Omar Al-Fotihi: From Sana’a to Human Rights Watch

Omar Al-Fotihi is a human rights advocate, investigative journalist, and filmmaker originally from Yemen. He works at Human Rights Watch as Assistant Creative Coordinator for Development and Global Initiatives.

In The Alchemist, a best-selling novel by Brazilian writer Paulo Coelho, Santiago the shepherd sets off on a journey to a land beyond the sea. His main objective was to find his “personal legend.” That is what I plan to do in my own life: to set off on an odyssey to find my personal legend.

By the time I was 18 years old, I too had traveled beyond the sea. I left my home country, Yemen, to come to the United States on a State Department sponsored high school exchange program called “Youth Exchange and Study” (YES). I intended to use that opportunity to gain knowledge and build my human capital. By the end of the program, I came to a realization that if I wanted to see change, well, I had to be the change.

Specifically, I wanted to see young Yemeni children live and learn in a better environment. On the streets of Sanaa, the capital of Yemen, there are children who have abandoned school in order to earn money for their impoverished families. I am constantly reminded of the need for work to help those children, but in order to do that, I first had to foster my own identity and further my potential.

I profoundly believe that having personal experiences of anguish, poverty, and lack of opportunity enables one to relate better to others in those conditions. Such experiences provide a platform of empathy to build upon as you try to help others. So from Yemen I applied to volunteer programs in Lima, Peru, to help orphans learn English. I also applied to Earlham College in Indiana, while struggling to collect money for travel expenses by working as a teacher in Sanaa. By the time I had enough funds to cover my basic needs, I was accepted into college. I realized I could not let this chance slip away: A robust college education would bolster my identity better in becoming a change-maker.

During my first year at Earlham College, the so-called “Arab Spring” broke out in Yemen. I struggled with my identity, watching from afar as my friends stood in Sanaa’s “Change Square,” shouting freedom slogans confronting head-to-head the corrupt ideologues of then President Ali Abdullah Saleh. With the struggles for change going on back home, I began to view change in a different light. Change becomes difficult to achieve if thought of as a milestone event or a marathon with a clear finish line. It is actually most attainable when taken as doses of incremental impact injected at a specific problem. In other words, gradual steps towards enlightenment and experiences make up change. Solutions have to be interjected at the root of specific problems in order to achieve measurable change.

The main fault in Yemen’s 2011 national revolt was that simmering grievances, cooked in a pot of corruption and patronage, gave way to a sentimentally charged demonstration that was devoid of any post-revolution planning. Young demonstrators were too myopic to stop their revolution from being hijacked by both regime defectors and opposition parties. They thought change was a milestone event with a happily-ever-after ending, rather than a devilishly complex unfolding power struggle.

I therefore made it my purpose to tackle endemic problems in Yemen and the Middle East at large. This led me to human rights advocacy. In my second year of college, I decided to study political science with a focus on international relations. A cluster of politics, international law, philosophy, art, and film courses shaped my career interest in human rights and video-journalism.

In my last year of college, I began writing a policy brief about United States drone policy in Yemen, including the impact of collateral damage from attacks. I participated in the Friends Committee on National Legislation Spring Lobby conference, which discussed providing more congressional oversight of drone policy. At the conference, I met Andrea Prasow, deputy Washington director of Human Rights Watch, who connected me with Letta Tayler, one a senior researcher on terrorism. That summer, I interned at the Emergencies Division under Tayler’s supervision, the start of my work in Human Rights Watch.

During my internship, I researched ISIS advances in Iraq, freedom of speech abuses in Kuwait and Oman, and drone policy collateral damage record in Yemen. Working with the multimedia department, I assisted in the production of some of Human Rights Watch video news releases. That internship in turn led to a job at Human Rights Watch, first as Assistant Communications Coordinator at the communications department, managing press requests and news releases – and now as Assistant Creative Coordinator for Development and Global Initiatives.

On weekends, I work at a community organization I founded along with a number of Yemeni and Yemeni-American intellectuals. Currently, we are working on a short film about the Yemen’s dire situation and a youth mentoring program. My hope is to use my current experiences to build more personal capital and push for incremental changes in Yemen as soon as the current struggle for justice and voice finds its way. Perhaps I might even begin to work with the street children of Sanaa and their better future.

My plans to help Yemen would have been impossible without living in the US and having the example of the United States as true democratic power to look at. I hope one day all people get to experience true freedoms and opportunities in their home countries for the world to become a better and safer place.

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