Yemeni Immigrant Activists Are Changing a Whole Community’s Mindset

Riyadh Alhirdi is trying not to cry. He’s sitting in the Yemeni American Merchants Association’s (YAMA) new offices in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, explaining the convoluted process of procuring asylum for his wife and five children.

Alhirdi, who is 43-year-old and was born in Yemen, has been dealing with opaque immigration procedures regarding his family for over four years. They have been stuck in Egypt since 2015 because the American Consulate in war-torn Yemen is closed. Although he talks on video chats with them daily, over the past eight years, he has been with his family only once.

Riyadh Alhirdi at the Yemeni American Merchants Association, where he’s received help navigating the immigration process.
Riyadh Alhirdi at the Yemeni American Merchants Association, where he’s received help navigating the immigration process.

An estimated 400,000 Yemenis are living in America (and over 50,000 in New York City), but up until now, Alhirdi had been dealing with his family’s immigration process by himself. Even within Brooklyn’s robust Arab and Muslim Communities, Alhirdi says that he felt isolated and alone.

The fact that Alhirdi is even sitting in a Yemeni community center and asking for help (and also freely telling his story to a journalist) may not seem, on the surface, significant. But for the Yemeni community, nothing about this scenario would have seemed plausible less than two years ago.

What happened? Trump happened. And so did his travel ban, which set into motion an unexpected and unprecedented response from the immigrant Yemeni community that was accustomed to “living in the shadows.”

“I was overwhelmed with despair when Trump announced the travel ban,” Widad Hassan — a 29-year-old, Brooklyn-born, Yemeni-American activist — recalls one afternoon over coffee, her posture deteriorating, causing an edge of her hijab to dangle freely off her shoulder.

She is referring to President Donald Trump’s Jan. 27, 2017, executive order, that effectively banned foreign nationals from seven predominantly Muslim countries from entering the United States. Yemen was one of them.

Widad Hassan, a Yemeni-American activist, in New York City.
Widad Hassan, a Yemeni-American activist, in New York City.

“My entire community was devastated. But one week later,” Hassan continues, reviving into a pose worthy of a portrait, “was the [New York] Yemeni bodega strike. It is the proudest I’ve ever been of my community.”

Within hours of Trump’s announcement, thousands of New Yorkers mobilized at John F. Kennedy International Airport to protest the executive order. One of them was Zaid Nagi, a Yemeni business owner.

“Seeing the response to Trump’s ban at JFK really inspired me and a few other merchants to try and tap into the Yemeni community. To say that we are part of America. That we have rights,” Nagi shares with me one afternoon in his Bronx, New York, cell phone store.

They solicited the help of other community activists. The idea of a Yemeni bodega strike was born. And they had four days to put it together.

There was skepticism, Hassan acknowledged, when the call was first put out to the community. “The conversation at first was: Were Bodega’s even going to close?” she says.

But within hours of launching the Yemeni bodega strike Facebook page, the conversation changed. “Thousands started to respond and engage,” says Hassan, who created the Facebook page with a few others. “People from all over the world were writing on the page. And when people saw that others were going to [close their stores], it spread like fire.”

Demonstrators on the steps of Brooklyn Borough Hall during the historic Yemeni bodega strike.
Demonstrators on the steps of Brooklyn Borough Hall during the historic Yemeni bodega strike.

In response to Trump’s travel ban, over 1,000 Yemeni stores in New York’s five boroughs temporarily closed for business on Feb. 2, 2017. Thousands gathered, waved US and Yemen flags, prayed, protested, hugged, cried, cheered, passed around a microphone and gave speeches, along with allies who showed up in solidarity. The activism rippled beyond New York’s Yemeni community. Hundreds of thousands engaged online from all over the globe.

The significance of Hassan’s emotional 180 is emblematic of the majority of Yemeni-Americans during this time. To understand this, one needs to know that within the Muslim and Arab immigrant communities, Yemenis are, by and large, considered a quiet citizenry. According to Hassan, who was one of the organizers of the bodega strike, Yemenis seldom engage civically and rarely are active politically on a national scale.

To a degree, this Yemeni mindset was ingrained in her, too. Prior to Trump’s executive order, Hassan confesses, she was a “behind-the-scenes activist” and “never wanted to be visible, never wanted to take a speaking role.”

Zaid Nagi, a Yemeni business owner.
Zaid Nagi, a Yemeni business owner.

“Being involved in politics has serious consequences in Yemen,” Nagi concedes. “In Yemen, you don’t touch politics. You hide under the radar. That kind of thinking and fear is still within [Yemeni-Americans], and it’s difficult to change.”

Although the community discovered a collective voice of resistance at the bodega strike, Nagi, Hassan and a handful of other Yemeni activists knew there was a real possibility that those who had participated in the protest simply could recede quietly back into the shadows, relegating the unprecedented and historic protest to a mere aberration.

“A man came up to me just after the bodega protest had ended and said, all excited, ‘I never thought I’d see a Yemeni-American hold a microphone!’ ” Nagi remembers, as he throws up his hands, briefly freezing his disbelief. “That’s an accomplishment? Holding a microphone?”

Nagi’s hands drop. He shakes his head and says, “That’s how underserved our community was. That’s how modest the community’s goals were. That’s why we need to change their mindset.”

Changing a cultural mindset — and perhaps this is self-evident — is a Sisyphean task. There always will be those who condemn, those who oppose change, those who cling to a system that benefits few. And maybe there are those who believe that holding a microphone is the victory, in and of itself.

But in the year and a half since the unexpected juggernaut of the bodega strike, how much, really, have activists achieved?

The irrefutable answer is a lot.

The other irrefutable answer is there is still a long way to go.

***

Yemen, for reference, has been in the middle of a civil war for over three years between a US-backed, Saudi-led military coalition and Iran-backed Shiite rebels. It has driven Yemen, the Arab world’s poorest country, into what the United Nations now calls the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

Civilians wanting to leave the war-torn nation now must find their way to a US embassy in neighboring countries like Egypt or Djibouti, where they can attempt to obtain an exemption. At the time of the travel ban, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said approximately 17 million — more than half of Yemen’s 27 million total population — were food insecure.

Prior to 2015, many of the Yemenis arriving to the US were coming from smaller villages, most without an education. Before the ban, the war forced the educated immigrants from larger cities to seek asylum. That wave of immigrants has been more involved and apt to align themselves with the second-generation, US-born Yemenis who, unlike their parents, were educated in America and more open to speaking out.

An estimated 6,000 Yemeni immigrants and their allies attended the Yemeni bodega strike, on Feb. 2, 2017.
An estimated 6,000 Yemeni immigrants and their allies attended the Yemeni bodega strike, on Feb. 2, 2017.

This change, of course, has added a new and different dynamic to the community and, some have surmised, was one of the reasons the bodega strike was unlike anything the Yemeni community expected or experienced prior.

Whether or not a more educated populace was a driving factor for the strike, the organizers wanted to parlay that momentum — that open energy — into something that would keep the community from going back “into the shadows.”

A concerted outreach effort was needed. This included organizing more rallies, town halls, learning to engage with politics and politicians, and, perhaps most importantly, creating educational programs.

“I look at this on the macro level,” Nagi says. “And education is a way to change our culture’s mindset. We come from a place where nothing works. Nothing. We’ve been stuck for so long thinking we can’t do anything about it.”

One well-known activist in the community is Somia Elrowmeim, the women’s advocacy manager for the Arab American Association of New York (AAANY). She is also Yemeni. “Right after Trump was elected, I started organizing,”Elroweim tells me at the AAANY offices. “We all saw that America was changing. We saw the same oppression happening in Yemen was starting to happen here with Trump. No! We’re not going to let that happen. This our dream, so we have to fight for it.”

Somia Elrowmeim, the women’s advocacy manager for the Arab American Association of New York.
Somia Elrowmeim, the women’s advocacy manager for the Arab American Association of New York.

Elrowmeim’s efforts have focused mainly on Yemeni women, organizing buses for the Women’s March, recruiting others to work on local political campaigns, teaching groups how to canvas and registering others to vote.

“If we want to make a change in the White House, we first have to organize locally,” she states. “Unlike our country (Yemen), where voting doesn’t matter, here it does. We must educate our community.”

“Fifty percent of Yemeni people have never been to school,” Elrowmeim continues, “but 45 percent of the students here at AAANY are Yemeni.”

After the bodega strike, Elrowmeim saw an increase in Yemenis getting involved with protests and marches and politics. Education, she feels, is the key ingredient for her community to begin changing all the interconnected issues.

“I believe in the power of women,” she says. “They are much more active than the men in our community. The men work 12-18 hour days. But they are split into two groups, the supporters and those who simply will not. But I don’t care. I am interested in educating women so they can change their future.”

***

One of the more high-profile and ambitious tactics devised by the organizers of the bodega strike was the creation of the aforementioned Yemeni American Merchants Association (YAMA).

“The idea was hatched the day after the bodega strike,” Dr. Debbie Almontaser, a well-known Yemeni activist and integral cog in organizing the bodega strike, says during a phone interview.

Dr. Debbie Almontaser, holding the clipboard, at the New York Yemeni bodega strike.
Dr. Debbie Almontaser, holding the clipboard, at the New York Yemeni bodega strike.

YAMA started out at first as a concept. “It was very grassroots,” Nagi, who is now the organization’s vice president, divulges. “Just a few of us were meeting in community centers and in businesses trying to figure out how to best serve the community when you have almost no resources.”

The initial idea was to create an organization that would address the issues that were affecting all the Yemeni store’s owners.

“We wanted to know what the store owners were up against? Were they being targeted by the police, ICE or the FBI? Were they a victim of hate crimes, and did they report it? How was business going?” Dr. Debbie, as she prefers to be addressed, says. “And then teach them about their rights. That they are not second-class citizens.”

But with YAMA’s formation and the stores being the connective tissue to the entire community, the organization found that its mission had shifted from merchant-centric to Yemeni-centric.

Abeer Alharazi, the director of outreach and merchant services for the Yemeni American Merchants Association.
Abeer Alharazi, the director of outreach and merchant services for the Yemeni American Merchants Association.

The all-volunteer, seven-member board — including Dr. Debbie as secretary and Abeer Alharazi as the director of outreach and merchant services (and their only employee) — have seen their reach grow from serving the five New York City Boroughs to now working with 12 metropolitan cities where Yemeni communities exist, such as Buffalo, San Francisco, and Hamtramck, Mich.

“We’ve been trying to narrow down our activities, to put our finger on what the Yemeni community needs right now,” Alharazi says. “But they are underserved in almost every single aspect of life — education, health care, economically, politically, socially — and so many are separated from their families and dealing with the travel ban. We cannot find just one issue.”

A small sampling of their variety of work:

  • Providing Yemeni diversity visa winners with humanitarian aid in partnership with Pure Hands Charity.
  • Hosting Know Your Rights legal training in conjunction with the New Sanctuary Coalition.
  • Becoming a plaintiff, represented by the ACLU on behalf of Yemeni merchants and their families directly impacted by the ban, in the Maryland District Court with IRAP and a host of other organizations.
  • Partnering with the Wildlife Conservation Society in support of legislation to eliminate single-use plastic straws in New York City.
  • Fighting to reunite families seeking entry into the US despite Trump’s travel ban — like Shaema Alomari, who needed medical treatment for cerebral palsy.

“If you want to know if YAMA is successful, come back in five years,” Nagi says. “If it’s been broken up into separate organizations, then I would call that a success, because right now we’re doing the job of 10 organizations, and with very few resources.”

“We should create a model and let them copy it,” Nagi adds, and then admits with a small laugh that YAMA doesn’t have a template yet. “We’re such a young organization. We’re a work in progress.”

Bodega strike organizer Hassan, who is now working for the New York City Commission on Human Rights as the lead adviser for the Muslim, Arab, and South Asian (MASA) communities, is focused on building coalitions with other organizations rather than “little wins.”

“Little wins are great, and they do give hope, but I don’t think it’s the best strategy,” she says. “There are so many stories that no one is aware of, but to concentrate on a single issue pushes the larger issues to the back burner.”

Hassan explains further: “Building a more intersectional movement is more powerful. I’m interested in an overall dismantling of the travel ban. But the Yemeni community is in triage mode. We’re trying to work on the emergencies that are happening right now. And they just don’t stop. There are so many heartbreaking stories, and so many people are crying mercy, just saying give us a break.”

One recent story that broke late in July was about Yemeni-American Mahmood Salem. After his family was prevented from coming here to be with him, Salem committed suicide. According to an article in Esquire, relatives reported that Salem could no longer afford to financially support his family from abroad. They were stranded in Djibouti, and Salem’s children were sick.

That the value of the Yemeni riyal (the currency of Yemen) has plunged and the increase in prices of the basic necessities has increased has had a ripple effect of implications throughout Yemeni communities. As Ahmed Abdulkareem writes in MintPress News, “Most Yemenis now face two grim prospects: either to die by US-Saudi airstrikes or to die of hunger.”

In the United States, the money flow has drastically changed over the past few years. “Many of the immigrants used to make money [in the US] and then invest it back home in Yemen,” Alharazi discloses. “But now, rather than sending it back to Yemen, they are trying to infuse it into the community.”

She goes on to explain how many are following the Latino mindset, in that “America is our home,” and “we’re investing [money] back into our home.”

But this investment does not supersede the money being spent to bring families back together who are separated because of Trump’s travel ban.

One of the biggest problems many of the Yemeni activists have is that they haven’t solved their own problems, Nagi informs me. “And they’re still trying to help others in the community.”

A child sits on the shoulders of his father at the Yemeni bodega strike, asking, "Where is my mom?"
A child sits on the shoulders of his father at the Yemeni bodega strike, asking, “Where is my mom?”

Nagi happens to be one of those activists. On the day we met in the Bronx, he revealed that his mother was refused entry into the US and decided to leave Jordan, where she had applied for a waiver, and go back to Yemen.

“A voice inside of me is saying, ‘You can’t even help your own mom. How are you going to help the community?’

“It’s an internal conflict for me,” Nagi avows. “I feel obligated to help the community in some way. I just don’t know if we (YAMA) will be able to do 10 percent of what we want to do, what we need to do, when we don’t have the means.”

***

As of July 1, 2018, YAMA opened their new (and first) office in Brooklyn. It is where I met Alhirdi, who had arrived looking for help getting asylum for his wife and five children.

He doesn’t know what the next step is for his family, and no one, it seems, can tell him. Not the lawyers. Not the processing centers. Not the American consulate in Egypt. No one.

“He’s now in the black hole of the process,” says Alharazi, who has been translating our conversation. “We find that this happens with many of our immigration cases. Where we are tracking a case, going through all the necessary stages, but then it just falls into a black hole, and no one knows what to do.”

Alhirdi tells me that he feels paralyzed. He tells me that he still has a strong belief in the American justice system but gets quiet when asked about the travel ban being upheld by the Supreme Court last June. He tells me that his children have not been able to attend school for the past three years as they wait for asylum. In Egypt, they are considered visitors and are not eligible to do so.

Riyadh Alhirdi and his family in Egypt in July 2017 celebrating everyone’s birthdays. This is the only time he’s seen his family over the past eight years of trying to procure asylum for them.
Riyadh Alhirdi and his family in Egypt in July 2017 celebrating everyone’s birthdays. This is the only time he’s seen his family over the past eight years of trying to procure asylum for them.

Another gentleman, who I find out later is dealing with similar immigration issues, enters the YAMA office. Alharazi meets him at the front desk, leaving me and Alhirdi alone at the back of the office.

I pantomime, can I take your photograph?

He nods. Says yes. Alhirdi buttons the top button of his shirt and then stands up from the table, positioning himself in a proud stance between two flags hanging from the ceiling.

One is Yemeni. The other, American.