Before moving to Leiden with his family in 2015, Kamal Haglan worked as an urban planner in Yemen. His work included designing new neighborhoods in Sana’a and developing financing policies that make housing more accessible. While working with the Social Fund for Development (SFD), he helped manage a restoration of Sana’a’s Grand Mosque, one of the most sacred sites in Islam. When Saudi Arabian planes began bombing Sana’a in March 2015, Kamal’s wife (Khadija) and two sons were able to escape the country, arriving in Istanbul after an arduous journey. Kamal was able to join them in Istanbul after a harrowing trip of his own. Kamal, 50, now lives with Khadija and their boys in Leiden, where Khadija is enrolled in a PhD program.
“My first job was with the Ministry of Housing and Urban Planning. It was back in 1994.” He took this job after completing a master’s program in architecture and urban planning degree at a Polish university. “I applied for a scholarship through the Ministry of Education in Yemen … I had good marks from my high school exam … So I was entitled to apply for a scholarship to study abroad. In the application I could choose three countries. I chose the U.S., U.K. and Germany … but none of these countries were given to me. Instead I was given Poland as a choice. (laughs) And I decided to go for it with the encouragement of my father … it was difficult. It was my first time traveling to Europe.”
“After I finished my studies [in Poland], I worked with the Ministry of Housing and Urban Planning in Sana’a in 1994 … I started working with the Department of Detail Planning … I was responsible for making plans for new neighborhoods … the city was expanding in the direction of the south and the north … along the main roads that lead to other cities in the south and north.”
“Urban planning in Yemen is based upon [a system in which] a public agency would prepare plans and then will try to implement these plans … but it’s very challenging because almost all the land is privately owned … when you’re planning a street or you’re planning a healthcare center, you need to negotiate [with the land owners] because they will resist your taking their lands … especially because they know the price of the land will go up … it’s very difficult in that regard. And the urban planning law allows the ministry to take only 30 percent of the land from people without compensation. Any more than that and you need to compensate. And we didn’t have always enough money to compensate. So there were issues and cases that would take a long time really … we had always to do some editing or an amendment to satisfy everybody.”
As an urban planner, Kamal’s job was “designing the neighborhood. In terms of where are the streets going to be, where are the accesses to the neighborhood, where to locate the neighborhood services … such as a small playground, a small mosque, shops … you have to follow all the regulations, all the sizes.”
“I worked there until 1997. Then I took a break for one year. I went to the U.K. [for a master’s program in] housing studies and development in developing countries. Which focuses on … developing policies for countries like my country ... to try to find the best options to enable people access to housing … in our case, Yemen’s case, we had a problem with housing financing … how can the people get money to buy housing, to buy land, to have access to housing. That is very difficult because governments didn’t have policies about that. People had to depend on themselves to find money to buy land, to buy a small apartment. And many people didn’t have formal work. They were farmers or [other informal workers] … you cannot get bank loans unless you have property [or a] guarantee that you will bring the money back. Or at least a job.”
“At the time I thought the best policy to enable people to have housing is what they call a site and services scheme. Which means the government prepares plans and provides services to these sites, and then gives people financial support [to buy] a piece of land. And then they will manage to build their [homes] … the role of the government is to enable and to regulate this … so [that people] don’t build in an informal way … tt’s trying to upgrade neighborhoods so you have streets and you have access.”
“In 2000 … I started working with [a different project] which is not within the ministry, but it has connection with the ministry … it was a Dutch-Yemeni project … part of the project was to train Yemeni officials in urban development … I was chosen with eight fellows from the ministry to come to Rotterdam to study for two months, at the Institute for Housing and Urban Development Studies (IHS), where we were trained in how to make a strategic action plan.”
“The director of the program is Dutch, and he contacted me [after the Rotterdam course] and offered me a job in the project. To do a strategic action planning for the city of Sa’dah, which is in the north. It’s an old city. He wanted to do … make assessments of the current conditions … so I formed a team … and I would travel back and forth to Sa’dah from Sana’a … we did a survey of the houses, making assessments of housing, ownership, the people who were living there and their situation, do they have a job or no job … based on all the information that we collected, we organized a workshop with the[local] people and asked them to come and talk about the problems of their cities, and then make a list of their priorities. What is the most important for them now and how they see it can be solved and what they can do … we invited NGOs and representatives of local government … We prepared a strategic plan, and we listed sectors and what are the problems and what are the solutions and where the money can come from … the problems were related mostly to infrastructure … people complained about electricity, about water, about sewage … most of the problems were lack of coordination and communication between different agencies.”
“After I worked for this project, I finished in 2003, and then I joined the Social Fund for Development [SFD], a bigger organization. It’s a Yemeni governmental organization, but financially independent. The money comes partially from the Yemeni government, but largely from international donors like the European Union, the World Bank, U.S. government, Japanese government, whoever can give money we take. (laughs) This organization was created to implement development projects, mainly basic education and basic healthcare. The man who was in charge of [the SFD] lived and studied in Germany. He was a highly educated man, and he had a vision about the importance of cultural heritage. So with his initiative he created a cultural heritage unit. This unit was headed by an engineer who hired a number of Yemeni engineers … to mainly implement restoration projects related to mosques, historical cities, important and significant buildings and monuments. With the help of some foreign experts who were living in Yemen at that time. Sometimes we hired experts from Europe on a commission or consultation basis.”
The SFD “was one of its kind, it was rarely found in Yemen. Corruption was almost zero … we had cars, but we could use them for work only. Total transparency. And that was monitored by international commissions that came and monitored our work … I started working there in 2004 … I was project manager for handicrafts … We would receive applications and review them. We would … review together the applications and decide which projects should be financed … in 2004 until 2011 we had usually 80 or 90 projects that we divided between four people … so I would usually have 15 to 20 projects … And then we would start by looking for a team. That would include an architect, a technical guy and then the laborers to do the job. And the architect would have to submit a plan for the project, a timetable.”
In 2005, the SFD began working on a restoration of the Grand Mosque in the historic center of Sana’a “The project started in 2005. I joined in 2007 as a deputy team leader. The team leader was a guy from Palestine who would come to Yemen once every two months for a week or so. And then he would go back to Palestine. I would communicate with him on the day to day work and activities. There were a number of teams working on the project. You had the Italian team, the Yemeni team, the American team, the logistic team, the structural team, the plastering team … and the teams that were working on the wood, the carpentry team … Each team had its head, and I would have weekly meetings with them discussing the progress. We had a general plan for the whole year, and then we had plans for like three months. We were reviewing our plans and what the problems are. The day to day problems. Sometimes, you know, they asked for materials, and then when we ordered the materials there was a delay. Because we had procurement procedure. We had to have three offers, and we chose the lowest price.”
“It was my job to overcome the challenges and the problems … I would report to [the Palestinian team leader] if there were problems … And I would suggest solutions and let him know what I was doing, keep him updated. And then of course we had difficult problems for which we sometimes needed an expert to come and give us advice … we would hire or try to find an expert in that area to come and help us … yeah, all kinds of problems and challenges. Sometimes we had problems with the people who were praying in the mosque. The mosque was open [while restoration teams were working there]. Sometimes we had problems with the neighbors. Sometimes with some crazy people who would come and complain about women working in the mosque. ‘How can you let women, especially Italians, come in the mosque?’ [The Italian team included women.] So sometimes we had to call the police. (laughs) We had guards actually at the site, guarding the Italian team in particular. Wherever they go, you will find one or two guards accompanying them for their safety. So that’s another pressure also.” Kamal worked on the mosque restoration project until 2013. The project was about 85 percent completed at that point.
“I remember I had an incident where I was stopped with a driver … when I was coming back … to Sana’a. A group of people with arms stopped us, and they wanted to take the car. (laughs) We explained that it’s not our car, it belongs to the [SFD]. They said ‘it doesn’t matter.’ I said ‘we are well-known all over the country, and probably we helped in your area. We are providing schools and healthcare and water tanks … to collect rain water.’ They said ‘we don’t really care. We’ll have to take the car from you.’ They threatened us with weapons and we had to get out of the car. And then I said ‘can you call your sheikh?’ Because I knew somebody sent them. ‘And tell him that we are from the Social Fund, he can probably appreciate that’ … so they called him and said the car belongs to the Social Fund for Development. And [the sheikh] said ‘I know the Social Fund, they are doing projects for us as well. They are good people, leave them.’ And immediately they left us and they said ‘OK, sorry.’ (laughs) So the Social Fund was working with leaders, that’s how it works in Yemen. Local people listen to their leaders. And if you want to do anything you have to go first to the local leader.”
Kamal was living with wife and two children in the home they own in Sana’a when war broke out in March 2014. The war “took us by surprise … I didn’t think that things would escalate into full-scale war … We always had problems in Yemen. Fighting in different places. But never in the city. And never when airplanes bombed in the city. That was really a wake up signal.”
Kamal’s wife, Khadija, applied for a scholarship to Leiden University in late 2014. “After the Houthis took over [Sana’a in 2014] we kind of felt that it’s not going to be really good because these people are really … wanting power at any price, and they would do anything to have the power and have control. We knew that it would be hard, a lot of violence. Because they didn’t really care about anything. They came from the mountains. They didn’t really know what it means to live in a city. They didn’t care … If people have electricity or not. They didn’t care because they never had electricity. (laughs) So my wife [Khadija] didn’t feel OK about that. And she decided to go and apply for a scholarship [with Leiden University], hoping to get out of the country.” Khadija’s PhD studies in Leiden focus on Child Studies. “She’s studying the relationship between parents and children and how that affects the development of the child in education.” Khadija worked for the British Council in Sana’a “for quite a long time in different projects related to cultural development of women and young people.”
Saudi planes started bombing Sana’s on 27 March, 2015. “I remember that night. I was asleep. I thought I was dreaming, that I heard some sounds. And then my wife woke me up and says ‘do you hear that bombing sound? It’s war.’ (laughs) I said ‘what?’ She said ‘it’s war. The Saudis are bombings Sana’a.’ So I rushed to the TV. And turned it on and, yeah, the news was all over the channels, reporting about the Saudis initiating what they called Decisive Storm in Yemen, to restore the legitimate government … we couldn’t believe it … What’s happening? They’re not really like that. They really decided to wage war like this in Yemen? They always wanted solutions … You know, political solutions. But they will not wage a war, it’s not them.” Kamal thinks the new Saudi crown prince, Mohammad bin Salman, initiated the war to show his decisiveness.
When the Saudis started bombing Sana’a “it was very, very loud. We heard it day and night, every day. And people started to leave the country. Our house location is really very close to the Presidential Palace. It’s the largest military location in Sana’a. So we were hearing louder sounds and feeling more [danger] … I was really worrying about our children. You know, when you hear all these sounds, and you see the kids are scared … you can’t give any explanation to them. They’re asking why, they’re scared. It’s very, very difficult … [Normal life disrupted] Everything was stopped. Electricity stopped, water stopped. At the beginning, we were not able to go to the stores to buy [food and other necessities]. There was a lot of panic. People were buying everything. They didn’t know what to do. People were leaving the city to their villages, everything was closed. Nobody knew how to behave or what to do. We stopped going to work … It was after maybe a week that we started to realize [the Saudis planes] are focusing on military locations. That starts to give a little bit of [reassurance]. They said they are only targeting military locations. That gives a little bit of encouragement … I started to go back to work.”
“We were trying to find a way to get out. My wife and the kids. Because at that time Khadija got the approval for the scholarship [to Leiden University] and the visa application was scheduled for June or July. But there was no embassy in Sana’a anymore. So she had to travel to another country to be able to apply. She decided to go to Amman. And then we got her in a plane … a kind of a charter plane [from Sana’a to Amman] through her brother … Her brother … knew someone who knew about this plane … he was offered a seat, but didn’t want to go at that time, so he bought his sister [a ticket for this plane]. She said ‘yeah, of course, I’ll go.’” But she had to hurry to the airport with her sons to take advantage of this opportunity.
“I was at work at that time and she was calling me. I was out for lunch. (laughs) I left my phone in the office, [the battery] was out of charge, and she couldn’t reach me … The luggage was in my car … she was calling me because she wanted to get the luggage [from the car] and go to the airport. But she couldn’t reach me. She took her car and came to my office asking about me … I was out. She saw my car and tried to open it, but she couldn’t. (laughs) She had no time, really. She had to be at the airport within half an hour or so. So she just decided to go the airport with the kids … She drove to the airport, but she was worrying because the fuel indicator [was empty]. (laughs) And there were no stations where you could buy fuel. So she was just driving, driving, hoping the car would get her there. Fortunately, she got there, and she just left the car in the parking lot and started running [to the terminal] with the kids. The guy who was supposed to receive her at the airport was calling, ‘where are you? Everyone’s already on the plane.’ So she ran to the plane. The plane was standing [on the runway] and getting ready to go. She managed to get there. [Meanwhile] I got back to the office and my friend told me ‘your wife was here and she was asking about you and really rushing, rushing’ … I opened my phone and there were hundreds of calls … so I rushed to the airport trying to get the luggage [to her], but it was too late. She was already on the runway, and I was talking with her on the phone. (laughs) I said ‘don’t worry about the luggage. I will join you one day and I will bring it.’ So they left that way.”
“I was hoping they would get to Jordan, and that would be the end of the drama. But actually the drama started in Jordan. When they arrived there, [the Jordanian officials] wanted to send them back to Yemen … Because they didn’t have a visa they weren’t allowed to enter Jordan. My wife and two other women I think with their children were not allowed. The rest were allowed because they were women from [prominent] families.” Khadija and her sons had to endure at least six hours of waiting at the Amman airport before officials relented and they were allowed to fly to Istanbul. Once they arrived in Istanbul, they encountered the same problem: Turkish officials tried to send them back to Jordan. After about 10 hours of pleading, they were finally allowed entry to Istanbul.
“I stayed in Yemen another maybe month and a half. And I kept going to my work. Until one day there was this huge bomb, which was about 200 meters away from where I worked. Which was so powerful that it almost destroyed the whole neighborhood … The windows were shattered, everything, the furniture, the chairs, everything. I was lucky because I was the other side of the building. Some of my colleagues got injured [from the blast]. It was a horrible experience. We thought that the building was going to collapse. We ran out and we saw this huge ball of fire and smoke, a really huge ball. We didn’t know what to do. People were running in the streets everywhere, so we just started running in the direction of everybody to the main street. (laughs) Trying to catch any car away from that area. That was the 20th of April. And then we got the message from our work that work is suspended until further notice. And then I never came back to the office since then. I left it when I was running from that bomb, and I didn’t have time to go back.”
“My home [in Sana’a] is still OK. I don’t know if it’s affected by now by all the shaking from the bombs. Since it’s really not far from the Presidential Palace” … There is a military facility near the palace that is targeted [by Saudi planes] because they hide weapons inside. “So it’s constantly attacked. And every time they drop a bomb there’s a shaking. Long-term it’s … it happened a number of times that the windows were shattered, things were falling … so I don’t know … I worry every day. I think about it every day. If the fighting goes inside the city it will be occupied. It will be used as a place to fire from or be used as a [hidden] place for snipers.”
“I took a bus from Sana’a to the border with Saudi Arabia. Which went through [many] check points … checking passports, ID, where are you going, where are you from, why are you going. Check points by the Houthis mainly. Because they were patrolling these areas. I traveled 3 o’clock in the afternoon from Sana’a and reached the border with Saudi Arabia at 6 o’clock the next morning. Where we were actually asked to get out of the bus. (laughs) … At the Yemeni side we got an exit stamp. We waited three or four hours, but at the end we got the exit stamps. Then we got back on the bus going to the Saudi border. Then … soldiers came onto the bus and said anybody who has no entry visa or valid resident permit for Saudi Arabia has to get out of the bus. I didn’t have a visa, I didn’t have a resident permit. So I stayed on the bus. (laughs) I didn’t want to go out. Everybody stayed. (laughs) And then [the soldier] repeated the same thing, and nobody got out. And then he started to check the passports one by one. He came to you and checked your passport. ‘You have no visa, get out!’ I tried to explain that I just want to get to Saudi Arabia to get the visa to Turkey. ‘No out! Out!’”
“So we were like maybe 10, 12 people kicked out of the bus with our luggage, and the bus went on. (laughs) We were standing by the side of the road, outside of a huge gate to Saudi Arabia … We were just standing there. You had only two options, either to go back or to stand there trying, hoping to get in. So I decided to stay. I heard stories before where people said ‘don’t give up, just stay there. Wait and just keep trying.’ So I decided to go for that. Some people decided to go back, some families with children. It was really difficult to stay there in the sun … No chairs, nothing. Just sit on the ground … There’s a big gate and a wall. You can’t get close [to the wall] because there are soldiers with machine guns. I was standing there hoping to talk to someone, a soldier who will listen to you. They will try to kick you out. ‘Go back to Yemen!’ Then around 9 or 10 o’clock someone came out, he looked like he’s an officer... he was asking ‘why are you here?’ Everyone had one minute to tell him ... I said ‘I need to get to Turkey, I have a visa for Turkey. And I want to join my wife and family, who are in Istanbul. We are applying to go to Europe.’ He said ‘OK, where is your passport? When is the visa valid until?’ I said ‘15 May.’ It was 10 May then, so I had five days. (laughs) And he said ‘OK, do you have a letter from the university that your wife is going to have an interview about the visa?’ I said ‘no, I don’t have one.’ He said ‘get one.’ How? (laughs) … I called my wife. She was in Istanbul. And she called the coordinator [at Leiden University].” The university coordinator printed a copy of Khadija’s scholarship paperwork and sent it to Khadija. Khadija “was trying to send it to me, and I lost the connection. I was in the middle of nowhere.”
Finally, Kamal called a cousin who lives in Saudi Arabia, and the cousin was able to sign documents guaranteeing that Kamal would leave the country after a few days if he was allowed in. The soldiers at the border station continued to play mind games with Kamal for a few more hours, but he was finally admitted to Saudi Arabia. “Finally we got the visa, and I got in. I stayed two or three days, and then I got a flight to Istanbul.” Kamal still utters a sigh of relief when telling this story.
Kamal and his family moved into university housing when they arrived in Leiden in August 2015. “It’s housing meant for PhD students mainly … it’s not meant for families. Mostly for single people or couples … It’s even small for two people. It’s just one bedroom and one living room. That’s it.” In the summer of 2017, they were able to move to a larger home. “We changed our residence status in Holland. Our previous status was student-based visa or resident permit for my wife, with me as accompanying spouse. In November 2016, the government of Holland agreed to grant Yemeni citizens asylum based on the situation in Yemen. In January 2017 we decided to apply for asylum. Because then we would have five years. That gives us a kind of stability to plan our life. With the prospect of staying longer … it would be difficult to stay here five, six years and then take [their children] back to a very different environment. And I’m not sure actually that things will be back to normal again in Yemen in five or six years.”
Kamal has been unemployed since moving to Leiden. He is hoping to land a position with a UN Habitat project based in Amman. “The project name is City Profile.” The project involves “making assessments of infrastructure, services, environment, living conditions [in Yemeni cities], in order to try to find solutions for these problems in the cities. And to make the cities work better." Although the war is going on now, talk about rebuilding the country is also going on. There are a number of projects aimed at establishing funds for rebuilding the country … and rebuilding the cities is one of the most important tasks … when you start rebuilding you need plans … to know where to start and what is the most important … it’s the right time now to start making these plans so when the money starts to come we’ll [be ready].“ Kamal is waiting to hear when this project will get off the ground, and then he will apply for a position.
This unplanned pause to his career has been frustrating for Kamal. “It’s kind of frustrating that you feel like you can do things … I’m available and I can do things. There’s no opportunities to work … But I’m busy with the kids. Bringing them to school, taking them to other activities … I kind of miss going to work. Chatting with colleagues. I think being busy with something you want to do is nice.”
Kamal has found projects in Leiden to keep himself busy. “I did some work last year … helping to lead a class … it was a project that stretched over one academic year. It was very interesting because it was a combination of lecturing and interviewing and planning some activities … last year I also did some part-time work with Amnesty International. We organized an event here in Leiden about the war in Yemen. Where we had a Yemeni journalist who was talking about the kidnapping of activists and journalists by the Houthis during this war. We had a number of meetings to prepare the evening. It was nice to work with … people from Amnesty International and Leiden University.”
It is clear that Kamal loves and misses his country, and it’s his hope one day to return to Yemen. “I like it here … But I always knew I wanted to go back, I never wanted to stay … I like the life in Yemen … but my wife sees other things … for women life is more difficult in Yemen.”
A CBS News segment from 2010 highlights the restoration work Kamal and his team did at the Grand Mosque in Sana’a. A link to this segment is available at www.youtube.com/watch?v=PIm2b1E6qpU