Researcher’s Opinion [Archives:1998/05/Law & Diplomacy]
Mr. Mark Blackman is a graduate student at the School of Journalism in Columbia University, New York, US. He is visiting Yemen for the first time to do a research on the patterns of Yemeni immigration into New York city in general and Manhattan and Brooklyn in particular.
Q: What have you found out so far? A: My research so far indicates that most of the Yemeni immigrants come from one or two specific regions of Yemen – principally around Ibb and Taiz and the villages of the Ba’adan region. Many of the people in New York are connected by family, tribe and village. When a new person wishes to try his luck, he always has support and help waiting for him in New York in terms of a job and a temporary place to live until he gets himself established.
Q: What sort of work do Yemeni immigrants in New York usually do? A: There are Yemenis in New York who are the owners of small businesses, usually it’s a grocery store or what we call a ‘Deli’ which is like a mini supermarket. Typically, when a man arrives in New York, a friend or a relative gives him a job as a clerk in his store. He is paid a salary, and he usually lives in a shared apartment with other people in the store. One or two men, maybe partners, own that business.
The guy who just arrived will save money, by working very hard, probably 12 to 16 hours a day. He eventually buys his own store but that does not mean he buys the real state, he leases the store. He buys the inventory and he becomes the owner. The purpose of this immigration is to earn money and these people work very hard, spend very little money on themselves, have very few amusements, and send most of their money back to Yemen to support their families.
Usually, they plan to build a house in their village. If they make more money, they might build something as an investment, it could be a hotel, usually not in the village, maybe in Sana’a. I visited two new hotels in the Taiz industrial area that are owned by Yemeni Americans. Few of them to my knowledge invest in the US. That may change as they become more established. Most of them work for one or two years straight then they will come home for a vacation which might be two to twelve months. Who takes care of their stores, then? Well, they have a partner or a relative so it’s a revolving sort of arrangement.
Q: How many Yemenis are there in New York? A: That is a very hard to tell. I’ve been trying to find out. I’ve spoken to people in the US embassy as far as how many visas are issued. The Yemenis in New York are not organized. About 20 years ago, a Yemeni man who now lives in Taiz, an older man, founder of the Yemeni-American Association. They bought a small building in Brooklyn and they really tried to form an organization that would keep track of their numbers. As you know in Yemeni politics, an organization is not always easy and it didn’t work because people still, even in New York, have their family and tribal loyalties. There was too much discussion and arguments. I estimate that there are about 60,000 or 70,000 in New York city and state.
Q: What about the numbers in other states? A: I don’t know, I think there are 60,000 just in Michigan. Now, the US embassy told me that there are 15,000 Yemenis with American passports living in Yemen. I’ve met many of them and they all have one, two or three relatives working in New York. So now you take 15,000 x 2 or 3 to get a rough estimate. The other question I have is how much money is being sent over here? And again the Central Bank of Yemen doesn’t know because the money doesn’t come through the bank, but is sent with friends. Even personal checks can be cashed in the souq. This is incredible because I live in New York and I could not cash a personal check at a bank if I don’t have an account, but they tell me if I give my personal check to a Yemeni friend who knows some of them in the souq they will cash it. There is much more trust.
Q: Did you find that the families of Yemeni-Americans here are more developed or westernized? Are they different from other villagers? A: Yes, to some degree. However, I was more surprised how quickly they go back to their local customs. You see them on the airplane in an American sweatshirt, and when you go to their homes they wear their traditional clothes. Although others may retain a western clothing, they still chew qat in the afternoon and live a very leisurely life, of course they are here on vacation.
Q: What are the things which indicate that they were in America? A: They all have satellite television, big cars such as Toyotas and LandCruisers. That seems to be a pattern. But they seem to live in very traditional Yemeni houses.
Q: Do you think that they still have the hope to come back to live permanently in Yemen? A: My impression is that when they become too old they will come back. Well, I was in Ba’adan, Ibb, I met one old man who had worked in Brooklyn for 21 years as a janitor and he now has a house in the village. He receives social security from the US government which is totally correct. He has one son working in the US now that he set up and another son who made a lot of money in Saudi Arabia and has no interest in the States because he has already made his fortune. What was interesting to me was that the old father himself, said: ‘Yes this son made his fortune in Saudi Arabia, but he still has a brother who is poor so he still has responsibility.’
Q: What about the Yemeni women in New York? A: There are very few women. I have asked everyone why do not they bring their families. The reasons I get are several: 1- To live decently in New York with a family is very expensive and their purpose is not to spend money but to save it. 2- A traditional Yemeni woman’s role makes it a very difficult transition into New York. Actually many of the women do not want to go, they are afraid. If they don’t have education, they will live a very isolated life in New York. It will be a very sad life, whereas here they have their house, their family, their support, they are getting money from their husbands, and it’s seems very acceptable. I haven’t been able to talk to a woman directly as this is difficult in Yemen. The women I have talked to in New York were very young, in their 20s. They are educated, they are working in education and health as administrators. They wear the traditional dress but do not cover their faces.