‘Community service is who I am’: Yemeni woman tells her story of escape, empowerment

DOVER — A year ago, in her home country of Yemen, Needa Ali Al-Kadasi was given a decision to make with a gun pointed at her head.

The then-24-year-old woman and a group of her peers had been on a retreat for the Bahá’í faith-inspired Junior

Needa Ali Al-Kadasi, a native of Yemen and a student at Delaware State University, will share her story April 30 in Dover. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

Youth Spiritual Empowerment Program when they were all captured by 20 armed and hooded militants. She was being told that she needed to sign an agreement to never again participate in community action projects or community service in Yemen. She refused.

“If I can’t live for what I believe in, then I will die,” said Ms. Al-Kadasi.

Strangely enough, Ms. Al-Kadasi’s fierce devotion to community service has its roots in an experience she had in 2006 at Campus Community High School in Dover as a foreign exchange student.

She will share her compelling story during a discussion series, which starts April 30 at the Sankofa Cultural Arts Center in Dover.

Ms. Al-Kadasi is from Sana’a, Yemen’s capital city. Although growing up in a “male-dominant” Muslim society, her father encouraged her personal growth from an early age.

“If you are a female in Yemen, you must follow a man — that could be a father, brother or husband,” she said. “My father, Ali, was the male figure in my life. He was a wonderful man who always made sure that I knew education was the key and that I wouldn’t be able to do anything without it. That’s not very common for girls in Yemen to be taught that. Most girls are allowed to finish high school and that’s it.”

In 2004, her father died.

“When he passed away, I lost that male figure, but I started to understand why he thought education was so important,” said Ms. Al-Kadasi. “I needed to find a way to protect myself and get an education.”

A chance for a U.S. education

Opportunity struck when she found fliers distributed in her school that offered a scholarship as an exchange student in the United States. Thrilled with the prospect, she applied for the program but was turned away several times because she didn’t speak English. Resolving to remedy this, she found language courses and enrolled herself.

“It was a two-hour walk each way, but I did it every single day — I was in pretty good shape after that,” she said.

By 2006, she spoke English and was accepted as an exchange student. She then traveled to Campus Community High School in Dover at the behest of adviser/teacher Kathy Doyle. Although the experience of attending an American school changed her perspective on many things, it was the requirement of community service that was “eye-opening,” she said.

“I was required to do 50 hours of community service with the Delaware Teen Courts as part of the program,” said Ms. Al-Kadasi. “I didn’t understand why at first, but after I finished the required 50 hours, I couldn’t stop myself. I had to keep going. I was overwhelmed with the desire to help create a better world.”

Empowering young women

The activism bug that bit her in Dover followed her back to Yemen when she returned after the exchange program and she began teaching young girls in her neighborhood to read and write.

“These little girls were then empowered to teach their mothers to read and write — it was a great neighborhood activity,” she said. “But I started to feel like it wasn’t enough. I needed every single girl in Yemen to understand the importance of education. So, I started talking to a lot of the organizations in Sana’a to find one with a similar vision. That’s when I learned about the Junior Youth Spiritual Empowerment Program and it became the true my passion of my life.”

The program is a Bahá’í faith-inspired international initiative. According to The Ruhi Institute, the educational institution that operates the program, it attaches special importance to its work with kids from 12 to 15 years old and provides them with a forum to discuss ideas and form a strong moral identity. For Ms. Al-Kadasi, the program is something worth living — and dying for.

With like-minded peers in Yemen, she helped launch a literacy campaign called “I Love My Book.” As a 16-year-old, she and a small group of other kids would go to public schools that didn’t have libraries, build them small wooden bookshelves to stuff full of books.

“For young people to open their eyes and investigate the truth, they need to read,” she said. “Reading is one of the most important things we, as humans, have to do.”

In a country full of politically and ideologically driven strife, it wasn’t long before her efforts were noticed by people who didn’t appreciate them.

“So many people would try to stop us, the Bahá’í faith is not accepted in a strict Muslim society,” said Ms. Al-Kadasi.

“If you educate people, then they might be able to turn against the government. We were doing this right around the time of the Arab Spring in 2011 too, and it seemed that there were only two paths to choose then, you were either with or against change. Some people weren’t happy about what we were doing, but we didn’t stop.”

Unbreakable beliefs

The discontent became all too clear in 2016 when armed militants arrested her and her peers for participating in a Bahá’í-inspired program and held them hostage outside of Sana’a. Ms. Al-Kadasi was held in a jail cell, interrogated, threatened and coerced into abandoning her beliefs.

Needa Ali Al-Kadasi snapped this selfie last year during her escape from Yemen. (Submitted photo)

“They were literally saying; ‘Why are you teaching peace? Why are you teaching kindness? Why are you teaching love? These young ones you are teaching should be in the battlefield. They should not be spreading peace and love,’” she said.

Unwilling to bend though, Ms. Al-Kadasi told the militants that she thought they were mistaken and that she would not renounce her beliefs and sign anything restricting her practices of community service.

“They said they would kill me, and I said, ‘you might as well,’” said Ms. Al-Kadasi. “I just knew it was the right thing to do. I would not sign their agreement because community service is who I am. If they deprived me of that, who would I be?”

After being held for a length of time, her captors contacted her family and demanded that they sign the agreement if they ever wanted to see Ms. Al-Kadasi again.

“My family helped get me released, I didn’t want to see them put in to danger either so the militants knew that was the only way to get to me,” she said. “As part of the agreement for my release they had me put on house arrest for five months.”

Even though it was a short sentence, Ms. Al-Kadasi quickly grew restless and decided that it was becoming impossible to pursue her beliefs in Yemen without endangering her family.

Back to Delaware

She spent her house arrest sentence coordinating with her old Campus Community teacher Ms. Doyle, Delaware State University and Sen. Tom Carper’s office to make a return trip to Dover on a student visa. Ms. Doyle introduced her to a Dover Bahá’í family, Peter and Judy Oldziey, who agreed quickly to act as her adoptive family upon her return.

“After just talking briefly on the phone, Peter and I knew we had to help this young lady,” said Ms. Oldziey. “Her positivity is infectious.”

In December 2016, Ms. Al-Kadasi received an acceptance letter from DSU to come to Dover and study political science. There was still, however, the matter of escaping from Yemen.

“The closest airport to where we live was only 30 minutes away, but it was blown up in the war,” she said.

“So, I had to take a bus from extremist Shia Muslim-held territory into ISIS-held territory to get to the other airport. Then I had to pay a crazy driver who was willing to drive me into the city where they weren’t letting people in or out. We knew at any minute on the road that we could have been hit by a missile, but I just can’t live my life under house arrest.”

She made the dangerous trip unharmed and arrived back in Dover on Jan. 11 to start her college career.

‘Exploring Our World’

However, with her ceaseless drive toward community service, it didn’t take her long to link up with retired State Rep. Donald Blakey to plan her next outreach project. She will be hosting a discussion series titled “Exploring Our World” at the Sankofa Cultural Arts Center on 39 S. West St. in Dover on April 30 at 3 p.m.

Mr. Blakey and Sankofa Center founder Reuben Salters are sponsors of the event.

“The series of discussions will be with people in our community whose experiences are unlike any we’ve had,” said Mr. Blakey. “Needa is making her way through life here in the U.S., and her story is compelling and firsthand.”

Ms. Al-Kadasi plans to tell her story at the first discussion session and also offer visitors the chance to join her in the Junior Youth Spiritual Empowerment Program she’s trying to cultivate in Dover.

“The discussion is also an invitation for young people who are interested in making a difference,” she said.

“If you feel that there is a need to change the world and make it a better place, I am inviting you. I want to discuss how each and every crisis in life can bring a victory and how we can direct and channel our energies toward protect ourselves from all the negative forces that are affecting us in the world right now.”

Reach staff writer Ian Gronau at igronau@newszap.com

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