Yemeni Immigrant Activists ‘Changing a Mindset’

Widad Hassan, a Yemeni-American activist, in New York City. (Photo by Michael Nigro via Law at the Margins)

Activist Widad Hassan, business owner Zaid Nagi and Riyadh Alhirdi, separated from his family which now resides in Egypt, are among the Yemenis in the U.S. who spoke recently with Michael Nigro about how they became more vocal about their community’s rights following the administration’s Muslim ban in early 2017. His deep dive into the community’s turnaround appears in Law at the Margins, as part of its Community Based News Room reporting project on immigrants.

Hassan, for instance, describes having been “overwhelmed with despair” when Trump announced the ban. Yet the success of the Yemeni bodega strike a week later made her “the proudest I’ve ever been of my community.” Ultimately, more than 1,000 Yemeni stores in New York’s five boroughs temporarily closed for business on Feb. 2, 2017. Writes Nigro:

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.”

The Yemeni American Merchants Association (YAMA) was created following the bodega strike, and activists in the Arab-American community note that other organizing started happening. Here’s what Somia Elrowmeim, the women’s advocacy manager for the Arab American Association of New York (AAANY), had to say:

“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,” Elrowein continues, “but 45 percent of the students here at AAANY are Yemeni.”

Go to Law at the Margins to read more about the changes within the community, and to find out why Nigro writes that a lot has been achieved, but that “there is still a long way to go.”

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