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Lackawanna family of 10 escapes war-torn Yemen

A Lackawanna family of 10 has escaped to relative safety, but they’ve all encountered first-hand the terror and atrocities of war-torn southern Yemen.

Over the weekend, Muna and Jamil Munassar, along with eight relatives, including their one-year-old grandson, took a CNN-chartered boat from Yemen to Djibouti, a republic in northeastern Africa, where they’re now under the watchful eye of the U.S. Embassy.

But they’ve seen the toll that the war has taken on residents in southern Yemen, specifically in Aden.

“We still have family members there who say the situation is getting worse every day,” A.J. Munassar, 25, said in his parents’ Lackawanna home Monday. “They say if you walk outside, you may get a bullet from a sniper, or (be struck by) a bomb.”

Over the weekend, A.J. Munassar’s father-in-law stood in a bread line there for about four hours. He wound up walking away with no bread.

And family members have told relatives here that back in Yemen, they had to hide in kitchens and crouch behind doors to escape possible injury or death.

Hundreds of Americans, possibly thousands, are believed to have been trapped in Yemen in the last few weeks, including probably dozens from Lackawanna and Buffalo. The Yemeni community here is believed to be among the largest in the country.

Two of Muna and Jamil’s seven children, Adel and A.J., pointed out that all seven siblings were born and raised here and are American citizens. Muna, their mother, came here before she was 10, while Jamil came here as a teenager.

The two brothers repeatedly expressed how relieved they feel, during a 45-minute interview Monday.

“We feel relief that they’re out of Yemen, but we don’t know what’s going to happen to them,” 35-year-old Adel Munassar said. “They’re still in a country we don’t know much about. It’s hard to communicate with them. They could be there anywhere from three to six months, depending on how long it takes to process the paperwork.”

The family has been working with U.S. Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand’s office, which has sent emails to the State Department on the stranded relatives’ behalf.

To escape Yemen, all 10 Munassar family members, along with other families, apparently squeezed into the cargo hold of a wooden ship chartered by CNN, to take Americans from Aden, according to the cable network. Relatives here say that trip took more than a day, across the Gulf of Aden.

At 4 a.m. Saturday, Adel Munassar fielded a call from his mother, Muna, the former executive director of ACCESS (Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services) in Lackawanna. She called to tell him that everyone was fine, they were safe, and they would be arriving in Djibouti in about four hours.

“She was relieved that they had left, but she was still upset about all the people she left behind,” Adel Munassar recalled. “She wanted to know why she felt like a Third World citizen. She didn’t feel like an American citizen.”

Later Saturday, the U.S. Embassy in Djibouti told Adel Munassar that the family had arrived safely and had been put up in a local hotel.

Muna Munassar has become a key figure in an emerging story about the large number of Americans trapped in the crossfire of warring parties in Yemen, CNN and other media outlets reported Monday. Hers and other American families were hemmed in by the Houthi forces to the north and the Gulf of Aden to the south, according to CNN.

“My son served in the Army for four years,” she told CNN in a featured story that aired late Sunday and Monday. “In Iraq. He served because we love our country. As we should. Now look at us?”

The issue is whether it really is too dangerous for U.S. authorities to evacuate the American nationals now.

Since the Houthis began their reign of terror in southern Yemen about a month ago, airports there have shut down, and even roads to the countryside have been closed or remain too treacherous to travel.

Other countries, including India, have evacuated their citizens in large numbers from southern Yemen, according to the Munassar brothers and other reports. But the United States has not.

“It doesn’t make any sense,” Adel Munassar said. “Yemen isn’t asking for military help. We’re just asking our country to evacuate its American citizens.”

A.J. Munassar blamed that on prevailing American views toward Yemen.

“They see Yemen as a land for terrorism and violence,” he said. “They probably don’t want to get sucked into another war like Iraq or Afghanistan. They should have had a plan to evacuate American nationals when India and the other countries were evacuating their nationals. They waited until it got so bad that they couldn’t really enter the port of Aden.”

One U.S. official in Djibouti addressed that concern.

“We have one of the branches of al Qaida that’s especially active,” Christina Higgins, the U.S. deputy chief of mission, told CNN. “There’s the Houthis; neither of these two groups are friendly to U.S. citizens. We’ve had to weigh very, very carefully what is the safest way, the best way, for us to help them.”

Jamil and Muna Munassar had gone to Aden last May to help A.J.’s wife, Eman, care for the couple’s now-one-year-old son, Muhsen. Muna had to return to Lackawanna in July to visit her ailing father, but she returned to Yemen in November.

A.J. Munassar also went to Yemen, from June to September to be with his wife and son. He spent some time in the capital of Sana’a, to get his son a passport, before returning to Aden for a month in late August and early September.

“In Aden, there was no violence, no uprising,” he said of the situation in late summer. “People were living a normal lifestyle.”

But now the brothers just shake their heads, not only over their concerns for the remaining Americans, but also knowing how difficult it may be to ever return to their ancestral homeland. They don’t want to travel there during a war when they know they could be shot – any time, any place, anywhere.

“I don’t know when is the next time we will be going back,” A.J. said. “It’s going to be a long time.”