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State Department Recognizes Brattleboro Student For Work With Yemeni Refugees

Howard Weiss-Tisman
Fadia Thabet received an International Women of Courage Award from the State Department for her work protecting Yemeni children.

Fadia Thabet, a student at the School for International Training in Brattleboro, was recently awarded an International Women of Courage Award from the U.S. State Department.She was one of the 13 women from around the world who received this year's award, which was given out by First Lady Melania Trump at a ceremony in Washington a few weeks ago. Thabet was recognized for her work protecting children in Yemen's brutal civil war.

Yemen is one of the poorest countries in the Middle East, and civilians in parts of the country are trapped in a bloody battle between al Qaeda, Houthi rebels and a Saudi-led coalition.

For about three years, Fadia Thabet worked with the war's most vulnerable victims.

"We were the only organization, and the first one who work with children affected by armed conflict," she says. "So we work with child soldiers. Children who've been killed or abducted or raped. We saw kids who were attacked at schools and hospitals and those who were denied humanitarian access."

Thabet's work was dangerous, difficult and heartbreaking.

The group's budget was low. The need, immense. And Thabet says she wanted to work with children to help her country move somehow beyond the conflict and bloodshed.

"Those kids who were being recruited or being targeted, were prevented from seeking or wishing or dreaming for a better future," says Thabet. "That's why I started doing this work. I wanted kids in school, and jot on the front lines in battle."

The U.S. State Department established the International Women of Courage Award in 2007, and every year the First Lady recognizes women from all over the world who work for peace and human rights.

Thabet is an outspoken critic of President Trump's travel ban, which includes Yemen, and so she says going to the State Department in D.C. required some internal dialogue.

Credit U.S. Department of State
U.S. Department of State
First Lady Melania Trump presents the award to Thabet during the award ceremony at the U.S. State Department.

"My conclusion was, to accept this award gave me a platform," says Thabet. "Here I was, a woman, coming from Yemen, which is a country included in the travel ban. But I work against the terrorists, not part of the terrorists. They ask me about the travel ban, I said 'we can't use the same brush to paint everyone.'  I understand the security concerns coming from those countries but we also we have to approach the human being sides in these kinds of stories."

Thabet's stories from Yemen are chilling.

She talks about raising money to buy replacement limbs for children who got in the way of sniper fire and explosives.

She helped track down psychiatric care for kids who were recruited by al Qaeda.

"Here I was, a woman, coming from Yemen, which is a country included in the travel ban. But I work against the terrorists, not part of the terrorists. They ask me about the travel ban, I said 'we can't use the same brush to paint everyone.'" — Fadia Thabet

Early in 2015 her group came under intense threats from Houthi rebels who invaded the city where they were working.

She says with so much going wrong in Yemen, her work with children compels her to do more.

"What if instead of just like I want 10 children what if I want thousands  of children to be in that position?" she says. "So one successful story can actually change the whole perspective of how you can engage more in this story."

Thabet is studying at SIT as part of the school's Global Scholars program, which offers full scholarships to refugees from war-torn countries.

A few years ago, she was dodging sniper fire and protecting children in a war zone. Now she's learning about United Nations policies, and how non-governmental organizations work.

And she says it all starts with a single action in a single community.

"We have to do something," Thabet says. "Even if it's just like, the amount of impact is very little, but just from my little impact, in addition to your little impact, in addition to someone else's impact, we can do something bigger. So it's an individual effort, but in the end we need the collective one."

When she's done studying here in Vermont, Thabet says she's going back to Yemen to continue working with kids and to help support relief agencies in her country.

Disclosure: The School for International Training supports VPR as an underwriter.

Howard Weiss-Tisman is Vermont Public’s southern Vermont reporter, but sometimes the story takes him to other parts of the state.
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