Yemeni Poet and Scholar Saba Hamzah Builds a New Life in the Netherlands

Six years ago, Saba Hamzah carried her bags and her three children from the Yemeni capital, Sana’a, to an airport across the country on a crowded bus fleeing war in Yemen.

They traveled first to Egypt, then to Turkey, before moving in 2018 to the Netherlands, where Hamzah hoped to continue her studies.

Hamzah, who was born in Sana’a in 1986, says that she realized soon after she took her small family into an unknown world that Yemeni people were now a diaspora.

Despite her long-term sense of alienation, Hamzah managed to obtain a master’s degree in gender studies from Utrecht University through a grant from the university fund. She received the first honorary award from the Rosanna Fund for Women on International Women’s Day in 2020 and was nominated for the El Hizjra Prize for Literature last year for her first poems in  Dutch, a language she learnt only after arriving in the county.

In an interview with Al-Fanar Media via Zoom, Hamzah, who holds a bachelor’s in literature and education from Sana’a University, said she passed the integration language exams within three months of arrival.

Still, her journey to “self-realisation” has not been easy. During her stay in a Dutch refugee centre, she saw that those in charge regarded refugees as inexperienced and that she would have to start her studies from scratch. She felt she was responsible for their own integration, she said, and would have to find a place where she could grow and learn.

“A wise person is one who learns to make from his pain a light that lights the way for him, not a fire that devours his soul.

Saba Hamzah  

Reading and writing helped Hamzah mitigate the pain and depression of being away from family. She told Al-Fanar Media: “A wise person is one who learns how to make from his pain a light that lights the way for him, not a fire that devours his soul.”

Gender Studies and Poetry

After an extensive search, Hamzah applied to Utrecht University, where her supervisor decided that her academic level did not require years of additional study to qualify, contrary to what she had heard at the refugee centre.

Hamzah believes that choosing gender studies for her master’s thesis improved her ability as a writer and educator. It helped her understand the issues that women and members of marginalized communities face, and to develop writing, research and training mechanisms from a feminist perspective.

Hamzah says that she uses her academic experience in educational projects that promote peaceful social change.

She is currently working on writing a research paper on “Peacebuilding and Women’s Integration”.

With other researchers in the department of gender studies at Radboud University Nijmegen, she contributed to research on what makes a healthy society for a book published in Dutch. Her contribution focused on violence against people with special needs.

She is also working with the University of Helsinki in Finland on research on cognitive and structural violence”. And she was recently appointed as a researcher at the National Museum of World Cultures in the Netherlands.

In addition to her scholarly work, Hamzah writes poetry. She participated with five other Yemeni poets in a volume called “Touches of Memory: Texts for Yemeni Voices”, which was published last year in German. She also launched her own poetry collection, “Our Shared Heaven”, at last year’s Doha International Book Fair.

“The asylum card was an outlet for a new life, confirmation of my enjoyment of my rights as a human being to freedom of movement and the beginning of a better and safer life.”

Saba Hamzah  

The Refugee Experience

The experience of being a refugee had a great impact on her academic and research career, Hamzah said. It is also why she has devoted most of her research to women’s issues in Yemen.

Her personal experience, however, “does not bear the character of shock,” she said, despite the difficulties she faced after moving with her three children to the Netherlands.

Hamzah says: “I lived in exile in my country, as a woman and as a mother, and I had to move between more than one country with many restrictions. The asylum card was an outlet for a new life, confirmation of my enjoyment of my rights as a human being to freedom of movement and the beginning of a better and safer life.”

The experiences she has gone through, as a woman born and raised in Yemen, the mother of a child with special needs and as a forced migrant, shaped her personal and professional life as a writer, poet and academic.

Some people might find it difficult to understand her precise specialization among her educational, literary and academic efforts, she said.

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“The truth is that I find myself in all of these and I employ all the means available to me and combine science, art and literature to bring about social, political, or environmental change based on the depth of feminist philosophy, which sees that the personal is necessarily political.”

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By: Amr EL-Tohamy

Amr is an Egyptian journalist who writes for Al-Masry Al-Youm.

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