Ragehi Hussein is worried about his family members in Yemen, in his case a daughter and grandson who have been waiting for visas to come to the U.S. for almost four years. “He’s stuck now,” the 52-year-old Hussein said of his grandson, who requires medical care that is difficult to obtain in Yemen. After President Donald Trump’s Muslim ban was announced, he told the Voice, “All my daughter does is cry. He’s making the world all mixed up,” he said of Trump. “Everybody’s angry, everybody’s mad.”
Hussein, who owns a bodega in Bed-Stuy, shut down his store and joined thousands of protesters in Downtown Brooklyn yesterday as part of a Yemeni bodega strike. Hussein estimated that closing his bodega would cost him anywhere between $300 and $400 in sales, but the loss for him was immaterial. “I don’t care about the money, I don’t care about my business,” he said. “I care about what happens in the world.”
The Sunday evening after President Trump signed the executive order temporarily suspending immigration from seven majority-Muslim countries and indefinitely halting the entry of Syrian refugees, a group of Yemeni bodega owners in New York City got together for dinner. One by one, they each shared a story about a family member who was affected by the Muslim ban — loved ones who were waiting for visas in Jordan or Djibouti who were now stranded; wives and children who were now separated from their families. They had a radical idea: what if deli owners like themselves closed for a day in protest? Taxi drivers at JFK airport had gone on a one-hour strike to protest the ban, and a similar action, they reasoned, would remind people of how important Yemeni American businesses were in the day-to-day lives of other New Yorkers.
The next day, one of them reached out to the seasoned Yemeni American advocate Debbie Almontaser, and asked her what she thought of the idea of bodega owners going on strike and holding a protest on the same day.
“I said to them, can we pull it off? And they said, yeah,” Almontaser recalled.
Yemeni New Yorkers are not known for their activism; Almontaser estimated that the largest protests in the recent past, held during the height of the Arab Spring, had drawn out at most 1,000 protesters. But if the organizers were worried about turnout, their fears would turn out to be unwarranted. At noon on Thursday, thousands of bodega owners and workers throughout the five boroughs locked their doors and pulled down their gates, taped signs to their businesses explaining why they were closed, and began streaming towards Downtown Brooklyn. News of the strike and protest had spread quickly via social media and word of mouth among New York City’s Yemeni Americans, a sign of how widespread the impact of the week-old executive order has been on the small but tight knit community. For many, it would be the first day they had closed their business in years.
Hours before the protest was scheduled to begin, the park outside of Borough Hall was already packed with hundreds of protesters, with so many American flags waving in the air that one watching from a distance would think it were a pro-Trump rally were it not for the fact that they were mixed in with chants of “No ban! No wall!” and at one point, “Fuck Trump!”
“That’s right, say no to that white bastard!” one woman passing through yelled as she videotaped the scene.
Standing with a group of friends on the pedestrian walkway was 20-year-old Badr Namer, holding an upside down American flag. “This is how the U.S. is now,” he said, referring to the flag in his hands.
Namer came to the US seven years ago and works at a bodega in the Bronx. He’s worried about his family who are overseas. “A lot of us are dying. They’re killing kids, women, old men, everything, the earth, all of that,” he said, referring to the civil war that has been raging in Yemen since 2015 which has displaced millions and taken the lives of thousands (and in which the United States as well as Saudi Arabia are directly involved; the same weekend Trump authorized the Muslim ban, he ordered a disastrous raid in Yemen, which killed one American soldier and an untold number of civilians). It took five years for Namer, his mother, and his two siblings to get visas to come to the US, during the Obama administration. “Now it’s going to be harder,” he said, “not just for us but all the seven countries.”
Asked what he thinks of our new president, he didn’t mince words. “Donald Trump is like a baby. He doesn’t know what he’s doing,” Namer said. “I felt like he’s not a human, he doesn’t have the heart of a human.” Others, like Ali Shabala, a 44-year-old taxi driver who immigrated to the US in 1999, put it more bluntly: “He’s a racist.”
Everyone there had a story to tell of how the ban was impacting them — 38-year-old grocery store worker Akram Alsulaimi had been planning on going to Yemen to see his 90-year-old mother for the first time in 18 years and received his visa the same day that Trump signed the executive order. He showed me a photo of his mother on his cell phone. “That’s why it breaks my heart every time,” Alsulaimi said. “We’re just asking for humanity. We’re not asking for anything else.”
Standing a short distance away was Arafat Aljamal, holding a handwritten sign with the message, “Without immigrants Donald Trump would have no wives.” His wife and son are in Yemen, and Aljamal had applied for them to come to New York; he received a notice three days ago that their application for a visa had been suspended. “I want just to feel like anyone else, live just my life,” he said. “I’m so concerned. [Yemen] is not a safe place right now.”
By nightfall, the crowd had swelled into the thousands, a rolling mass of people crammed shoulder to shoulder in front of the steps of Borough Hall. If the protesters were mostly men, many of the speakers and key organizers were Muslim women, who drew enthusiastic cheers — often chants of “USA! USA!” — from the crowd with every sentence. The elected officials there spoke of solidarity, but their presence felt almost like an afterthought; what mattered most was the palpable joy that emanated from all who were there, transformed from their anger and frustration by the alchemy of collective action, and what was most striking was the sense, building steadily throughout the day and into the evening, that this protest would be only the beginning.
Afterwards, Almontaser told me that people are eager to sustain the momentum from the day, and there’s already talk of forming a Yemeni merchant’s association to continue to fight Trump’s policies. “Today is historic for the New York City Yemeni community,” she said. “I’m so proud, I can’t even find the words to describe it.”
Earlier in the afternoon I had spoken to Zaid Nagi, one of the bodega owners who had done the most to help organize the strike. “In protests before, it would be hard for us to get 70 or 80 people,” he said. “But I guess the fire has come home, and people have felt the heat.”