By Hassan Ansah for HIC-MENA

akhdam kids I walk in the frantic streets of Sana’a. I see them everywhere decked in grab green working uniforms, sweeping the dirt in the streets, delivering goods to local shops, begging outside of the city’s markets. They seem to populate every section of the city, yet they remain invisible to the average Yemeni. Living on the fringes of society, these Islamic Yemeni citizens seem to be set apart from the mainstream due to their ancient African roots and darker features. “Clean your plate if it is touched by a dog, but break it if it’s touched by an Akhdam,” goes one Yemeni saying. The Akhdam: rumored to have arrived in Yemen before Islam (around 500 AD) during the Ethiopian conquest. Forced ever since into the performance of menial jobs such as street sweeping, garbage collecting, and shoe-making. While slavery was abolished in Yemen after the 1962 revolution, hereditary hierarchy within social classes remains a deeply intrinsic part of the society. Although they are Arabic speaking Muslims, they suffer most from the residue of the society’s supposed defunct class system, which once segregated its society into neat sectors of sheikhs, butchers, judges, and servants. Despite the reorganization of society and the destruction of the caste system, the Akhdam preserved their pariah status and still find themselves at the very bottom of the social stratification. The Akhdam prefer to be called “al-Muhamashīn”—the marginalized ones. Dominant social opinion considers their men unscrupulous, lazy, unfit and unable to hold respectful jobs. The women are often stereotyped as promiscuous, unclean, and leading lives as beggars and even prostitutes. Today in Yemen, there is a surprising diversity of ethnic differences among its people: many mixes of Arab, Persian, African, and even Southeast Asian roots can be found. Some scholars in Yemen don’t believe the Ahkdam’s association with ancient Ethiopia, instead connecting their historical background with the Tihama, villages along Yemen’s Red Sea coast. Nevertheless the question remains: Why has there not been any economic, social, or political progress made in over 1,000 years in relation to this group? When one looks more closely at this question, the answer gets more complex and the plight of the Muhamashīn becomes even more mysterious. Some estimates put their number as high as one million (out of a total Yemeni population of roughly 23 million), some 100,000 of which live in the outskirts of the capital of Sana’a in slums called mahwas. Most of these mahwas can be found on the outskirts of all the major cities such as Ta’iz, Lahj, Abyan, al-Hudaidah, Aden, and Mukalla. The Akhdam community of Bani Husha’ish, a district outside of Sana’a, for example, is a slum where some 3,500 men, women, and children of the community languish in small shacks haphazardly constructed of tin, dirt, and wood. Young children, many of them barefoot, run in dirt streets full of trash and human waste. As my interpreter, Abdul, and I enter deeper into the mahwa the smell becomes almost overwhelming; we both stop in order to gain our senses. Nearby is a single latrine in what looks like an old-fashioned outhouse, shared by more than sixty people. Even by the standards of a poor country like Yemen, the living conditions of these mahwas are appalling. “Everywhere we go, we face discrimination,” states Amad Ali al-Haynī, a chief, or `akil, of the Akhdam community. According to al-Haynī, whose authority as an aakel extends to over 200 families in the mahwa, most Akhdam are considered lucky to get any jobs they can find. “The majority of our families are forced to beg for a living.” A middle-aged woman named Sabah Muhammad sits stoically on the edge of the street with her three young children, relying on the generosity of pedestrians. She states that her family lives off of 2,000 rials a week, about 10 US dollars. She begs for change, both literally and figuratively. “We are living worse than some animals,” she states. Her shanty shed is about 15 feet long and six feet wide. After the death of her husband, who was a trash collector, Ms. Muhammad claims that she has no other recourse but to beg. “We sleep, live, and eat in the same room on top of each other. The government should provide us with shelters; this is inhumane. We are human beings also.” Government officials claim that while there has been a historical disdain for the Akhdam among conventional Yemeni society, there’s no official discrimination. “They are subject to the same laws as everyone else,” states one anonymous government spokesperson. The vast majority of Yemeni society believe that the Akhdam have internalized their servant status and therefore don’t try to better themselves by seeking education, higher paying jobs, or even applying for social welfare programs. Others point out that even the recent black immigrants from Somalia, Eritrea, and Ethiopia have fared better economically and don’t share their lowly social stigma. Many mainstream Yemenis believe that the Akhdam have appropriated a collective helpless status, simply accepting there fetid living conditions and banal lives. When asked if the Akhdam received equal treatment from the state, Sarwah al-Fusail, a consultant with Care International, states, “The Akhdam who work as street cleaners are rarely granted contracts even after decades of work, despite the fact that all Yemeni civil servants are supposed to be granted contracts after one year. They receive no time off, no health benefits, and no job security.” She goes on to say that despite the building of the occasional shelters by the government, it has not provided them with deeds to those shelters or land. Since they don’t have deeds to their properties they are denied basic government services like electricity, water, and sewage. Sarwah looks at me very intensely and asks, “Does this sound like equal treatment to you?” As Abdul and I leave the mahwa, I can’t help thinking to myself that one of the worse parts of being marginalized in any society is that everyone pretends that your invisible. Amad Al-Hayneī states, “We don’t want to be considered Akhdam or al-Muhamashīn. We are Yemeni citizens and want to be treated as such. In the eyes of Allah we are all the same.”