Special Reports

This American man and his family are caught on a forgotten front line of the global refugee crisis


Abdul holds his and his family's passports in Djibouti.Credit: Rachel Pieh Jones​​​

Abdul is an American citizen on the front line of the biggest worldwide refugee crises of modern times. He’s not an aid worker, a soldier or a politician, however. He, his wife and his nine children are fleeing war, and are stranded in Djibouti City off the coast of the Gulf of Aden.

According to a UN refugee agency report issued earlier this summer, some 60 million people are refugees right now — more than at any other time since records were first kept. While news media has focused on the effects of this humanitarian emergency in Europe, the front lines of the refugee crisis extend around the world. The first destination for many fleeing conflict isn't Europe, but is often only slightly more stable countries in the Middle East, Asia, and, in this case, the East African country of Djibouti.

Abdul used to live in Rochester, New York, where he worked at a beauty supply store owned by his brother. For the past two years, however, he has been living in Yemen with his wife and nine children, ages 4 to 21.

On the night of March 27, Abdul was with his family at their home in the Yemeni city of Al-Dhale. That’s when Sana’a, the capital of Yemen was bombed by Saudi-led forces, targeting the Houthis who had taken over the city.

Abdul was terrified for his family. He kept hoping the situation would get better, that the violence would blow over. But the airstrikes soon turned into all-out civil war.

“It was close to us. We heard about a lot of people who died. We knew them,” Abdul said. “We heard the bombs and we decided we had to go. [Officials] told us that if we left, no one would go with us or come to get us. But we went anyway.”

Abdul piled his wife and nine children into the family car, borrowed some gasoline and headed west, away from the explosions. They left in a hurry, and didn’t bring any possessions with them. Soon they found themselves in the middle of the fighting, caught in the crossfire between two sides.

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