BRATTLEBORO — A local student, who worked to keep kids safe from al-Qaeda and Houthi militias as a child protection officer in South Yemen, hopes a national award she received will bring attention to the violence in her native country.
"It was for the kids. It's about the people I served, the people I worked with," said Fadja Najib Thabet, who in January started studying peacebuilding and conflict transformation at the School for International Training Graduate Institute in Brattleboro. "My plan for getting this award is to get people to pay more attention to the Houthi that the international media are not covering at all. People are suffering a lot. There's been a lot of war crimes. People aren't even talking about it in the media."
Thabet was presented the Secretary of State's International Women of Courage Award by First Lady Melania Trump and Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Thomas A. Shannon on March 29 in Washington, D.C. Thabet was one of 13 recipients receiving the award that honors women around the world "who have exemplified exceptional courage and leadership in advocating for human rights, women's equality and social progress, often at great personal risk."
She is one of five students brought to SIT through the school's Global Scholars program. Students, selected from immigrant and refugee populations, are given full scholarships.
"We're proud that the State Department is honoring Fadia for her remarkable work in Yemen," SIT President Sophia Howlett said in a statement. "SIT's goal is to provide students with the skills they'll need to make that kind of difference in the world."
Thabet immediately went to work in a local non-governmental organization in Yemen after studying computer science as an undergraduate in 2011. She was helping refugees coming from Africa.
A year later, Thabet started documenting what the United Nations Security Council considers the "six grave violations" against children. That includes killing and maiming, abduction, child-soldier recruitment, sexual violence, attacks against schools or hospitals, and denial of humanitarian access.
The reports would be investigated by the Security Council, Thabet said, as a way to hold both her group and militias accountable. She also reported minor violations by the government.
In 2014, Thabet ran a campaign called Hold a Pen, Not a Gun. The goal was to end the recruitment of children soldiers from South Yemen to North Yemen. A telephone hotline was established and children were told about the consequences of those who had been recruited.
The campaign was successful, Thabet said. But it came to an end after her group received threats.
"It was a big achievement," she said. "Unfortunately, we had to stop because our team was at risk."
Thabet said her group also provided "psycho-social support."
"You sit with the kids and put them in a safe space, where they can actually express the trauma they went through," she said.
Some of the children witnessed executions while others lost eyes and hands in the conflict. Thabet's group would help cover hospital expenses and give artificial body parts to the victims.
Thabet first came to the United States in 2015 after being accepted into the Hubert H. Humphrey Fellowship program. Her studies took her to Minnesota.
Earlier that year, Thabet said, war started to affect all of Yemen. Members of the Houthi militia came to the city where she was staying, causing most of her colleagues to leave.
"The violence was intense," she said.
She said the militia shot children and women in the streets, targeted hospitals and destroyed houses.
"It was hard because that was the first time we actually couldn't do any interventions," she said. "But I managed to report about a lot of violence that happened. I also managed to do negotiations about some children who had been recruited. I managed to release some of those kids and get them home."
Through the American Refugee Committee, Thabet continues to work to help children affected by conflict. She said she wants to return to Yemen after SIT with a focus on engaging more women in peace talks. She will tour the U.S. with all the recipients of the 2017 International Women of Courage Award starting in Los Angeles, Calif.
Reach staff writer Chris Mays at 802-254-2311, ext. 273, or @CMaysBR.