11 October 2012
Last updated at 00:44
Distinguished by their dark skin, the al-Akhdam (Arabic for "servant") is a minority group at the bottom of Yemen’s social and economic hierarchy. They number around one million, and mostly work in menial roles such as rubbish pickers and street cleaners. The al-Akhdam prefer to call themselves al-Muhamashyn - "the marginalised ones". Hundreds come to the al-Maklaab landfill on the outskirts of Taiz to scavenge for scraps they can sell for recycling.
Every day, from dawn till dark, trucks arrive at the landfill, greeted by cheers from the rubbish pickers, who are all eager for new waste to sort through. Over 50 tonnes of refuse are delivered daily. Hazardous industrial and medical waste is mixed in with household rubbish, posing severe health risks to the workers.
Pickers search out plastic bottles, metal scraps and cardboard, which they bag and take to a recycling co-operative to exchange for cash. Trucks from a local food company provide a "free meal" to the pickers who descend on piles of expired food items, often eating with one hand, while continuing to rummage through the filth with their free hand.
An estimated 70% of the rubbish pickers are under 15. Asma, who is 10 years old, has never been to school. She started work here aged six because her mother had two smaller children that she needed to care for. Asma’s father went to Saudi Arabia several years ago to find work, but has not been in contact since.
The children tell gruesome stories of stumbling across body parts in the mountains of trash they must climb through, often barefoot. Hepatitis, diarrhoea, and skin and eye infections are common. However, these dangers and the overwhelming stench does not dissuade them. Children can make 1,000 rial a day (£3; 3.60 euros). This is often critical to a family's survival.
Tanani Saleh, 19, has been working at the landfill for nearly a decade. “I have four children to feed. I can either come here to work in the filth, or become a prostitute or beggar. I am al-Akhdam - no-one would ever hire me for a clean job." Tanani applies turmeric paste to her face to avoid tanning. The yellow mask is believed to lighten the skin, as well as act as a sunscreen. “The darker you are, the worse you are," says Tanani.
Many al-Akhdam children have never attended school. If a child completes one or two years of basic education, they are considered extremely lucky. The lack of job opportunities is also a contributing factor. Parents question the value of sending their children to school when they believe no-one will hire them.
Discrimination makes housing extremely hard to secure, as few landlords are willing to rent to the al-Akhdam, even if they have some steady income. As a result, the majority live in urban slums like Bir Basha. Located next to a graveyard, more than 7,000 people live in tiny one-room shacks made of sticks, sheet metal and plastic. Only 5% have access to pit latrines; the rest practice open defecation, a major cause of water-borne diseases.
The hardships faced by the al-Akhdam community were exacerbated during Yemen's violent revolution last year. Trade was severely disrupted. In a country entirely dependent on imports, it resulted in prices so inflated that basic commodities, like water and flour, are no longer accessible to many families. International aid organisations, including Mercy Corps (http://www.mercycorps.org), initiated emergency programmes to assist families in extreme poverty.
Hasnaa Saleh Ali (right) has two children and is eight months pregnant. She is still sifting rubbish at the landfill. Her husband is a porter when he can find work. When they both work, they make about 1,500 rial a day. Hasnaa has little hope for the future and describes her life as "torture".