Fresno State grad student helps wife, son escape violence in Yemen

From a one-room hotel in Djibouti with his wife and two children, Hafez Alawdi is anxious to get home to Fresno.

It will be a homecoming unlike any he’s had before.

Just days ago, the Fresno State graduate student flew from Los Angeles to Djibouti in northeast Africa to reunite with his family. His wife, Samiha Jaffar, 4-year-old daughter Sara and son Shakar, 10, were living in Taiz, Yemen temporarily when airstrikes from Saudi Arabia-led groups began drawing closer and closer to their home in the southwestern Yemen city. They were forced to flee to Djibouti this month in a 25-foot boat across the Red Sea.

It was a harrowing 16-hour trip for the trio.

Nerve-wracking for Alawdi, too, who was scheduled to arrive in Djibouti three hours after his family was due in port.

“I didn’t know if they would make it across the Red Sea or not,” Alawdi told The Bee on Friday. “I believe in God, so I believe that was a miracle for me.”

It was only a few months ago that Alawdi visited his family and his wife’s relatives in Taiz. Since returning to Fresno in January to finish his master’s degree, the Bakersfield native and Fresno State chemistry teaching assistant had been monitoring the escalating conflict there.

Fighting between a Saudi-led coalition, which is aligned with the country’s former president, and Houthi rebel militias had begun descending into war. When fighter jets began speckling the skies and tanks crowded the city streets, Jaffar decided to keep their son home from school. She began stockpiling canned goods when airstrikes started hitting targets close to their home.

“I just told her, ‘Don’t go out anymore, take shelter in our basement and our house until we seek a way out,’” Alawdi said.

For months he’d been trying to get his family to Fresno. Hearing about the violence from his wife, he decided he couldn’t wait any longer.

“I saw how the situation was intensifying,” Alawdi said. “I knew I had to somehow get my family out of Yemen before it was too late.”

The process promised to be difficult. Alawdi and his daughter are U.S. citizens, but his wife and son would both need visas. From Fresno, he made phone call after phone call to expedite the process. But there were roadblocks: The U.S. Embassy in Yemen had shuttered its doors and evacuated staff, and in March, Yemeni officials declared the country a no-fly zone.

There was no way Alawdi could get into the country, and he was desperate to get his family out.

He was able to purchase three seats on a small boat departing from a coastal town about an hour and a half from Taiz and told his wife to go. He bought a plane ticket from Los Angeles to Djibouti, where he promised to meet his family.

They were reunited there on April 9, he said. But they left many relatives behind, including Jaffar’s mother and other relatives.

“I was asking (Jaffar) how is her mother and she just started crying,” Alawdi said. “The shooting is so intense they cannot exit their house.”

He, his wife and children are now staying in a hotel in Djibouti, still seeking visas and a way to travel together back to Fresno.

“We might be able to come back toward the end of April,” Alawdi said. “I really want to attend my master’s degree graduation with my family.”