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Yemenis of America: Stories from the diaspora

Project on Yemeni American stories aims to dispel misconceptions of immigrants in US
Zolikha Kaid and her children (used by permission)

As a community from the six Muslim-majority countries included in US President Donald Trump's new travel ban, Yemeni Americans are fighting back against the government's portrayal of their society.

Two Yemeni American women, Widad Hassan and Rabyaah Althaibani, decided that the best way to prove Trump's government wrong was to share their life stories with the country they all call home now.

The project, titled "Yemenis of America – Stories from the Diaspora," hasn't officially launched yet, but the Facebook page is already open for people who want to share their own experience or a relative's about immigrating from Yemen.

"We felt that the stories and experiences of the Yemeni community were largely absent from the larger story of immigrants in America," Hassan told Middle East Eye. "We wanted to document and share stories of the Yemeni migrant's experience resettling in America as well as the story of those impacted by the recent travel ban."

Many of those immigrants were single men looking for their share of the "American dream". There were also entire families who left everything behind for a fresh start. Others were divorced mothers yearning for more freedom, or fathers who wanted a better future for their children.

Mohamed Althaibani, the father of one of the project's founders, moved to New York with only $100 in his pocket, his daughter recalls in a Facebook post. He worked hard for years to reunite with his family.

"My father petitioned for my mom, my sisters and I to join him in 1985. Many of the men in our family questioned this move 'Why would you bring girls into this country, Mohamed?' 'Why are you insisting on educating them?' My father's response was always consistent and steadfast, 'My daughters will do good in this world, and one day you may all need them’," she said.

The project has been met with enthusiasm from Yemeni communities across the US
'Boss lady'

Just as Mohamed was looking for a better life for his family, Zolikha Kaid, twice divorced and mother of three, immigrated in the 1980s from the seaside region of Taiz, now hit hard in Yemen's civil war.

According to her daughter, Zolikha was fleeing a society that didn't take kindly to her status as a divorcee.

"A savvy saleswoman who sold whatever she could get her hands on, from chickens to ice-cream," her daughter wrote, “not to mention an unashamed student who returned to elementary school with her children."

Zolikha, or the "Boss lady" as her daughter calls her in the story, would give love a third chance and marry again, having three more children with her last husband.

There are other stories on the Facebook page that have sad beginnings but end on a bright note.

Just as previous generations were fleeing difficult economic situations, these last years have seen a spike in the number or asylum seekers from Yemen amid the civil war.

"Our most recent post features the story of a seven-year-old refugee boy who fled the war. We are planning to feature more in the coming weeks," Hassan said. In the video, the boy, named Qusay, is practicing English alongside family members who arrived with him two months before the first Muslim ban went into effect.

"Had this ban been in effect just two months ago, Qusay and his entire family would either be in limbo, or stuck in Yemen while a war rages," the post said.

Encouraging response

The response, once the word got out to other Yemeni communities around the country, has been very encouraging, according to Hassan.

"When we created the page we had several Yemeni Americans across the country reach out to us, wanting to know how they can get involved and support this project," she said.

Moved by their initiative, photographers and videographers, as well as writers based in New York offered to collaborate in the project.

The Arab American National Museum, based in Dearborn, Michigan, told the activists they could use their facilities to conduct interviews and their website to host the project's page.

"We'll launch our website soon, once we have gathered enough testimonies, pictures and videos," Hassan said.

Though both activists are based in New York City, their community outreach has garnered support from many other cities nation-wide, including San Francisco.

"The Yemeni community is here to stay, we are growing and prospering. We want to be part of the American dream and tell our stories," Hashem Annallah, a Bay Area Yemeni resident who has been a US citizen for over two decades, told MEE.

This is also an opportunity to collect hundreds of stories and life experiences that would may go unnoticed otherwise and can help fill in some blanks in America's immense immigration tapestry.

"Our history as Yemenis in America is often shared through oral history," reads the project's Facebook page. "Many second [and] third generation Yemeni Americans don't know the story of their grandparents migration or the history of their community in America."

"Yemenis of America – Stories from the Diaspora" aims to fix that gap while fighting prejudice. 

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