Last year we marked Father’s Day with a letter from Wasim Bahja, our Yemen Country Director, to his daughter Zaina. He wrote the letter after missing her 10th birthday, because the demands of his job required his presence in the country to manage our efforts to mitigate what was then called the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. In the year since, conditions have only gotten worse, as the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has deepened the human suffering there.
In early March, before the scope of the pandemic was truly known, Bahja traveled to the UK for a break with his family. Strict international travel restrictions then imposed to slow the spread of the virus kept Bahja from returning to Yemen. Working remotely since from his home to direct the lifesaving work of our Yemen team, he will spend Father’s Day this year with all three of his daughters: Zaina, 11; Leena, 9; and Dilara, 3.
During the three-and-a-half months he has been at home, Bahja says he and his girls have formed a makeshift band that he leads. He plays oriental guitar, while Zaina plays clarinet, Leena plays drums and Dilara does “an excellent job of playing a noisy audience.”
With Sunday a workday in Yemen—one that for him begins with a 6 a.m. (GMT) conference call and keeps him busy through the entire day—the family plans to mark Father’s Day on Saturday with a group bicycle ride that for the first time will include Dilara.
Proud father Bahja notes that there are obvious benefits from being at home, but admits that there are also challenges to managing the combined demands of a job that requires long hours and the expectations of children who see him in casual clothes and think it’s going to be a free day with Dad.
“I’m not complaining,” he says, “but it can be a real challenge.”
Bahja knows that several non-Yemeni members of his team who are themselves fathers have been prevented by those same COVID-related lockdowns and travel restrictions from making it home to celebrate ”their” day with their children. For example, Sajid Awan, the team’s logistics coordinator, is from Pakistan, where his daughter, Faseesha, and the rest of his family still reside.
Awan’s job is one of the most challenging—and important—tasks in a country heavy with bureaucratic red tape, but short on the kind of good roads and strong transportation needed to speed critically needed medical supplies and other imported goods from Yemen’s clogged ports to people in need hundreds of miles away. It is a job, Awan says, that “comes with a lot of pressure and tight deadlines that lead to stress.” He had hoped to be home on vacation to unwind and spend Father’s Day with Faseeha, who is studying medicine there.
“I always enjoy being with my daughter, especially on Father’s Day. But this time my wish cannot come true, because of the travel restrictions required to slow the spread of COVID-19,” he says. Instead, they talk by phone every day, and although she is not yet a qualified physician she provides useful advice that helps him control his diabetes, a disease he has had for the past eight years—and one that puts him at increased risk for complications should he contract COVID-19.
Awan says she is a steadying influence for him, and that he feels better when he follows her medical advice.
“She is a great source of strength for me, and we provide psychosocial support for each other in this difficult time,” he adds. “She is the secret that never lets me grow old.”