Singapore family stays put in Yemen

Singapore family stays put in Yemen

Even as the fighting in Yemen intensifies, one Singaporean family of five has decided to stay put for now. Businessman Haykal Bafana, 43, who is living in the capital Sanaa with his wife and four young children, insists that he has an evacuation plan in place if things gets worse.

"If need be, at any moment, we are ready to leave Sanaa within two hours," he told The Sunday Times last Wednesday.

Sanaa, which is under the control of Houthi rebels, has been hit by Saudi Arabian air strikes. Mosques there have been targeted by suicide bombers.

"The first few days of air strikes were shocking. All night and day, we could hear screaming jet fighters, drones flying overhead, and massive volleys of anti-aircraft gunfire," said Mr Bafana, who earned a law degree at the National University of Singapore.

Some of the targets for the bombings were just 11km away from his home. The air strikes have also led to schools being shut in Sanaa. Mr Bafana has taken to home-schooling his two older daughters, aged six and five, in the interim.

He admits that the safety of his wife, three daughters and one son is always weighing on his mind. "It is a constant and daily worry for me," he said. But "business and professional obligations in Yemen require my presence here".

Mr Bafana, who moved to Yemen in 2009, runs a company providing legal and investment advice to foreign companies looking to do business in the country. He also advises Yemeni firms hoping to venture abroad.

Having already expected the conflict and violence in Yemen to escalate, he and his wife stocked up on food items and emergency supplies. Mr Bafana said he is also in touch with Singapore's Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), and updates his family in Singapore regularly.

He added that his work involves the defence and security sector and this means he gets access to a constant stream of information.

His sister Harasha Bafana, 40, who runs a business mentoring programme here, appreciates her brother's can-do spirit but admits that she and her mother are worried about him and his family. "It takes a lot of guts to step out of your comfort zone.

He had to teach himself Arabic and adjust to the cultural differences when he moved there. But with the recent unrest, I got him to promise me that if things get bad, he has a Plan B."

Singapore's MFA is urging Singaporeans in Yemen to leave as soon as they can, and said it will help those who want to escape.

Last Saturday, Singaporean Sherin Fathimah, 37, and her four children arrived at Changi Airport after being evacuated from the port city of Aden on a Chinese ship. MFA had arranged for passage on the ship, which took the family to the African state of Djibouti.

In a separate interview with The Sunday Times last month, before the Saudis began their bombing campaign, Mr Bafana said things were relatively calm on the ground even after Sanaa was taken over by the rebels.

He also explained that his decision to move to Yemen was driven not just by business but also to rediscover his ancestral culture - a quest triggered by the death of his grandfather, who was born in the country's Hadhramaut region.

"He brought us up to forget Hadhramaut because life was tough there," said Mr Bafana, who attended Raffles Institution and Victoria Junior College. He practised as a lawyer here before setting up the Samar Cafe - a Middle Eastern restaurant in the Kampong Glam area.

But when he was tasked with the job of dividing the inheritance, he discovered that he had relatives in Yemen. In 2007, he travelled there to meet them, and fell in love with the country and the kindness of its people.

In 2009, he packed his bags with his wife and first-born daughter.

It took some getting used to. He carries a rifle when he takes his wife shopping for security reasons, and has learnt to harvest water from rain and rely on a generator to power his home.

"In Singapore, we are used to the Government taking care of us. Here, I have to learn to be independent."

Still, he said: "If it gets too dangerous, I might leave. Having the Singapore passport is a backup."

This article was first published on Apr 12, 2015.
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