Monday, June 24, 2019

Yemeni-Americans Fight Devastating Travel Ban

Image result for Yemen protest against President Donald Trump's travel ban in the Brooklyn
People participate in a Yemeni protest against President Donald Trump's travel ban in the Brooklyn borough of New York City, U.S. February 2, 2017. Lucas Jackson/Reuters.

For Ayyad Algabyali, the struggle against President Donald Trump’s travel ban is personal.

The advocacy director with the Yemeni-American Merchants Association helps members of his community affected by the ban gain entry to the US. A naturalised American, Mr Algabyali, 22, came to New York City from Yemen at the age of eight to join his father, a US citizen who arrived in the country in the mid-1980s.

But his mother, who holds a Yemeni passport, has been stranded in Egypt for the past year and a half after going there to apply for an American visa – the US embassy in Yemen has been shut since 2014.

“Among the many applications I am working on at the moment is my own mother’s application,” said Mr Algabyali, who received his bachelor's degree at the end of May. “It pains me that she missed my graduation ceremony in New York because of the ban.”

Ayyad Algabyali/ by NBC Left Field.

Like many Yemeni-Americans, Mr Algabyali’s family has kept one foot in Yemen and one foot in the US, travelling back and forth over the years.

His mother had never left Yemen until – seeking to escape the war – she went to Egypt for her visa.

“For my mother, it was extremely important that my siblings and I were raised in Yemen so we would be close to our heritage and traditions,” Mr Algabyali said. “So she never had the need to apply for US citizenship ... before the war.”

Her visa application has been rejected despite her qualifying for a waiver from the travel ban – but she continues to apply.

The waivers are granted at the US consul’s discretion, based on whether the applicant’s entry to the US is in the national interest, does not pose a security threat and denying it would cause undue hardship.

The travel ban applies to five other Muslim-majority countries besides Yemen – Iran, Libya, Somalia, Syria and Chad – as well as North Korea and Venezuela. But it has had the biggest effect on Yemenis, says Iman Boukadoum, senior staff lawyer at the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.

“The ban on Yemenis has meant an absolute devastation of a population that’s already suffering the world’s largest humanitarian crisis,” she said.

Ms Boukadoum has been handling dozens of cases where Yemeni Americans are trying to reunite with loved ones, obtain urgent medical care or even see a dying relative.

“What’s complicated about the travel ban is that it doesn’t only affect Yemeni Americans and Yemenis who live in the US, but also people who live outside the US.

There are tens of thousands of Yemenis stuck in Djibouti, Malaysia, Egypt and other places who are denied entry while having legitimate reasons to come to the US.”

Yemenis have a long history in the US, with the first immigrants arriving in the 1860s.

Precise figures are scarce, but Americans of Yemeni origin are believed to number about 70,000, about 2 per cent of the 3.6 million Arab American population.

Despite their relatively small numbers and no previous history of political organisation, the Yemeni American community has played a significant role in opposing the travel ban and anti-Muslim hate speech.

This is particularly the case in New York City, where Yemeni Americans are the largest group among citizens with origins in countries affected by the travel ban.

“Within just a few days of the ban coming into effect on February 2, 2017, we managed to organise a strike and rally in New York, where about 1,000 Yemeni-American-owned shops and delis shut down for a day in protest against the travel ban,” said Debbie Almontaser, a founding member of Yama.

“We expected a maximum of 2,000 people to join the rally but 6,000 people showed up. We were blown away.”

About half of the estimated 10,000 small convenience shops in New York, known locally as bodegas, are owned by Yemeni-Americans.

Despite their long history in the country, Yemeni-American business owners did not have an official group until the travel ban, which triggered the formation of Yama.

Ms Almontaser attributes the current mobilisation of the community to two factors: the war in Yemen, which has raged since 2015 and raised fears among many that they might never be able to visit Yemen again; and the travel ban, the biggest political challenge they have faced.

“There used to be a Yemeni-American association for the last 40 years that didn’t do anything substantial and eventually faded away,” Ms Almontaser said.

“But the war in Yemen and the travel ban posed a wake-up call for many.”

Most Yemenis living in the US were not much interested in forming organisations to represent them.

For many, the objective was to stay in the US for a few years, work hard, live frugally and ultimately return to Yemen with their savings.

“Basically, so many Yemeni Americans never saw themselves as US citizens even if they were already American citizens,” Ms Almontaser said.

“Although the strike didn’t end the travel ban, it made the Yemeni-American community realise their agency in this country and the influential political role they could play. We had to be more organised and established Yama immediately.”

Yama's campaign for Yemeni Americans’ rights has received great recognition and support from other organisations and politicians.

In April 2019, Yama launched its second biggest civic action: an indefinite boycott of the New York Post following the newspaper’s attack on Somali-born congresswoman Ilhan Omar. The Yemeni-owned bodegas refused to sell the Post in their shops after the newspaper published a front page that showed a picture of World Trade Centre towers on fire with a quote from the Muslim congresswoman.

Image result for boycott of the new york post newspapers

Ms Omar was one of the keynote speakers at Yama’s first annual gala dinner in February. Revealing that her mother was originally from Yemen, she praised the Yemeni-American community and the political mobilisation led by Yama.

“The work that was getting done in New York was going to be one that transformed the conversation,” Ms Omar said. “Because when people saw 5,000 Yemeni merchants and their neighbours rising up, they knew that Muslims here in the United States were not playing; that we were no longer going to sit on the sidelines. That we weren’t afraid and that we recognised our power.”

Ms Omar was one of the keynote speakers at Yama’s first annual gala dinner in February.

Ms Omar has been one of the foremost voices calling to repeal the ban. In April, she declares support for the National Origin-Based Anti-discrimination for Non-immigrants Act, also known as the No Ban Act, introduced by Democratic senator Chris Coons and representative Judy Chu. The bill aims to end to the Muslim travel ban and change the standard by which presidents can invoke such a ban in the future.

Among the 400 organisations supporting the proposed law is the Yemeni Alliance Committee, a an NGO in San Francisco. “The No Ban Act to date seems like most promising bill, especially as 2020 is coming around," said founding member Jehan Hakim said, hoping that the presidential candidates make repealing the ban an immigration policy priority.

Rowaida Abdelaziz, an Arab-American reporter on Muslim civil rights at the Huffington Post, said it remained to be seen whether the bill will pass, but it is very difficult to argue the travel ban has served the US national security interest.

“The travel ban isn’t keeping the US any safer. Rather, it made our national security even worse,” she told The National, noting that the ban has thrown many American families into chaos.

“I know this young Yemeni-American mother who just had a baby and was unable to reunite with her husband – a Yemeni national – so she decided to take her baby and move to Yemen because she couldn’t take the distance and raising a child on her own,” Ms Abdelaziz said.

“So this is an American citizen, born and raised here and not feeling fully protected in her own country. She was forced to make that decision, which essentially meant that she has now put her life and her baby's life in danger.”

*This feature was first written for/published in The National newspaper on the June 16, 2019. 

Thursday, June 6, 2019

It’s Sweden’s National Day. And this is how Sweden Keeps me Un-Swedish.

On this day, in 2016, I was given a certificate during a big celebration, affirming my “becoming” a Swede. It was a nice gesture but for me, it was like a starting point of me joining the struggle of “svartskalle” (discriminatory term in Sweden to describe people with dark-haired heads, meaning black skull) in this country.

Before you keep on reading, please do understand that I am not aiming to bash or glorify Sweden. I am simply sharing my experience of living in Sweden since mid-2011. As a journalist from Yemen, I have seen how it’s been difficult to convince the world that there are good things about Yemen beside the bad; same problem I find when I try to convince the world that there are bad things about Sweden beside the good. So, please put all the stereotypes aside for a moment.

Sweden is a great country, and like anywhere else, it has the good and the bad. It’s never perfect, just like nowhere else is perfect. There are many issues about Sweden that are so true but we never talk about, especially among the international media; such as racism, discrimination, poverty, Sweden’s Arms Industry, etc. I tried a couple of times to write about Sweden in English and Arabic. I was shocked by the level of hatred and threats I received online by Sweden’s far-right wing.

“Go back to your home in Yemen”, “You should have been in Yemen and married off when you were a child”, “Go back to your Al Qaeda country, you terrorist”, these are some of the comments or messages I used to receive when I “dared” to speak about Sweden.

So, I kept quiet, while knowing that my silence won’t protect me, as Audre Lorde once said.

I was very inspired when a group of Swedish writers and journalists made an online campaign denouncing the hateful and death-threats they were receiving online. I recognized that the problem was massive.

After being a political refugee in Sweden for about four years, by July 2015, I became a Swedish citizen. It was the same time the war broke out in my home country, Yemen. I had a mixed feeling of happiness and sadness. I was dying for that moment to come - of having the Swedish passport so I could fly to Yemen to see my family, but I couldn’t because of the war and the blockade imposed on the country. I had to postpone my plan indefinitely. Meanwhile, I was happy that I was a Swedish citizen and finally can vote. On this day, in 2016, I was given a certificate during a big celebration, affirming my “becoming” a Swede. It was a nice gesture but for me, it was like a starting point of me joining the struggle of “svartskalle” (discriminatory term in Sweden to describe people with dark-haired heads, meaning black skull) in this country.
Google celebrating the National Day of Sweden, today.

The far-right, anti-immigration Sweden Democrats political party has been gaining popularity over the years. When I first arrived in Sweden, they used to be a small group. Today, they are the third-biggest party in the Swedish parliament. I used to underestimate the rising climate of racism in Sweden until I saw how one of my own close friends from Yemen, who came to Sweden seeking refuge, has joined the white-supremacist Sweden Democrats. He’s been promoting all their fascist propaganda without reflecting of how he himself is everything that group doesn’t want to see in Sweden.

The rise of white-supremacist, far-right, populist, fascist tends is global.

Sweden is part of the globe.

I appreciate all the friendships I have made in Sweden with Swedish, Ethiopian, Syrian, Kurdish, Iraqi, Turkish, Somalian, French, Serbian, German, Iranian, Roman, Eritrean, El Salvador, Spanish, Portuguese, Afghani, Egyptian, Palestinian and many other nationalities. It’s like the whole world lives in Sweden. Statistically, about 25% of Sweden’s 10 million population has a total or partial birth-connection with another country besides Sweden, but I would go as far and estimate that it’s almost half of the country.

Sweden is so diverse culturally and I love it!

Then, there’s the problem of integration vs. assimilation. I try not to care much about that — all I care about is to live in Sweden in the way I want to live, with freedom and dignity. I am experienced in that, as I had my Ethiopian roots with me while growing up in Yemen.

Naturally, anywhere you live in, you’d need to speak the language of the place. So I was enrolled in the free-of-charge Swedish language class, what we call in Sweden as “SFI”. The SFI class is an interesting experience for many expats, immigrants and others. Since day one, I noticed how ill-structured the classes were. From putting students with widely different academic backgrounds (like B.A. degree holders and illiterate individuals) to teachers wasting time on things irrelevant to teaching Swedish language. During my four years in the SFI school, I only had one excellent teacher who focused on teaching us pedagogically the Swedish language. The rest were somehow obsessed with assimilation topics. For instance, we had one teacher who kept asking us about feminism and women’s issues in the Arab and Muslim world.

“You do hit women in your region, but we don’t do that in Sweden,” she would tell us in the class.

Well, I am a feminist but I don’t see the use of taking a pedagogic session time about the Swedish language to lecture us about feminism.

Most importantly, the teacher’s attitude was so condescending.

I have learnt more Swedish language from reading Tove Jansson’s children books, speaking to drunk old men at bus stations or TV and radio, than at the SFI classes.

Believe it or not, it is difficult to speak Swedish with Swedes. Once they notice you speak broken Swedish, they switch to English which they love to do as it allows them to practice their English. They think English is so cool. They speak English fluently. However, at job interviews, Swedes don’t find the English language so cool.

It is so difficult to find a job in Sweden — with basic or even advanced Swedish, it doesn’t matter really. What matters is how much working experience you have in Sweden. But how am I going to have working experience if you, Sweden, doesn’t allow me to have an opportunity to get that experience in the first place?

I have submitted countless job applications and almost all the time I don’t even hear back from them with any feedback — even the rejection. I remember one woman taxi driver from Iran who drove me once to a TV interview I made in the Swedish TV building. She told me how she has a degree in engineering from Iran but taxi driving was the only job she could find in Sweden. This made me remove from my CV all the details about all the Swedish and international awards I’ve received for my journalism work. I even started to consider working as a taxi driver or waitress. I have tremendous respect for all taxi drivers and waitresses — and, surely, these jobs are nothing to be ashamed of.

I know my potential and I keep asking myself, why in Sweden am I feeling this unworthiness? Why am I constantly economically struggling? Why the Swedish system doesn’t allow me to fulfil my fullest potentials, find a job and feel settled? Something about the system keeps you as an outsider. Dating in Sweden? I've given up a long time ago.

One of my last attempts to feel that I fit in Sweden, I contacted the Swedish public service, SVT, inquiring if they’d be interested in an op-ed by me about my experience with the Swedish language. They politely told me they weren’t interested.

It is my fourth time to celebrate the Swedish National Day as a Swedish citizen and I am still struggling to fit in and feel Swedish and, most importantly, be seen as a full Swedish citizen.

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Yemeni Journalist Denied Entry to US to Receive Pulitzer Prize: I am Disappointed yet Defiant

Maad al-Zekri, Yemen’s first journalist to win a Pulitzer Prize tells me what happened to him over a phone call from Egypt:

Yesterday was a big day for me and my colleagues, Maggie Michael, and Nariman El-Mofty. It was the award ceremony for us to receive the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting, in New York City in the United States. As a team of Associated Press journalists, Michael, El-Mofty and I have done about 14 stories from Yemen, covering a wide range of issues; like the U.S. drone strikes on Yemen and the UAE’s secret prions in Yemen, among many other stories.

We actually won other awards as well for our reporting, not only the Pulitzer Prize.

Maad al-Zekri with Maggie Michael, Yemen 2018. 

I wasn’t able to join my colleagues in NYC and celebrate this important achievement because I was denied entry to the United States. As all embassies are shut down in Yemen, I had to travel to the closest country to Yemen and apply for the visa in a U.S. embassy. So, two months ago, I visited Egypt and applied for the visa. My application was supported by so many letters from high-ranked institutions, including the Associated Press Agency. And yet, my application was rejected.

The embassy told me that the reason was that Yemen was ranked as a place that has terrorism. AP exerted the fullest pressure on the embassy and we planned that I apply again. My second application required that I meet an American Counselor. I explained that Yemen wasn’t a terrorist country and I asked, “Does the U.S. embassy think that a Yemeni investigative journalist doing reporting for AP is a terrorist? Are you saying that I am a terrorist?”

It was baffling to me. As a Yemeni citizen, I know how we Yemenis are the first victims of terrorism. Terrorists in Yemen are foreigners who come from outside. They exploit the deteriorating security situation in Yemen and use that for their own interests.

I was told by the American Counselor that they would work on my application and I should expect the visa anytime - even one day before the award ceremony. So, I waited and waited - and waited. And till now, I heard nothing from them.

Last night, I had a beautiful surprise when my colleagues Michael and El-Mofty video-called me on Facetime as they were receiving the award on stage. Somehow, seeing Michael and El-Mofty and the audience's standing ovation made me feel like I was there with them. It was a delightful surprise! So grateful that I am working with these ladies.

I don’t know what to say about the wonderful messages I’ve been receiving from relatives, friends, journalists (and especially American journalists) and people from Yemen and around the world. So heartwarming! Not being able to travel to the U.S. and receive the award in person was disappointing to me but it also made me realize all this solidarity I have as a Yemeni journalist and citizen. I do journalism not expecting to get awards, rather to shed light on this impoverished land, my country, Yemen. The love and support I’ve been receiving give me more energy to keep up my work.

My message to the U.S. administration is that it has to rethink its policies against Yemen and Yemenis. One of the key reasons why this land is so impoverished in the tragic condition it has reached to today is the U.S. administration's mass punishment on Yemen. They must rethink that. The rift has been immense.

Monday, May 27, 2019

Jacobinmag Podcast: Empire and the War in Yemen

The Dig, Jacobinmag Podcast:

The US has played a major role in fomenting violence across Yemen, backing the Saudi and United Arab Emirates-led forces attacking the country while also conducting a direct war against Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula under the guise of counterterrorism. But while it’s understandable that US involvement is the top focus for the American left, understanding the war in Yemen requires a much broader analysis. The Yemeni conflict not only includes multiple outside actors but also multiple groups of Yemenis pursuing different outcomes, rooted in a complex history that a few outside of Yemen understands. 

Explaining that context is what this show, in partnership with the Middle East Research and Information Project (MERIP), is all about. This special episode includes two interviews with contributors to the Middle East Report, MERIP’s print publication. First, up is Yemeni journalist Afrah Nasser and political scientist Stacey Philbrick Yadav; and then, Dan speaks with political-economist Adam Hanieh.

You may listen to the interviews here

Yemen’s Women Confront War’s Marginalization

Despite advances gained from women’s strong participation in the 2011 uprisings against the dictatorship of Yemen’s former President Ali Abdullah Salih, and despite the fact that they continue to play an essential role in the day-to-day survival of their communities, three years of war and militarization have resulted in a significant setback for Yemeni women and increased their marginalization from formal political and conflict-resolution channels. Yet they continue to struggle for their rights and representation.

To continue reading this article, please subscribe with MERIP here.