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Education goes on, even in wartime

Education goes on, even in wartime

Photographer:Fotograaf: Geraldine Beaujean

UM collaborates on higher education in Yemen

MAASTRICHT/YEMEN. What do you do when you’re working with lecturers from a country where war breaks out? When half of your students flee the city and go into hiding with friends and family, and the dean, in Malaysia for work, can’t get back in the country? You carry on, as best you can.

This is the story of the Faculty of Health, Medicine and Life Sciences, specifically SHE Collaborates (part of the UM Graduate School of Health Profession Education), which collaborates with the High Institute of Health Sciences (HIHS) in Sana’a. Sana’a is the capital of Yemen, one of the poorest countries in the world, which is sandwiched between wealthy Saudi Arabia, Oman, the Gulf of Aden (a major shipping route) and the Red Sea.

HIHS – headquartered in the capital, with ten branches around the country – has spent decades training over half of Yemen’s nurses and midwives. Around 2010 the school decided its nursing lecturers could do with refreshing and expanding their knowledge, explains Geraldine Beaujean, director of SHE Collaborates and project leader. There was demand, too, for a study programme in Health Information Management to train graduates who can not only bring to the table reliable data on the state of Yemeni healthcare, but also interpret it and draw conclusions policymakers.

The task fell to Maastricht University, thanks in part to the reputation it built up during a project in Mukalla, East Yemen, where Problem-Based Learning has been introduced at a medical school. To gather the required expertise, UM has partnered with Zuyd University of Applied Sciences for midwifery and Moi University (Kenya), Ahfad University (Sudan) and Suez Canal University (Egypt) for Health Information; all of them old acquaintances.

The start was “energetic”, as Beaujean puts it. Two master’s programmes were rapidly developed to train the HIHS lecturers in the fields of midwifery and Health Information. But in 2011, war broke out and President Saleh was forced to pack his bags. The Dutch foreign ministry was unrelenting: the collaboration with Yemen was to be put on hold until further notice. “The Netherlands wanted to put pressure on Yemen. We were still in contact, but no money changed hands. After a year, in April 2012, we were able to pick up the pieces of the project again. That is, until the conflict intensified once more early this year. That’s when the president, the premier and the entire cabinet resigned, the Houthi rebels took power and an international coalition led by Saudi Arabia decided to attack the positions of the rebels.” The HIHS, too, was captured by the Houthis.

“Together with Nuffic we managed to convince Minister Ploumen to let the project go ahead”, says Beaujean. “If you pull the plug, it’s so demotivating. Now more than ever our colleagues need all the support they can get. They themselves are keen to carry on; in all this chaos, the link with the Netherlands and the outside world helps them to keep on hoping for a better future.”

And so UM and its partners went on providing supervision to the master’s students. “Earlier this year we got together in Istanbul. We couldn’t travel to Yemen ourselves, but they were still allowed out of the country. We managed to finish module 7 and made a start on module 8: writing a thesis based on original research.” The thirty master’s students (fourteen in midwifery, sixteen in Health Information) are now busy collecting and analysing their data. Some of them – including those who are members of the opposition – have since fled to the countryside to seek shelter with friends or family. All contact is via Skype and email; some have to walk two hours for a solar-powered internet connection. “They’re in a very difficult situation. Thankfully no one has been injured, killed or kidnapped. For us supervisors, too, it’s a matter of figuring out how to handle the situation. You hear from students that their nephew has been arrested, that they’ve lost a friend. But you still have to ask how they applied your feedback. They want that. They tell us to just keep ploughing on: ‘It’s hard here, but we want to get ahead!’”

The Yemeni project manager – “a women, which is highly unusual in Yemen” – initially stood firm and remained at her post in Sana’a. “One day I Skyped with her and saw a rebel standing by her desk with an Uzi”, says Beaujean. “The Houthis wanted to know how much money was left in Maastricht. Not that they ever got anything. These days the school is practically empty, because many of the students, too, have left to be with their families outside the city. Our project manager did eventually flee, but she’s still coordinating the thirty students from a new address.”

When the borders were closed last spring, the dean of the institute was in Malaysia completing his PhD. “He’s still there, waiting on a date for his PhD defence. There’s no point going back while the Houthis are occupying the school.”

Officially, the project will come to an end on 31 December 2015. “We have funding left over because as of March we’ve been able to do much less than initially hoped. We’re planning to hold the thesis defences in Malaysia, together with another workshop and the graduation ceremony. Of course it’s expensive, having thirty people make that trip, but getting that closure is very important. And then it’s just hoping the next batch of students can start in September 2016. That would be fantastic.”






2015-10-15: Mona Alhajri
* Two master’s programs were in the fields of Nursing instead of midwifery and Health Information management

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