"[In Yemen] the situation is quite desperate. We have probably two thirds of the population which relies on our humanitarian assistance for their daily survival. We have half of the health facilities that have been destroyed by five years of the conflict. We have one person out of eight which has been displaced by the conflict. And the result of all that -- on top of the coronavirus, which is not even the main concern in terms of communicable disease, because we have cholera, we have malaria, we have chikungunya, we have dengue fever."
This week’s guest is Jean-Nicolas Beuze, Representative of the UN Refugee Agency in Yemen. Beuze discusses the disparity between the Western world's outlook and the harsh realities most of the Yemeni people face “The Western world worries about the Coronavirus. Yemen cannot even afford to worry about it because we have [several grave communicable diseases] plus, there is a famine.”
In a deeply personal interview about his career helping refugees and victims of torture, he describes being driven by the “denial of their human rights” and that “injustice was something I could not accept”. He also reveals fearing for the first time for his own loved ones who face the dangers of COVID-19 back home.
Melissa Fleming 00:00
From the United Nations, I'm Melissa Fleming, and this is Awake at Night. Today, my guest is Jean-Nicolas Beuze, the Representative of the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR, in Yemen. Jean-Nicolas, you have worked in crisis-hit areas around the world and let me name just a few: Syria, Sudan, Libya, Afghanistan. But before we hear about that, I'd like to ask you now, how is the situation in Yemen where you are now?
Jean-Nicolas Beuze 00:47
The situation in Yemen is really a dire one. It's one of the worst I’ve experienced and, as you mentioned, I've worked in pretty tough places. Here, the situation is quite desperate. We have probably two thirds of the population which relies on our humanitarian assistance for their daily survival. We have half of the health facilities that have been destroyed by five years of the conflict. We have one person out of eight which has been displaced by the conflict. And the result of all that -- on top of the coronavirus, which is not even the main concern in terms of communicable disease, because we have cholera, we have malaria, we have chikungunya, we have dengue fever.
So, it's a combination of all those factors that means people are barely keeping their head above the water. And I see that on a daily basis when I go and meet families which have been displaced by the conflict.
Melissa Fleming 01:48
Is there one story that you can recall recently that really just stayed with you?
Jean-Nicolas Beuze 01:55
We visited a collective shelter in Hudaydah, which is one of the main frontlines. I was doing the visit, playing a bit with the kids, asking questions to the parents and in the corner there was a woman who had a beautiful dress with an African print. But her face had something a bit bizarre. She had been entirely burned by an explosion, a bomb which had dropped next to her. She was going to the market to buy food for kids and her entire body, as she said, went on fire. This is the kind of image which stays with you for a while. Because that's why I've chosen to work in this field. It’s for that kind of woman.
Melissa Fleming 02:45
So you couldn't see the burns on her body but you could see the pain in her eyes?
Jean-Nicolas Beuze 02:50
And the burn on her face and the fact that her whole demeanor was so...There was something extremely elegant and dignified about the way she was interacting with me. She didn't beg for anything. She was not appealing for help. She probably knew that there was very little we could really do, except perhaps help a bit with some cash assistance to give a bit more comfort. But at the core, there was really nothing we can do for her. She would probably need treatment in another country, because the medical facilities here will never have that kind of expertise in it. She was not asking for anything.
Melissa Fleming 03:28
This war has gone on for years and years with so much suffering. Was she a bit resigned to her suffering?
Jean-Nicolas Beuze 03:37
She was resigned to her suffering. She was, like any mother in the world, concerned more about the survival of her kids. She was a widow.
Melissa Fleming 03:46
You spend your days going out to see people who are displaced by this conflict, displaced internally. I know that you're also responsible for the refugee population, people who have actually fled to Yemen and have sought safety there. But now, given this horrific humanitarian situation, just describe what a living situation is like for the average Yemeni these days.
Jean-Nicolas Beuze 04:16
The situation now of refugees specifically in Yemen is one of discrimination, of scapegoating. It was quite worrisome at the beginning of the pandemic to see that, despite the fact that refugee communities have been relatively well integrated. We are speaking about Somali refugees in Yemen who have been there for decades. Suddenly, the Yemeni needed to find an explanation for COVID-19 or a scapegoat. So, they pointed fingers at the refugees. It was also combined with racism, darker skin, coming from Africa.
Allegations that they were not as healthy and focused on hygiene as the Yemeni population. And it’s true that there was something also related to the migratory status of the people. The fact that those people were on the move. And we saw that also with the Yemeni IDPs being displaced. So, there was this perception by the general population, an intuition that if, if the COVID has come to my community, to my village or to my neighborhood, it's because somebody brought it in. And then of course, people who are on the move, whether it's refugees or Yemeni families displaced by the conflict, are the perfect scapegoat.
Melissa Fleming 05:40
It must be just unimaginable for most people to think about living in a conflict zone, living in a country where there has been a horrific war, a destructive war, a deadly war, for so many years, and then compounded by a pandemic. For those who had to leave their homes and are living in precarious situations, can you just describe one of those living situations?
Jean-Nicolas Beuze 06:11
So, most people will live in one room with probably an extended family. Two or three generation, cousins who have found refuge in the same place because people can simply not pay rent. So, you gather everybody in the same room. The room is used for breakfast and lunch. There's often no dinner because they don't have enough to buy food. It's the same place where they cook and it's the same place where they sleep. So, for them, it was also very interesting to engage with them on what it means to take preventative measures against a COVID-19?
No, you cannot have two metres apart from a family member who may show symptoms because it's only one room. No, you cannot wash your hands regularly because there is no tap water and the children of the woman will have to go five kilometres away to get some water. No, you don't wash your hands because between buying a bit of rice and soap, you choose the rice. And no, you don't stop going out to beg on the street or to have one of those daily meagre wages from daily work because the money you get in the morning is the money which allows you to buy lunch.
It was fascinating how even the UN was obsessed about saying you need to empower people to take the preventative measure and I was like, ‘Come on. Let's wait a minute. This is not realistic for any of the people I meet.’ Yes, the Western world worries about the coronavirus. Yemen cannot even afford to worry about the coronavirus because we have malaria, chikungunya, cholera and dengue fever. All that. Plus, there is a famine.
Melissa Fleming 08:04
Wow. It's hard to imagine all of those threats and the last one you mentioned is probably one of the most devastating of all, the most devastating, the threat of famine. Are you seeing signs of it being there now or impending?
Jean-Nicolas Beuze 08:23
Yes, we see it in the clinic, in particular for the refugee community. I met a little girl -- Fatima, 14 months old, and she weighed five kilos. She should have weighed 10 kilos at her age, 14 months, and she was really in severe malnutrition. And it was really sad because the father was really explaining that the little girl, Fatima, was not keeping any food, she had diarrhoea, and even the meals that the mother was giving -- it was very difficult for him to understand, or maybe he had blocked the fact that his child was malnourished.
Melissa Fleming 09:06
Jean-Nicolas, just before moving to Yemen to serve as UNHCR Representative, you were based in Canada, where you had probably a very safe life with lots of freedom of movement. I want to understand: why do you choose a place like Yemen as your next posting, which is just so difficult in so many ways? It's dangerous. It's devastating. There's so much suffering around. What is it about you that chooses to go to places that are so challenging and difficult?
Jean-Nicolas Beuze 09:43
First, I think it's really the curiosity. I think I'm somebody very curious about others, about different ways of looking at life. So, a country like Yemen is fascinating because it has everything. It has this tribal dimension. It’s a very ancient culture. It’s a beautiful country in terms of the setting; the sea, the mountains, the desert, so I was very attracted by that. I think there is also something more personal.
I look for challenges. I'm not interested in jobs or functions that I can do with my eyes closed. I get very impatient very quickly, I have no patience whatsoever. And I get bored very quickly. So, I want those challenges. I want to be confronted with a difficult situation, difficult choice to make for my organization, for my colleagues, for the people we serve. That's what drives me.
I've been to Afghanistan. I've been to Congo during the war. I've been to Libya during the NATO bombing.
Melissa Fleming 10:55
You are such an empathetic person. That's the quality really most needed when serving refugees. Why the cause of refugees for you? Why did you choose this cause -- refugees and forcibly displaced people, people who've been forced to flee their homes because of conflict?
Jean-Nicolas Beuze 11:19
My whole engagement on humanitarian response or with refugees is driven by really a strong belief in human rights. And I think that in the case of refugees and displaced families by conflict, you go to the core of the denial of any rights to those people that don't ever stay to protect them. They don't ever stay to provide them with the basics, education, health, a job, safety. The refugees, in particular, encapsulate this denial of human rights at a scale which is different than dealing with only one aspect of violation. I worked a lot at the beginning on torture. An absolutely horrendous violation. But in the case of refugees, I feel that you touch all the variety of rights. I find really the deprivation of rights at the core of displacement, being something I want to be part of, in the sense of finding a solution.
Melissa Fleming 12:30
Have you felt any time since you've been in Yemen, where you've actually felt gratification because you as UNHCR’s Representative, have been able to provide dignity to people who are forced to flee?
Jean-Nicolas Beuze 12:45
Where I found the most joy was when my national colleagues felt that we were making a difference. When the national colleagues came back to me and said ‘Yeah. It's the first time that somebody in a position of authority in UNHCR has said that to the authorities or has uncovered this problem.’ And I know it even more, because they know that country. They've been there. They will be there after me. And if I can give them the sense of pride that we are making the difference, I can go to bed and sleep.
Melissa Fleming 13:26
During the pandemic, you were actually unable to leave Yemen for six months. How has COVID-19 affected you personally?
Jean-Nicolas Beuze 13:40
It's the first time for me, as a Westerner who was brought up in a bourgeois family, that I had to worry about my loved one at home. And that really led to some issues of ‘Where is my loyalty? Is my loyalty with the organization and the people I serve in Yemen? Or should my loyalty be with my ageing parents, my partner, friends and family who probably needed me equally?’
So for the first time, and it was interesting, because I realized that for national colleagues who live and work in the country where they have to feed their children, but also feed the children of others, but maybe also for quite a number of our international colleagues who come from countries in conflict or even violence or under-development, they are never completely at peace when they are on the ground, serving others. For me, up to COVID-19, I will go to Afghanistan, but I knew my family, my friends, and my partner was safe. Things could happen, but not of the magnitude of the pandemic. I had a sense of guilt, of course.
But I'm very lucky. My parents are in a situation where they can afford to still support me in my decision to work in a country like Yemen. And it's a real privilege because I really believe in the family support in our line of work. We speak a lot about friends and it's true that the friendships coming out of this difficult situation are friendships which last for life. But I think the family support is also extremely important. It's what grounds you when you are facing those dilemmas of saying ‘Should I stay, or should I go?’
Melissa Fleming 15:40
So, your parents, who I believe are in Geneva, we're saying to you, ‘Jean-Nicolas, stay in Yemen; the people of Yemen need you more’?
Jean-Nicolas Beuze 15:50
Yes, and we will make sure that we don't go out so nothing happens to us, so that you can really focus on what's happening around you in Yemen.
Melissa Fleming 16:01
And I believe your partner lives in Lebanon, a city that has been completely devastated by a horrific blast at the port and now is consumed with COVID-19. So, you must also be very worried.
Jean-Nicolas Beuze 16:16
It's very interesting because I left, for the first time after six months, at the end of July. And then there was the blast on the fourth of August. We were in Turkey actually. You know, the concept is rest and recuperation. So, you arrive, you unwind, you don't sleep well because you are still very tense, and you have all the adrenalin. And then the bombing happened so then there was a whole question: ‘Do we rush to Lebanon? And frankly speaking, in a totally honest way, I told my partner ‘I'm sorry, but I'm coming from Yemen, I simply cannot. I simply cannot go to Lebanon and see the misery. I will be of no use whatsoever. And I will probably have a nervous breakdown’
I was lucky up ‘til now because I've always been protected from that kind of situation where my heart gets torn into two different directions, and my mind and what I can do for people, and the sense that I want to be useful, I mean, and especially useful for your loved one. In those kinds of circumstances, it becomes very difficult to make choices.
Melissa Fleming 17:33
It must have been very troubling for you to not have that assurance that the people you love the most were in a safe place.
Jean-Nicolas Beuze 17:44
I must say, it's really unsettling. And it's triggered an old kind of question: Why do I continue in that line of work? Am I not more useful being back home and maybe working with a community-based organization and doing something much more concrete for people that I know, I care for, I love. But at the same time, I am starting to know and I certainly can love the Yemeni. So, it's not about whether it's a personal relationship that you establish at an individual or emotional or through family links, that is driving my desire, at least, to change the world.
I can have equally as much empathy for the Yemeni that a year ago I didn't know than people I've been, as you said, living, working, loving for years and years -- the Lebanese, and my friends and the family of my partner. It's an interesting paradox for many humanitarians of resetting our priorities, our loyalty, the meaning of being out there, while as you said, nobody's safe anymore. And probably nobody was ever safe, in the sense that terrorism has been a threat for everyone. I remember, when there were the killings in Paris, I was in Lebanon. And it was another moment where you feel like ‘Where do I stand here?’
Melissa Fleming 19:24
Jean-Nicolas, before you came to Yemen, you worked in various humanitarian, peacekeeping and human rights roles, and mostly for the United Nations. What drew you to this work in the first place?
Jean-Nicolas Beuze 19:41
A sense that I was born with a silver spoon in my mouth. A sense at a personal level that injustice was something I could not accept. That people were treated differently because of their color of skin, their religion, their sexual orientation, or health was something I really could not accept. And a sense of belonging to humanity, in the sense that we are one. And that I wanted to be part of this community of human beings and make it... It sounds probably a bit simplistic, but that I wanted to make it a better place because I belong to this humanity, and I believe in this humanity. But I also know that this humanity is really mean with itself.
Melissa Fleming 20:52
How did you start thinking like this? I mean, you must have had some influences as in your family, what was your childhood like, and maybe who influenced you to think this way?
Jean-Nicolas Beuze 21:04
My parents come from two different backgrounds -- my father from a very posh background and my mother from a more humble background. But both of them had really this sense of justice. I remember going with them from a young age to demonstrations, against this and that. There is also probably an element of me feeling unjustly treated by other kids from a young age and feeling that that was not fair. I think those two factors explain probably my interest in human rights. And I'm born and raised in Geneva, which is the capital of human rights, of humanitarianism, of the ICRC and so on and so forth. So, you have these exposures that there is a way to get engaged on those issues and make a difference. It's very strong in Geneva, I feel.
Melissa Fleming 22:08
I wonder: When you look back on your career, do you have any regrets?
Jean-Nicolas Beuze 22:13
Immediately comes to mind one situation in Brazil. We were visiting a prison and detention centre. And we interviewed a number of young people who had been detained in horrible conditions. Most of them had been actually tortured in the police station to force them into a confession. Of course, it's always difficult to do interviews in a detention place. We take all the precautions. We asked whether the detainees wanted to speak to us. We do it in a confidential manner. We try to put in place mechanisms to follow up so that there are no reprisals against those who have given us their testimonies and trust us with their testimonies.
It's amazing. Very rarely prisoners, detainees, refuse to speak to us. It's not only about their own case, and that they hoped that they are going to be released by us. It’s really a sense of solidarity. I've heard so many of them telling us, ‘I don't want that to happen to my younger brother. I don't want the same to happen to my friends or my family members.’ But in that case, it was in Rio de Janeiro, we interviewed a number of kids and a few days later, their bodies were found in a ditch, not too far from the detention places.
I'm using this example but there have been many of those examples in my life. In Congo, the same. In Afghanistan, we profiled the fantastic police commissioner, a woman in the north and, yeah, a few weeks later, she was killed. So, you have all those regrets. You always think, ‘Did I really leave a choice to the person? Was the person really aware of the risk and the consequences? Am I the one behind?’ Of course, it's not me who is killing the person, but am I part of the reason why this person ended up killed?
You feel bad. You feel bad. You have doubts and then you think that you have to respect, at least when the consent is given after conversation about what are the risks, when it's an informed consent and when it's a free consent, you have to accept that people take their destiny in their hands. And I'm not the one to judge. I'm not the one who can decide on their behalf whether it's a risk to take. I had one presenter once who told me, ‘I know I probably won't see the dead tomorrow morning. But I want to do it because it's bigger than me.’ I have to respect that even if the consequences can be absolutely tragic for that individual.
Melissa Fleming 25:21
The nature of your work means you're taking in a lot of stories, harrowing stories, and where you, as you described, feel a huge sense of responsibility for carrying those stories on your shoulders. How do you live with that? Do you have any coping mechanisms you want to share or how you release and relax?
Jean-Nicolas Beuze 25:43
Action, action, action, I turn all that into doing even more. I don't think I'm a spiritual person so I don't have the comfort of a religious belief which will help me to offload some of those ethical dilemmas through a process of a religious nature. I really think that, for me, this is what drives me to question ‘What next? How can I do better next time? How can I be even more prepared and more effective in making a difference?’
Melissa Fleming 26:29
What about at night? What keeps you awake at night?
Jean-Nicolas Beuze 26:32
Many, many things since I arrived in Yemen, I must say. I think the most difficult part of last year was really my constant fears for the national colleagues, and the national partners. Of course, I feared about the refugees and the IDPs. But I felt that I had an extra responsibility vis-à-vis my own colleagues. Do I send them to the communities where COVID-19 is spreading fast because there's absolutely no preventative measures? I had colleagues who were on one side of the frontline, but the family was on the other side, and they begged me to cross to see their family and to take care of their elderly parents and so on. And often it's really far to travel so that was keeping me up at night because I was saying, ‘Okay, fine. You have my blessing. But every two hours, I want a Whatsapp.’
And maybe it's wrong. Maybe people were managing without me. And probably – not probably -- they were managing without me. But I really felt a strong sense of responsibility vis-à-vis all my colleagues in this very difficult period for them, in terms of their work and their family life. Yeah, that kept me up at night a lot last year in Yemen.
Melissa Fleming 27:52
Have any of your colleagues or their families been sick or even passed away from COVID-19?
Jean-Nicolas Beuze 27:59
There is very little testing capacity in Yemen. So, people have COVID symptoms, but we don't quite know whether it's COVID or not. Again, it's fascinating to see how the Yemeni have approached the situation because, for them, it's a bit the same symptom as, for example, malaria or dengue fever. You feel hot, and you have pain in your body, and you have some stomach problems. So yes, most probably a number of them got sick. We have one colleague who passed away. But it was very unclear whether it was COVID related, or if it was another of those communicable diseases, which here are spreading very fast. It was a female colleague. I didn't know her well at all. I don't think I even had met her. Because I'm a foreigner, and because I'm a male, it was very difficult for me to reach out to her family. But we spent a bit of time with close colleagues trying to process what it meant.
It's incredible -- we keep repeating it, but it's incredible -- the resilience of people who have been submitted to so many dire situations. I mean, the conflict, the under-development, the discrimination, the famine in the past, the cholera, because they were processing the death of the colleagues much better than I was. They celebrated her life and then it was about moving on because they didn’t have the time, the luxury of really having a pause. But I'm not saying that in a critical way, in any sense of the term. I mean, they processed it in a way which was very respectful of the death of this colleague, but at the same time, very much empowering themselves to continue which is also testament of what the Yemeni cultures, probably Islam, can bring in those difficult circumstances.
Somebody once asked me, ‘What are the hopes and dreams of Yemeni?’ And I was really taken aback because I cannot really respond to this question. The conversation I have with colleagues, with Yemeni displaced families, they are so much into the daily survival, even our own colleagues, that they rarely… I mean, some of them have dreams of moving away and studying, but most of them are just concerned about tonight.
Melissa Fleming 31:08
Well, let's hope that soon there will come a time when they can start hoping and dreaming again of a better tomorrow. Jean-Nicolas, I just wanted to ask you one last question: What do you do for fun?
Jean-Nicolas Beuze 31:21
Friendship. What I do for fun is getting together with friends. Opening a good bottle, cooking, laughing, discussing, changing the world in our mind. I realized more and more. When I was younger, I put a lot of emphasis on going to the theatre -- I’m trained as a classical pianist -- so to go to a concert that was something really important and something which I identified as a key aspect of my personality. Growing old, much less. I think really the human contact, the human relationship is what matters and where I probably unwind and where I probably feel the balance with my humanitarian responsibilities, so to speak. It’s really friendship.
Melissa Fleming 32:18
Well, then the isolation must have been particularly tough for you during these COVID lockdown times.
Jean-Nicolas Beuze 32:25
It was horrible. It was absolutely horrible for somebody like me.
Melissa Fleming 32:30
Jean-Nicolas, thank you so much for joining us on Awake at Night from Yemen. Take care and stay safe.
Jean-Nicolas Beuze 32:38
Thank you, Melissa.
Melissa Fleming 32:44
Thank you for listening to Awake at Night. We'll be back soon with more incredible and inspiring stories from people working to do some good in this world at a time of global crisis. To find out more about the series and the extraordinary people featured, do visit un.org-awake-at-night. On Twitter, we're @UN and I'm @melissafleming. Jean-Nicolas is @jnbeuze. Subscribe to Awake at Night wherever you get your podcasts and please take the time to review us. It does make a difference.
Thanks to my producers, Bethany Bell, and the team at Chalk & Blade: Laura Sheeter, Fatuma Khaireh and Alex Portfelix, and to my colleagues at the UN, Roberta Politi, Darrin Farrant, Angelinah Boniface, Tulin Battikhi and Bissera Kostova.
Thanks very much also to the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs for their support. The original music for this podcast was written and performed by Nadine Shah and produced by Ben Hillier. The sound design and additional music was by Pascal Wyse.