Refugee from the War in Yemen

6 September, 2018
Actor Jim Carrey's spontaneous painting responding to a news event out of Yemen.

An Excerpt from Mohammed Al Samawi’s Memoir

The US-backed Saudi war in Yemen rages on and the killing continues. On Saturday, August 17, 2018, when the news that 40 school children on a bus in Yemen were obliterated by a bomb manufactured by Lockheed Martin reached actor Jim Carrey’s TV screen in Los Angeles, he walked into his nearby artist studio and drew this image, publishing it on his Twitter feed with the comments “40 innocent children killed on a bus in Yemen. Our ally. Our missile. Our crime”:

At the same time, when CNN reported on the tragedy, the news channel presented a graphic map that revealed the extent of US involvement in the conflict, one that has taken thousands of lives and, according to Human Rights Watch, created “the world’s largest humanitarian catastrophe.”

For Americans who know little about Yemen, nor why Saudi Arabia has our government’s support (going back to Obama) for a war that is causing famine and a worsening refugee crisis, sometimes learning about distant disaster through a human story is the best way to come to grips with it. Mohammed Al Samawi is one of the few Yemenis who has managed to escape to the United States, and he has just published his memoir of the ordeal, The Fox Hunt, A Refugee’s Memoir of Coming to America.

Mohammed Al Samawi in Washington, DC, where he is a board member of the  Yemen Peace Project . (courtesy Mohammed Al Samawi)

In the following excerpt, Al Samawi reveals the tip of his personal iceberg.

I counted my steps. Three to get from the door to the wall; two between the toilet and the mirror. My new apartment in Aden was big for one person, but I hadn’t planned on living in the bathroom. The gray-green light from the single fluorescent bulb scattered off the mirror, blanching the walls, the ceiling, the floor.It had nowhere to go.

It was March 22, 2015, and Yemen was descending into an all-out civil war. On one side was President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi and the loyalist forces; on the other were the opposition forces, the Houthis, backed by former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. The confrontation was right outside my building. Rubble-strewn streets; soldiers and citizens shouting and firing weapons; social media emblazoned with the slogans “God is great! Death to America! Death to Israel! Damn the Jews! Victory to Islam!” 

I’d spent the day in front of my laptop, curled over the screen, scrolling through emails, contacts, Facebook friends, sending messages to anyone I could think of. Help mePlease. But no one knew what to do. People needed to save themselves, their families. People sent their regrets, their prayers, but I couldn’t fly away on a prayer. 

I needed to get out. 

Right before midnight, I sent one more message…

Packets of data bounced from one router to another until they reassembled halfway around the world, in New York City.

MOHAMMED AL SAMAWI: Daniel, I hope everything is great on your side! I hope you still remember me . . . I thought it will be a good idea if I ask you if you can help me out . . . If you watch the news lately, you may have heard about what’s happening in Yemen. For that I am writing the following request. If you know someone who could help please let me know.

Daniel Pincus was standing by himself at the cocktail hour of a Jewish wedding in Brooklyn. Tall and energetic, with a knack for finding himself in impossible situations, he was flying solo in a crowd he didn’t know. Between the cheese and the canapés, he checked Facebook, and there was my message. Daniel had met me once, for two minutes, at a conference one-and-a-half years prior. But, eager for something to do, he stepped into the hallway to place a Skype call to Yemen.

Meanwhile, Megan Hallahan, an American woman with big eyes and a crown of curly brown hair, was sitting in front of her laptop in her apartment in Tel Aviv. I’d met her on Facebook three years earlier, and for two weeks, she’d been trying to find a way to get me out of the country; she’d come up short and was nearly out of hope. She typed a fresh email and blasted it to yet another circle in her social network. Then she fell asleep. 

Natasha Westheimer, an Australian American in Israel, was still awake answering emails when she saw a message from Megan, a girl she’d met three weeks prior at a social action conference in Jordan. The subject read: “Urgent—My Friend in Yemen.” Natasha adjusted her glasses and pushed her thick red hair behind her ears. She would be attending Oxford University in the fall to pursue a master’s degree in water science. She knew about filtration, not exfiltration. But after only the briefest pause, she hit reply.

Across the Atlantic, Justin Hefter, a recent Stanford graduate, was in Utah skiing. After a night out with the guys, he crawled into an Uber to the airport and checked his email.

Dear friends,

I’m sorry to bother, but my friend’s life is in danger and he needs an excuse, any excuse to get out of Yemen—he will go anywhere and do anything as long as he is able to meet his basic survival needs. Any idea or contact will help, please pass the word along as far as possible and let me know of any thought you may have. 


Justin dug through his wallet until he found the business card of the only person in Yemen he knew: a twenty-something-year-old he’d met briefly at a conference. He shot off an email:

Hey Megan, Mohammed Al Samawi lives in Yemen. He may have some ideas of how to help your friend . . . You can reach him on Facebook!

Within hours, Megan snapped off a reply: 

Hi Justin, it’s Mohammed that I’m talking about . . .

They were talking about me. I am that Mohammed. Over the next thirteen days, these four young people would join together to save my life. Near-strangers to one another, with exactly zero experience in extraction or military strategy, they’d come to depend on the only tool they had: social media.

Mohammed Al Samawi was born in 1986 in Yemen. In his mid-twenties, he became involved in interfaith groups promoting dialogue between Muslims, Christians, and Jews. This excerpt republished in The Markaz Review with the author’s permission from The Fox Hunt: A Refugee’s Memoir of Coming to America by Mohammed Al Samawi (William Morrow-Harper Collins 2018).

To learn more, listen to Mohammed Al Samawi‘s author interview on Soundcloud.