Ottawa

University of Ottawa student uses holidays to deliver aid to Yemeni refugee camp

A biomedical science student from the University of Ottawa decided to use her holiday break to travel thousands of kilometres away to deliver aid to Yemeni refugees at a camp in Djibouti.

Zein Ahmed raised $10K to buy hygiene items for refugee camp in Djibouti

University of Ottawa student Zein Ahmed poses in Djibouti with hygiene products she bought with the $10,000 she raised. (Hibaa Ismael)

While many university students headed home for the holidays, a biomedical science student from the University of Ottawa decided to use her time to travel thousands of kilometres away to deliver aid to Yemeni refugees at a camp in Djibouti.

Before her trip, Zein Ahmed raised $10,000 — mostly through an online GoFundMe.com campaign — and she credits the generosity of strangers for the campaign's success.

"We only had a short period of time to do this," said Ahmed during an interview just before leaving Ottawa.

"It just shows how the Ottawa community has such a big heart."

For more than a year and a half, Yemen has been embroiled in a deadly civil war between the Houthi minority group and the Yemeni Government. (United Nations)

2.2 million forced out of their homes by war

For more than a year and a half, Yemen has been embroiled in a deadly conflict between the Houthi minority group and the Yemeni government.

The conflict has intensified most recently as a coalition led by Saudi Arabia fighters on behalf of Yemen's overthrown president.

The growing refugee crisis — more than two million displaced in a country of 24 million — isn't getting a lot of media coverage in Canada, said Ahmed.

Ahmed, however, has a very personal connection to the story.

Family witnessing effects of war

"We still have family witnessing the war itself," said Ahmed. Her parents have cousins who recently fled their homes for the capital Sana'a because of the intensity of the war.

"But unfortunately the capital isn't in a stable state as well, so it hasn't been good news."

Still, Ahmed said the real crisis has been among the thousands of people forced to live in refugee camps, which is why she came up with the fundraising campaign to donate aid and build awareness.

Abo Bakr Mohammed, 12, who suffers from epilepsy, covers himself with a mosquito net in his family's room, at an orphanage that has been turned into a center for Yemeni refugees, in Obock, northern Djibouti. (Mosa'ab Elshamy/The Associated Press)

She eventually decided to buy and deliver the goods herself in person.

In particular, she had her eye on a camp in Djibouti, a country she had become familiar with visiting family in the past.

The Markhazi camp near the coastal town of Obock, just a few kilometres south of Yemen across the Gulf of Aden, has recently ballooned to 2,600 refugees.

With temperatures soaring above 30 C in the desert camp, refugees have suffered from dehydration and most recently an outbreak of diarrhea, leading UN officials to request very basic hygiene items, including detergent, soap, women's sanitary pads and diapers.

Hygiene items desperately needed

Ahmed arrived in Djibouti with some school materials for kids and has met with officials from the UN to organize her plan.

This week, with the help of family members, she negotiated bulk prices for items like 240 bottles of shampoo, 10 boxes of diapers, 20 boxes of body soap and five boxes of laundry soap. 

Though she anticipated this would be the biggest challenge, Ahmed said she has only had positive experiences with suppliers open to her project.

"People are very welcoming; they're very open to helping others," said Ahmed, adding Djibouti is home to some 36,000 Yemeni refugees.

'I'm not sure what to expect'

Later this week a four-by-four vehicle packed with diapers, tooth brushes, shampoo, soap and more will be loaded onto a cargo ship in the capital.

The vehicle will be ferried along the Gulf of Aden to the Markazi refugee camp where Ahmed hopes to deliver the goods in person.

"I'm a little nervous," she said during a call this week. "I'm not sure what to expect."

But she already knows she doesn't want this to be the last of her efforts to help the refugees.

"I hope this doesn't just end here, that I don't just come back to Canada and let everything go. I really want it to continue," said Ahmed.

The student said she already has some ideas after meeting with UN officials this week about how to nudge the Canadian government and the Ottawa community to help in the future.