YEMENIS IN AMERICA [Archives:1997/42/Reportage]

October 20 1997

By: _Shaker _A. Al-Ashwal
Few people in the U.S. still maintain the contact with their mother lands. For many, their American home has become a permanent one. But Yemenis, unlike many, have remained loving and loyal to their motherland. Almost every Yemeni in the U.S. still maintains ties with the motherland. _ What has kept this unique bond is Yemenis’ deep affection for their country, and strong attachment to one of oldest inhabited regions in the world. It is this bond which has kept Yemenis returning to their country from their places of emigration. Many Yemenis leave the country in search of work and better opportunities, but plan to return one day. _Many who can’t make it alive often return in their coffins to a country they loved dearly, and a place they strove all their lives to return to. Yemenis have remained sojourners going back and forth between Yemen and the countries they emigrated to. The country itself has depended on these emigrant workers, and migration has always been associated with the history of Yemen.
Migration is a word that is well known to most Yemenis. Many become familiar with the word early on, in their lives, _as they grow up in the absence of _their parents (forefathers, and other relatives such as uncles and cousins). The word itself is synonymous with the history of the Yemeni people. Natural, economic, political and other factors have driven the Yemeni people out of their country. Seeking a refuge sometimes, and often the betterment of the living of their families, Yemenis found themselves working all over the world. The collapse of the legendary dam of Marib around twenty four hundred B.C. was the cause behind one of the earliest and largest waves of emigration of Yemenis. _The relatively new episodes of emigration to the West began when “the British coal station at Aden steadily increased labor demand… after 1839” (Swanson 12). Villagers hiked the mountains to reach the coastal plain and to meet for the first time the industrial revolution. In the nineteenth century, Yemenis worked in the sea in different jobs, in areas as far as Vietnam, Merseilles and Cardiff. As employment opportunities declined in Aden, Yemenis started to search for new places, new opportunities. They took different directions but they all had one goal. The goal was to return one day with enough money to improve their lives. They headed east toward Vietnam, Indonesia, India, and west to Britain, France and the United States. _Today their goal remains the same, and their search for better opportunities, and livelihood continues. __
Researchers agree today that Yemenis started emigrating to the U.S. in late nineteenth century. _According to Mary Bisharat, Yemenis “made their appearance in the U.S. shortly after the opening of the Suez Canal in 1860”. Almost certainly, a handful had come by 1890″ (Swanson 12). Exact figures are lacking because of several reasons. _Yemenis who came then entered as illegal aliens, and mixed with the existing Arab community. At any rate, during the following years, Yemenis continued to enter the U.S. in small numbers. During World War I, some of them joined the army and became citizens of the U.S. Many more continued to enter illegally and remained illegal aliens for sometime. Those who arrived on ships used the classical method of entering, jumping off ships. _Interestingly, _many of them when riding these ships didn’t even know where the ship was going. “A would-be migrant might board a ship in the harbor at Aden under the pretext of selling fruit, or other commodities. _He would stow away and later ask for work.” (Swanson 12). When they arrived in New York, they blended into the local Lebanese or Palestinians communities (Swanson 12).
After World War II, many changes began to take place globally. Military and economic power began to shift to countries like the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. Britain and France, weakened by the war and independence resistance movements, began to withdraw their capital from the east. The effect was quickly felt by those who benefited from their economic presence. Yemenis were part of those who again found themselves forced to look for another source for livelihood for them and their families. America soon became familiar to Yemenis as the returnees painted the classical picture of the land of immense wealth and opportunities. Many of them sought visas through relatives and friends already in the U.S. and in subsequent years arrived in the U.S. to offer others the same. The number of Yemenis arriving in the 1950s and 60s remained small, and began to increase in the mid-seventies. In the late seventies the number declined as many decided to go to the Gulf countries where they worked and made the money they needed to send or take back home with them. As the economic situation of the gulf countries began to change and their opportunities began to dwindle, it became more difficult for Yemenis to find jobs and make as much money as they used to. The Gulf War drove more than a million and a half Yemenis out of the Gulf countries. Many of the returnees sought to return to the states and some of them succeeded in going as visitors, and are still striving to adjust their legal status.
Yemeni communities in the U.S. are concentrated in three states; namely, New York, Michigan, _and California. The past 7 years have witnessed an increase in the number of Yemenis in Virginia, and North and South Carolina. Their distribution has been influenced by the financial opportunities offered by the respective states. _ Most of the _Yemenis who settled in Buffalo and the surrounding areas did so when the steel industry was active there. New York city and the surrounding areas attract Yemenis who open groceries, delicatessens, and candy stores. In Michigan, car manufacturing lured Yemenis into settling the Detroit area. Though California didn’t have the type of factories Bufallo and Detroit had, California offered Yemenis an occupation they were very familiar with, farming. Until recently, most of the Yemenis who arrived in California worked as farmers. Today, a growing number of them have established their own grocery businesses in Fresno, San Francisco, Oakland, Bakersfield, etc.
Yemenis are one of the new immigrant groups to arrive in the United States. They distinguish themselves from other groups by their attitude toward immigration, adaptation, and the host society. Yemenis in the U.S. are classified into two groups – the settlers and sojourners. The Yemeni immigrants are best described by Georgory Orfalea in his book “before the flames.” He stated:
There really is no Arab group comparable to the Yemenis, 90% of whom unaccompanied young males, semi-literate or illiterate, with little knowledge of English most have not taken root here and shuttle back and forth on jumbo planes to Yemen, buying homes and land back there. _In _short, the Yemenis with some exceptions constitute the most definitely ‘Arab’ of any migrating group from the Arab World (Orfalea 181).
The settlers have usually been the educated, or they are well established small businessmen. This group finds the opportunities promised by this land and are usually able to take advantage of the various opportunities present in this society._Their life experience in their new, modern society takes away their adaptability to their old one. Over 90% of them resent the American life and refuse to adapt it. _They struggle to remain Yemeni and compromise the least they can. They _try to insulate their families as much as they can, they strengthen their religious beliefs and practices. They marry among themselves; their daughters seldom marry an outsider, they often send their kids to Yemen to strengthen their bond with the homeland. In the end they find themselves forced to compromise, creating their new world for themselves and their families, a world many label as the Yemeni-American.
As more people are joining the settlers, the percentage of non-settlers is decreasing._Today about 75% of the Yemenis are non-settlers, the so-called sojourners who live a cyclic life of movement. They go to the US to work for several years and return to Yemen to spend several months with their families. Then they repeat the same cycle. They spend their lives going back and forth between the U.S. and Yemen. Though most of the non-settlers are married, they are often unaccompanied by their spouses. _They find leaving their families in Yemen “a simple matter for Yemeni-Americans to insulate their families from the profane world of their migrant experience.” (Swanson, 18) America to them is a temporary stop like Ethiopia, and Vietnam were at one time. _They live their lives in the U.S. to go back to Yemen _one day. They continue to “measure their success according to old country values and with the physical context of Yemen itself.” (Swanson, 15) They buy real estate in Yemeni cities and build beautiful houses, some of them build mansions, reflecting their ultimate desire to settle in the land of their ancestors, a land they can call their own. The main goal for many of them “is to make as much money as possible in the shortest period of time” (Abraham, 121). _ To them immigration to the U.S. is defined as “a means to a livelihood, while social mobility and material gratification is to take place in the home country not in the U.S.” (Abraham, 121). Their behavior is derived from their belief in their inevitable, permanent return to the land to which they are no strangers.
The assimilation process in the case of Yemenis doesn’t resemble that of other groups, though similarities can be found. _Yemenis are more resistant to the idea of assimilation and acculturation. _Yemenis like other groups have resented fabricating a synthetic culture, denoted as Yemeni-American. _They recognized that the acceptance of the new culture means the giving-up of centuries-long Yemeni tradition and culture. A growing number of young Yemenis today are advocating the idea of addressing the issue of living the reality of the two cultures.
Today the number of Yemeni immigrants continue to increase, but the dominant majority still shuttle back and forth. Several motives exist behind this type of emigration. The main motive is the desire of Yemenis to live in a revived, powerful, and prosperous Yemen. The unification of Yemen, the discovery of oil, and recent government actions have re-enforced the hopes and dreams the Yemenis have for their country of origin. Another reason behind this unique type of emigration is that Yemenis find it hard to adapt to the American way of life, since they’re afraid of compromising their identity as Muslims, and as Yemenis. Therefore, many Yemenis limit their lives to work, apartment, and their local coffee house. _There is a noticeable increase in the number of educated persons, but those find it hard to pursue higher education because of socio-economic factors. _Many Yemenis bear a great financial burden in having to support their families. For many that has stood as an obstacle and prevented them from achieving more in this society.
The resentment of assimilation springs from the differences in religion, tradition, and values between the very conservative Yemenis and the liberal host society. Since families are the true cornerstone of the Yemeni society – wherever it exists – they remain the major concern for the immigrants. _Many of them sacrifice their lives for the betterment of their families’. It is hard to speculate on the future of the Yemeni-American community, and the extent to which they will be able to adapt to the American way of life. Many try to compare the Yemenis to other Arab groups. A lebanese teacher asserted that: Like Lebanese Muslims, the first generation which attempts to preserve its religion and cultural heritage, is nearly certain to fail. _The inevitable compromise with attitudes and values will not be accomplished easily, probably until the third generation (Swanson 19). ý
The validity of this statement is yet to be proven. Today one can still see third generation Yemeni-Americans whose children still speak Arabic, and can hardly be recognized as 100% American.
Yemenis are proud, honest and hard working people who will continue to strive to improve themselves and their families. They work toward building a prosperous Yemen and a prosperous community. _That does not negate the fact that they have made a visible contribution to their American home. Many of them have fought for the US, have worked hard in there, and have given a lot without demanding much in return. The Yemeni community will continue to change as more of its members become educated and act responsibly to meet the needs of their American community.
Abraham, Nabeel & Abraham Sameer Y. (Ed.). (1983). Arabs in the New World. Detroit, MI: Wayne State University.
“Arab-Americans.” Harvard Encyclopedia of American Ethnic Groups. Massachussets: Belknap ______Press of Harvard University Press, 1980. 128-136.
Bisharat, Mary (1957). “Yemeni Farm Workers in California”. Middle East Research & Information ______Project, 34, 22-26.
Agopian, Elaine C. & Padan, Ann (Ed.). (1969). “The Arab Americans : Studies In Assimilation”, ______Wilmette, Illinois The Medina University Press International.
Elkholy, Abdo A. (1966).”The Arab Moslems in The United States: Relations and Assimilation”. ______New Haven: College and University press.
Hooglund, Eric J. & Vecoli, Rudolph (1987). “Arabic-speaking Immigrants to the United States ______before 1940”. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Instituition Press. ý
Lashuel, Shaker. Personal Interview. “In the Coffee House.” 14 April- 10 May 1992.
Orfalaea, Gregory (1988). “Before The Flames: A Quest For The -History of Arab Americans”. _____Texas: University of Texas Press.
Staub, Shalom (1989). Yemenis in New York City: “The Folklore of Ethnicity”. Philadelphia: Balch ______Institute Press. ý Swanson, Jon C. (1986), “Sojourners & Settlers: Yemenis in America”. Middle East Research ______and Information, 139, 5-21. ýFor information and questions about the Yemeni American Community in the U.S., please send your comments e-mail :
[email protected] or by mail to : YAL, 198 Court Street #6, Brooklyn, NY 11201.