SANA’A, YEMEN – The children. Oh, the children. The smallest hold tightly onto black, tent-like baltos that drape over their mothers. Others sing in a school courtyard near our home. But the beggar kids who run to our vehicle when it’s stopped at intersections really get me.

Sometimes dirty-faced, always playful, they’ll melt any heart. My wife, Jean, and I offer them pencils bearing Canada’s flag and, in broken Arabic, tell them Jesus loves them.

That always gets a big smile. If we take their photo, a “surrah,” they go wild with joy.

As beautiful as they are, the children are also a reminder that population growth here is out of control. Yemen has 20 million souls, double of 1987. Forty per cent of 280 million regional Arabs are now under 15. That’s the highest youth rate in the world.

Consider also that Yemen, among Earth’s poorest countries, has an annual average income of $450, 40 per cent unemployment, no social safety net and dwindling water resources.

The children.

To help them out of poverty and related problems such as terrorism, international donors meeting in Paris recently announced a $2.3-billion loan for Yemen. That came after the French oil tanker Limburg exploded off Yemen’s coast.

The alleged voice of Osama bin Laden gloated on news channels that “youths of God” plan more hits on the economic lifelines of America and its allies.

But as a small oil producer, Yemen needs foreign companies to get oil out safely. You can imagine new security fears and higher insurance rates for incoming vessels. Whose lifeline is hurt?

Reaching further than grinding poverty here, however, is the heavy blanket of Islam.

Next week will mark the start of Ramadan, the highlight of the Islamic year. For a month, folks rest and fast during the day, then shop, visit and feast, if they can afford to, at night. Like children clutching their mothers’ baltos, they’ll cling to their religion in a way most westerners can no longer imagine.

Why? In the Muslim world, conforming to the group is more important than individual liberty. As one Syrian intellectual put it, “The role of Islamic thought is to explain, not to search and question.”

Indeed, if you’re called several times daily, including at 4 a.m., to recite scripted prayers, and if you’re given religious messages over loudspeakers in the streets, as in Sana’a, how do you find much else?

I liken it to going to Oz. Most of us want a heart, courage and brains. But where do you turn if, at the end of the road, you discover the wizard isn’t everything you expected? To corrupt authorities? To embittered clerics? Do you admit you’re lost? Or, as I’ve found here, do you blame your problems on others, namely Jews and Americans.

If you think that’s harsh, consider the first-ever Arab Human Development Report released this year by scholars who are Arabs themselves. It notes the Middle East is “richer than it is developed,” but three key needs are keeping Arabs behind much of the world.

One need is freedom from what the report calls a “patriarchal, intolerant and sometimes suffocating social environment.”

Another is knowledge. Incredibly, in the last 1,000 years, say the scholars, Arabs have translated as many books as Spain translates in one year.

The third is women’s rights. Into the 21st century, half of Arab women remain illiterate. Ask Jean, an obstetrician, why. Once, when a Yemeni was told about her medicine, the woman responded, “Don’t tell me. Tell my husband. I’m just a cow.”

Which brings us back to independent thinking. The report partly defends Islam’s support of justice, peace and tolerance. But it also explains Islam’s deeply ingrained teaching to never defy tradition.

One tradition is that truth is only in text, not personal experience. And that’s why the reality of Islam so often doesn’t mesh with the ideals of Islam. “Whom do you hate?” “America!” “Where do you want to live?” “America!”

Ramadan helps some Muslims forget such enigmas. But they won’t go away.

The children here deserve more. For their sake and for security of the global community, let’s hope at least some can, by some miracle, find a brighter future. A simple pencil and a “Jesus loves you” may be small tools to give them. But it’s an honest message. And that’s what they need.