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Volunteers: A real inspiration in Yemen
15 December 2006
by Nisreen Shadad

Sana'a, Yemen: “Volunteers are the real inspiration for all of us. Volunteering is about people and beliefs…it’s about people believing to make a difference. All of us – no matter what our work or spatiality or area of work – can volunteer and make a difference,” says United Nations Resident Coordinator in Yemen Flavia Pansieri.

The panel at the Dec. 5 International Volunteer Day conference discussed volunteerism and its contribution to development. The event aimed to be a turning point in promoting volunteerism in Yemen and worldwide.

“Today is an initiative to all members of Yemeni civil society to admit the importance of the volunteer role in achieving Millennium Development Goals. In the early 1990s, Yemen had the biggest volunteer program and the largest number of volunteers in the Arab world. However, the number of volunteers is decreasing. We want this day to be a turning point in promoting volunteerism in Yemen and worldwide,” says U.N. Volunteers Program officer Kawtar Zerouali.

Celebrating the day afforded an important opportunity for organizations benefiting from the experience of volunteers, as well as individual volunteers, to gather with one voice to highlight and promote their contributions to economic and social development at both national and international levels.

Contributing to volunteer work ennobles men and women and promotes their society. “Volunteer work is vital and important to develop our society and broaden our horizons because it furnishes society with needed skills,” says Tariq Abulhoom Chairman of the Board of Trustees at the University of Science and Technology, “It activates and energizes Yemeni youths, who actually are aware of the dimension of society’s problems and how to control them. It helps volunteers gain experience and invest their free time in a very productive way.”

Both national and international volunteer programs play an important role in promoting volunteerism. Yemen’s U.N. Volunteers Program and the Charitable Society for Social Welfare program served as models at the conference.

“It’s a very effective and essential means to achieve Millennium Development Goals and requires the involvement of all people. We all individually – and civil society organizations in particular – have an important role to play in the country’s development." Pansieri stated.

“In this respect, I’d like to underline an important fact: women play a very important role in promoting volunteerism. The U.N. Volunteers Program has a long history in Yemen – more than 25 years. We have up to a maximum of 30 volunteers in the country, both national as well as international, who assist in disaster management and humanitarian relief, as well as refugee and electoral support. They live in remote areas and in poor conditions. More than half are native volunteers and a third are women,” she added.

Abdu Al-Majeed Farhan, executive director of the Charitable Society for Social Welfare, explained the reasons for his organization’s success. “The first reason for our success is clarity of the vision, message and objectives, as well as noble aims and right principles and systems used in our methodology.

“The second reason is observance, evaluation and transparence in finances and administration. Such methodology leads to better-versed volunteers who trust us and consequently, volunteer in our organization,” he concluded.

However, Mohammed Al-Masyabi, founder and chief executive of the Yemeni Development Foundation, says charitable associations and foundations must be systematic. “In our society, we used to volunteer, but it was hit-and-miss. Yemen has 5,000 charitable associations and foundations, but the Ministry of Social Affairs complains about lack of observance of rules and systems that charitable associations must follow.”

Al-Masyabi also mentioned the importance of attending to eminent religious figures and scholars. “Those in this gathering aren’t in contact with the public. We need people with influence on youths – religious figures and scholars – to be with us. We need people from all fields because every single person is useful,” he maintained.

Eminent volunteer and honored guest at the celebration, Yahya Mohammed Ali Abdullah Saleh, cautioned volunteers about politicizing volunteer work. “Volunteers must work for the sake of the country’s development, not wait to gain political placement or receive payment.”

Panel members also gave inspiring speeches about understanding volunteerism and sharing their individual experiences. In his speech, Lukas Poliacr, who volunteers at Girls World Communication Center, noted, “In my Czech language, volunteer is doprovolek means good and volek means will. Therefore, volunteer means good will. Being a volunteer begins here – having good will – and then there are many things to offer.

“Not only that, for me, it symbolizes the word democracy – to be free of what to do – but taking responsibilities at the same time. What volunteerism brings to us as volunteers firstly is developing people and helping society. The second is gaining new skills, experiences, friends and different perspectives,” he concluded.

Mohammed Al-Sa’adi also inspired attendees with his experience, his spontaneous character and his tender nature, which led him to help patients in Mahwit governorate. “In Mahwit governorate, the average number of casualties from onchocerciasis [also known as river blindness] is approximately 90 percent. Onchocerciasis is a chronic parasitic disease that may result in changing skin color due to severe itching, which may lead to secondary infection and blindness in some cases. The cause of this disease is nematodes with hooked tails (onchocerca volvulus),” he explained.

“Having no medicine, Mahwit residents use knives and stones to scratch their skin harshly. I worked hard to fulfill their needs. The Charitable Society for Social Welfare supported me in controlling such a disease because most areas where onchocerciasis is endemic are poor and deprived of health care services. I learned the meaning of volunteerism when I saw their eyes sparkle,” he continued.

However, while helping residents and distributing medicines to patients Al-Sa’adi faced several obstacles, the most important of which was a trail of selling medicine, which he struggled long to bring to the poor governorate.

“While distributing medicine, a man in authority asked me to give him some of the medicine, but I refused. He informed the police against me and consequently, they put me in the prison. When residents got wind of my being in prison, they all stood beside me until I was freed,” he recounted.

Presenting certificates of appreciation to such volunteers in Yemen also enhanced volunteerism and gave recipients a feeling of honor. “Today is a day of gratitude and fidelity to all volunteers. It’s the day we admit the priceless services volunteers offer and the invaluable accomplishments they perform,” Deputy Minister of Social Affairs Ali Saleh Abdullah said.

Initiated and funded by Yemen’s U.N. Volunteers Program and supported by the Ministry of Planning and International Cooperation, the conference was planned and organized in partnership with the volunteer organizations.