As tears emerge behind the slit of 20-year-old Gada’s black face veil, Marianne Vecchione, a Catholic missionary, reaches over and clasps her hand in both of hers. After more than a minute’s silence, Gada still can’t answer the question: “How bad was it in Yemen before you left?”
Escalation of the war there led to an exodus in early 2015, with thousands fleeing to Djibouti on the opposite side of the 18-mile stretch of water known as Bab-el-Mandeb – the Gateway of Tears – due to the long history of people perishing while trying to cross it.
Many Yemenis settled in a refugee camp outside the small town of Obock, an inhospitable, sun-blistered corner of the Horn of Africa. But that didn’t stop Vecchione leaving a comfortable life in Los Angeles to come and single-handedly start a school providing education for Yemeni children and young adults. Vecchione, who previously ran a home for drug addicts, says: “A person’s dignity is inherent but it takes someone on the outside to make it real. This has been about showing refugees that they matter and have a future, that they’re not left out.”
She once worked in the NGO world, spending one and a half years in Afghanistan, but she was left disillusioned and now only considers working through the Catholic Church. “Because its mission is to love, not just provide bodily needs,” Vecchione says. “In the aid world things are done according to projects and programmes. They’re not done according to individuals. It can forget you’re dealing with someone who is traumatised and who needs special care – a different way of handling.”
Yemen has been rent by a vicious proxy war waged between Saudi Arabia, supporting Yemen’s government forces, and Iran, backing Houthi rebels who, according to Yemenis in the camp, have committed the most and worst atrocities.
“When will there be peace? Maybe in 30 years if the old generation dies and the young are more peaceful and loving,” says one 45-year-old refugee.
Parked inside the camp are large SUVs, with UNHCR vehicles kitted out with various radios and mod-cons. Vecchione drives around Obock in a battered pick-up truck.
In 2015 she began a summer programme for children in the camp with $10,000 from Caritas Canada. When she found $5,000 left over thanks to unexpected services provided by others, she got the idea of using it to establish a permanent school. Money remained tight, though. Initially she paid teachers’ salaries through donations from friends and family before receiving $8,000 from the United Nations Children’s Emergency Fund.
Then, when she took students to Djibouti City in June to take exams to allow them to progress to the next stage of their education, it was back to family and friends to raise the $1,000 needed. “You can do a lot without much money,” says Vecchione, who describes the inefficient use of donors’ money by certain NGOs as “mind-boggling”.
She acknowledges that humanitarian NGO work requires bureaucratic organisation to reach the numbers involved. But she says that, nevertheless, this often overshadows the human component.
The American Church falls foul of this, too, she says, “replacing love with programmes”, while forgetting that it’s not about scaling up. “Mother Teresa said if you do the little things with a lot of love that makes a big difference,” Vecchione reflects.
In Djibouti City, on the other side of the Gulf of Tadjoura from Obock, are four Sisters with Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity. They are still helping the “poorest of the poor on the city’s streets”, says French Sister Joan of Arc.
Ever since France colonised Djibouti in 1862, landing in Obock, Catholic missionaries have been part of the local landscape. Today the Church runs 11 schools in Djibouti. The majority of students are Muslim.
“The Catholic Church is respected here because locals have seen how our words and the way we bear witness are coherent,” says Fr Mark Desser, who has worked in Djibouti for seven years in the suffocating heat and humidity. “How’s that achieved? By laying down one’s life like Jesus. You won’t find any of us here gaining weight.”
Vecchione admits to feeling exhausted and frustrated after a year of unremitting bureaucracy, trials and frictions. At one point she stood accused of trying to convert students to Christianity – even though the school teaches the Yemeni curriculum, including lessons on the Koran and Islam – with mounting tensions meaning the local Catholic hierarchy considered pulling her out.
She stayed, though, while continuing to confront her loneliness. At one point she was the only foreigner in Obock – one reason she has a herd of adopted cats lounging about her home.
But she wouldn’t change her decision to help. Everywhere around the camp and small town she is accompanied by a refrain of young and adult voices: “Marianne! Marianne!”
Clearly the gesture Vecchione often speaks of – displaying unconditional love – has got through to some refugees, despite vast cultural and religious differences.
“It’s the simple things. I wave at everyone, because that shows ‘I see you, you are recognised’,” Vecchione says. “Too often we forget all these things.”