The Yemeni-American Entrepreneurial Spirit in Oakland, California [Archives:2005/874/Last Page]

September 5 2005

By Shaker Lashuel
Yemen Times U.S. Correspondent

The streets of Oakland are known for being dangerous, and tough. According to crime statistics, Oakland has the highest violent crime rate among the nine largest cities in California. Yet, this has never stopped Yemeni-Americans from establishing themselves as a business power in this town. The corner grocery stores, the ones hidden in quiet neighborhoods, and the huge super market that was recently opened with the help of the city, “Gazzali”, are Yemeni-American owned. Yemeni-American businesses are definitely part of this Oakland business and community scene. The two mosques established by Yemeni-Americans with the help of other Muslims attest to the presence of a community that is strong and vibrant in this town.

Yemenis in California

Although there are no historical records to refer to at this point, personal stories of early Yemenis lead us to conclude that the Yemenis arrived in California in the late 40s, early 50s. Their early jobs were in the farming fields and many of them worked as farm workers who lived transient lives moving from one town to the next. They followed the harvest around the state earning below minimum wages and living under substandard conditions. They picked potatoes in towns where they were ready for harvest and when that was done they packed and left for another town to harvest other crops such as cotton, lemons, oranges, peas, and other vegetables and fruit. Despite the transient nature of their lives, Yemenis became visible in dense agricultural centers i.e. Sacramento, Irvine. Yemeni farm workers found farming a familiar work as many of them had left their own fields back in Yemen. Familiar did not translate to easy for many. The fields were so vast, and the work was strenuous and rigidly organized. Many of them began to look for a way out of climbing trees, and carrying buckets of produce under a torturing sun. The conditions of farming, the low wages they received, and the transient life style provoked Yemenis to explore other venues for achieving the American dream.

From Farmer to Businessman

Few of them moved quickly to organize their own groups and became small contractors. The first Yemeni store was opened in California in the late 50s by one of these small contractors. From that point on, opening businesses in California became another way of making good money and owning a piece of America. Businesses gave the Yemenis the autonomy, control and the financial mobility that was not available in farming. Businesses became the main attraction and gradually the only attraction for newly arriving Yemenis. Businesses began to spring up in different locations around the state from Fresno to Modesto and eventually to the San Francisco Bay area. Today, Yemeni businesses can be found in many Californian cities and towns, but they are concentrated mainly in 5 areas: the San Francisco Bay area (including Oakland), Modesto, Merced, Fresno, and Bakersfield. In places like Oakland, Yemeni-Americans

have established themselves as an important business force. They own more than 250 small businesses and can be found in every neighborhood.

Yemeni-American Business Power

Many Yemeni-Americans feel that if they unite they would be a stronger economic factor in the towns where they live and work. Several organizations have formed to achieve that but have failed to make that dream a reality. The potential of a strong, united, Yemeni-American business community in the Bay area was shown when the Yemeni-American Grocers Association was able to lead a boycott and forced the Frito Lay, a major

food manufacturer and distributor, to apologize for insensitive and insulting remarks. The organization is “facing many challenges, but we have made many accomplishments,” said Mohamed Alqossaary, one of the YAGA leaders. Mohamed is struggling to

convince his fellow Yemeni-American businessmen to join the organization. His task is not a simple one. “Many store owners don't understand the power they can have as members of our organization,” he explained.

He remains optimistic and knows that his organization's ambitious goals can only be achieved if the store owners unite under one business umbrella.

When I discussed the organization with him, his enthusiasm and optimism never faltered. His dream for a successful business entity that empowers Yemeni-American businesses remained alive. He reminded me that as Yemenis, “we have to continue to work hard to make it.”

Yemeni Profiles

Over the years, I had the chance to visit many areas where Yemenis have settled. In Oakland, I was struck by the extreme of the two profiles I observed. There was the Yemeni-American who came to Friday's prayer dressed in traditional Yemeni clothing. This image was contrasted by the Yemeni-American in a suite. The dagger was a stark contrast to the silk tie worn by the younger man. Both individuals are successful businessmen yet they represent the old and the new. They embodied the struggle of two generations: one holding strongly to Yemeni traditions, and the other that is more accepting of the reality of being Yemeni-Americans. The suite presented the modern outlook, but could not hide or mask the pride in his Yemeni heritage and the man's commitment to the core values. As I stood to greet friends after the prayer, I could not help but overhear the group next to me plan for a qat session that would start at 2:00 p.m. and in another circle I later joined people were inquiring about a recent sale of a store that netted a Yemeni about $500,000. I later learned the sellers are following a wave of other Yemenis who are buying gas stations and properties in the Midwest. Some Yemeni-Americans are moving out of cities and towns to exploring business opportunities in other regions and states, but many are staying behind, playing an important role as business partners in their communities.

Building a Business and Helping a Community

The Gazzali family in Oakland represents an example of a second-generation Yemeni-American family who are determined to make it in the business world. Their task is unique and difficult as they manage the first supermarket to open in East Oakland in more than 10 years. Their full service, supermarket was a dream envisioned and pursued by their late father who died weeks before the grand opening. Their father, Abdo Algazzali, and his brothers opened their first grocery business in 1969. His business skills eventually led him to owning and managing other businesses and properties. Algazzali educated his children and had both the sons and daughters involved in helping him in various businesses. Rahban, the oldest of children is now managing the supermarket where he, his brothers and sisters also work. Some of his siblings have obtained their college degrees; others are still going to college and working in the business at the same time.

The Gazzali family has invested a lot in an area that many big businesses once considered too risky and their path to a grand opening was filled with obstacles. “We encountered resistance from some city officials, but some were very supportive,” said Rahban Gazzali. Coming up with the capital was another obstacle the family faced and the “community had a lot of doubts,” said Rahban. Against all odds, the Gazzali family pursued this ambitious business project intended to help revitalize this neglected area of East Oakland. When they opened, more than 60% of the employees were locals and the rest were family members.

As one walks into the supermarket, one can feel the energy, the desire to succeed, and to make it as a Yemeni-American business with a determination and perseverance, characteristics of hard-working Yemenis. The Gazzali family will have to compete with the newly opened Walmart, and foodmax, but their commitment to the community the live in leaves them undeterred. Their father's legacy is typical of Yemenis who attempt the impossible and position themselves to win against all odds.