Fighting Fires and Saving Lives in Yemeni Displacement Sites

Published Date: 
Wednesday, August 25, 2021

Ma’rib – Ma’rib is currently providing a home to an estimated 1 million internally displaced Yemenis. Displacement camps in the governorate serve as a safe haven from violence for the majority of those displaced but they can also be a place of danger.

Space in these camps is often severely limited, causing families to erect their makeshift shelters too close together. These cramped shelters, made of scavenged materials, are often installed with overused and faulty electrical networks.

This dangerous combination has caused several fires in some of the displacement sites scattered across the hot, desert terrain.

A displaced family searches for the remains of their shelter ruined by fire. Photo: Elham Al-Oqabi IOM / 2021.

Displacement camps in Ma’rib witnessed 12 fire incidents thus far in 2021, according to Civil Defense Force Director in Ma’rib, Abdullah Shahloof.

“Fires can start and spread in a displacement site very quickly, and it becomes very difficult to put them out fast enough,” explained Abdulkarim, a displaced person from Sirwah.

He came to Sayelat Al Rumailah displacement site in Ma’rib with his family of five about three years ago.   

Abdulkarim built his family’s shelter with one bedroom, a space to cook and a space to sit during the day and meet with neighbours. His shelter is close to the others around it, as well as electrical lines and straw fences which help provide some form of privacy.

“People here set fires every day to cook their food. It is also likely that you would find people storing dry firewood near their shelter. A small spark can cause a huge fire that engulfs everything instantly,” he added.

Displaced women attend a training session on fire safety in Ma’rib, Yemen. Photo: Elham Al-Oqabi IOM/2021.

To help displaced people in Ma’rib better protect their shelters from fire, the International Organization for Migration (IOM), through European Union humanitarian support, conducted regular training and awareness sessions on fire safety, prevention and response. Families were also provided with fire extinguishers in groups of five.

“A few months ago, eight other people and I attended the training that took place in Sayelat Al Rumailah. We learned some important principles on how to deal with the causes and effects of fires,” recalled Abdulkarim.

The training also included a practical exercise on how to correctly use the fire extinguishers, as well as first aid tips on treating burns.

“It takes more than just being able to carry and use the fire extinguisher. We have to know how to stand when using it, the importance of aiming it at the root of fire and being aware of the direction of the winds,” said Abdulkarim, as he described how crucial these steps are to effectively controlling potential fires. 

A woman discovers that all her identification documents are gone after a fire reached her shelter the night before in Al Jufainah camp. Picture: Elham Al-Oqabi IOM/2021.

One and a half months later, a fire did break out in the shelter next to his family’s residence.

“It was near midnight, when I heard people yelling, ‘Fire!’ I went outside and saw my neighbour’s tent engulfed in flames. I ran to my tent and got the fire extinguisher and applied what I learned at the training to the situation,” explained Abdulkarim.

“If we would not have reacted quickly to put the fire out, not only would my neighbour’s tent have been burned down, but mine could have as well,” he added, noting that it only took him several minutes to put out the fire.

He had previously helped fight a tent fire without a fire extinguisher which took more than half an hour to manually extinguish.

Displaced women attend a practical training session on fire safety in Ma’rib, Yemen Photo: Elham Al-Oqabi IOM/2021.

Remarking on the inclusivity of the trainings, Jamal Al-Shami, a member of IOM’s camp management team said, “It was important for women to take part in this training, given that they often use fire to prepare meals.”

This IOM-EU project also included people who previously participated in the fire safety sessions to train more people from their communities and ensured the ongoing functionality of the fire extinguishers.

Written by Elham Al-Oqabi and Mennatallah Homaid from IOM Yemen’s communication team