VIP Profile: Thorhildur (“Toto”) Olafsdottir

Yemen, January 2011

Bringing Their Stories to Light and Helping Young People Get Back to School

In this poorest country of the Middle-East, only seven out of every ten school-aged children are actually enrolled in or attend school. All too many children drop out before they finish their basic education. Poverty is the most common reason and education is perceived to be too expensive. Children are often forced to work, as their income is sometimes vital for the struggling families.

The ACCESS-Plus program, funded by the U.S. Department of Labor, provides education and life-developing services to children in four of 21 governorates in Yemen by helping children to leave work and enter or return to school. Seventeen-year old Jawaher, from the town of Hodeidah on the west coast of Yemen, works with Hanaa, one of many volunteers who play a crucial role in this process. The volunteers work as intermediaries between the ACCESS-Plus program and the greater community. As local people who live in the targeted areas they possess deep understanding of the problems that their societies are faced with. "I know how difficult it is to be poor. But I have also found out how important education is," says Hanaa, who has a university degree and works as an art teacher in the Sana’a city college.  "I am one of the fortunate ones and I feel like it is my duty to help."

Thorhildur (Toto) Olafsdottir is a journalist and media expert from Iceland. In January 2011, she went to Yemen for CHF to conduct a series of interviews and produce stories and audiovisual materials featuring ACCESS-PLUS beneficiary children. To date, the program has positively impacted the lives of about 70,000 Yemeni children through the provision of direct services, such as education and life development schemes. One of the most dramatic stories she has written was about Yaseen, a 13-year-old who lives with his parents and twelve siblings in a little village near the Saudi Arabia border. Forced to work to provide food and shelter for the whole family, at the age of seven, he became a qat smuggler instead of attending school.

By documenting the stories of children like Jawaher and Yaseen, Toto brings the plight of the youth to broader attention. Her stories contributed to a small publication which will enhance the program’s results by raising awareness of important issues and educating the community about the value of general education and vocational training programs preparing youth for a future of gainful employment.