One of the first things you notice wandering around anywhere in Yemen is the kids. They are everywhere. Playing soccer in the streets, collecting water, selling vegetables, and shooting marbles in the alleyways. And if you have a camera, you will here the constant refrain of "Sura! Sura!" the Arabic word for picture. I've collected a lot of pictures of Yemeni children over the past few months.
The number of children is even more astonishing when you realize the demographic trend that it represents: almost half of all Yemeni's are under the age of 15. Yemen is growing at a rate of 3 percent a year. That's slower than has grown in the past, but it is still one of the fastest growing countries in the world.
Many countries across the Middle East are experiencing a population boom, but Yemen has the highest birthrate in the region. And Yemen's youth boom is troubling for a number of reasons. With dwindling supplies of water and oil, a mainstay of the economy, Yemen's population boom is putting further pressure on already stretched resources. Equally stretched is an education system that already can't accommodate a large percentage of the population. High unemployment and a stagnant economy make the future look even dimmer.
Some argue that such widespread economic hardship and growing youth population presents a prime recruiting opportunity for al-Qaeda. What is certain is that, without a change of course, young Yemenis will bear the burden of a nation sliding toward collapse. Of course, the brightness of Yemeni kid's smile as he pinches his fingers and asks for a portrait make you forget all that.
All photos by Paul Stephens, taken between September, 2009 and May, 2010.