi calls his “graveyard” lie bones and skulls. “It shows that humanity in the end will be reduced to dust,” he says. “It is to…remind people [of that], so that they can return to their sanity.”
While he waits for that “sanity” to return – “at my age, all I want is to live in peace,” he says. He is content to keep moving, and collecting. “Beautiful things make people happy, and they make me happy,” he says, smiling.
By Amira Abdelkhalek in Markazi Camp, Djibouti