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From blocking shots to blocking hunger: Former Syrian pro basketballer leads humanitarian work in Yemen

Portrait of Salah Hamwi standing with a group

A former pro basketball player, who once represented his home country of Syria, Salah Hamwi (vest, white shirt) is now a humanitarian leader in Yemen. Photo: CARE Yemen

A former pro basketball player, who once represented his home country of Syria, Salah Hamwi (vest, white shirt) is now a humanitarian leader in Yemen. Photo: CARE Yemen

It has been a little over a decade that I quit professional basketball. But I still play. I still fight.

The target has slightly changed, though. Now I fight against hunger. Now I fight against gender inequality. Now I fight against cold. Now I fight against diseases.  I fight against the day-to-day challenges faced by thousands of conflict-, displacement-, and natural disaster-affected people in Yemen. Sadly, this beautiful ancient land has plunged into the world’s largest humanitarian crisis. Thousands have already perished, and millions displaced. When will such meaningless atrocities end? The world must wake up!

I am a Syrian refugee and I lead CARE Yemen’s humanitarian and development work. I started my CARE career in Turkey, over seven years ago in 2015. I have been working in the humanitarian sector for nearly 12 years, spearheading large-scale humanitarian responses across Syria, Lebanon, Türkiye and Yemen.

Today, I will share my story.

Basketball team photo
Salah (number 12, back row) with the rest of his basketball team. Photo courtesy of Salah Hamwi.

I was born and raised in Aleppo, the second-largest city in Syria and one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. Aleppo is a grand city, rich in history, culture, and diversity.

Life was good. We did not have a lavish life. But we were happy, nonetheless.

When I was in grade three or four, I started playing basketball as an unusually tall kid. I was already 160 cm (5’3”) only at the age of 10! Surprisingly, my mother kept pushing me to take up basketball. One of her goals was to divert me from Greek wrestling, my passion at that time. The other reason was solely monetary, securing my future as a sportsperson. As my newfound love did not affect my school grades at all, my mother was even happier.

I played professional basketball for around 10 years, nationally and internationally.

When I was only 17, I had the rare privilege of joining the Syrian men’s national basketball team.

Unfortunately, it did not last long. One fine morning, everything seemed unreal. And I had to leave my beloved motherland.

A basketball team, all wearing white, eating a meal together
Members of Salah's team sit down for a meal together. Photo courtesy of Salah Hamwi

The trajectory changes

What started out as unrest in 2011 eventually escalated into an armed conflict. Over 5.6 million refugees are now living in neighboring countries and more than 6.9 million are displaced inside Syria.

Like numerous other Syrians, I managed to reach Türkiye with a brief stay in Lebanon. It was a long, treacherous journey. The initial days were difficult until I got a job with an NGO. Later, I joined CARE in Türkiye and became an intrinsic part of the Syrian refugee response in Lebanon and Türkiye. I can proudly say that CARE in Türkiye was one of the first responders. Not only that, Türkiye currently hosts some 3.6 million registered Syrian refugees. As I was based in southeastern Türkiye, bordering with Syria, I often wondered how close both the countries were, yet so starkly apart!

Following an eight-year stint in Türkiye, I now work in Yemen, with the world’s largest humanitarian crisis. Here 23.4 million people need some form of humanitarian assistance and at least 4.3 million people are internally displaced.

I have already developed a strong bond with the local people that made me believe, perhaps human beings always look for ways to connect with others; be it language, race, religion, or even common suffering.

Salah on CNN International: Amanpour

CNN International: Amanpour: Bianna Golodryga interviews CARE Yemen's Salah Hamwi, Assistant Country Director, Programs, CARE Yemen.

Portrait of Salah Hamwi outdoors, looking left

The world’s largest humanitarian crisis

The conscious experience of my forced displacement and misfortune drives me every day to serve people in need. As Acting Country Director, I lead the program component, including humanitarian operations across Yemen. For the past couple of years, we have been able to reach around 3 million people each year across several sectors: food and nutrition, child education, water and sanitation, and health services.

Through in-kind food assistance, and cash transfers, we have been trying to ensure that the affected households are able to address their basic and immediate needs. In 2022, we reached over 1.55 million individuals (more than 50% being women), with food- and nutrition-related programs.

Women and children suffer most in any conflict. Sadly, Yemen is no exception. Two million out-of-school children are now at greater risk of joining armed groups and falling prey to child marriage. We are trying to improve the situation by training teachers, renovating schools, distributing books and hygiene material, providing furniture, and other supplies.

Today, 17.8 million Yemenis do not have proper access to water, sanitation, and hygiene.

16.3 million people (51% of the population) have no access to safe water. Our water and sanitation programs focus on ensuring adequate access by rehabilitation/construction of strategic water infrastructure and latrines, trucking in water, and promoting hygiene and sanitation activities. In the last year, CARE reached 836,578 individuals with various WASH activities.

It is indeed shocking that one mother and six newborns die every two hours here in Yemen. Improved reproductive health is a crying need. CARE is working towards strengthening health systems and approaches including emergency preparedness. We rehabilitate health facilities, provide them with medical supplies and equipment, train medical personnel, and offer cash vouchers to vulnerable pregnant women so they can access healthcare. Last year, CARE reached 115,718 individuals with reproductive health services.

Despite all our efforts, CARE has been able to reach only around 3 million Yemenis in the last couple of years. We are constantly faced with resource limitations. This gap is prevalent all over Yemen. Only 55% of the required funding is available for the Yemen Humanitarian Response Plan 2022 that aims to reach around 18 million people in need.

We would like to urge the donor community to invest sustainably in the world’s largest protracted crisis. What we need is short-term life-saving response as well as long-term strategic investment focusing on localization, local knowledge generation and capacity building.

Yemen needs your attention. Yemen needs your empathy. Yemen needs your support.

Over 23 million people in need, need you.

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