On Thursday (Feb.2), thousands of Yemeni-Americans turned out at a rally in Brooklyn, outside Borough Hall, to protest President Trump’s anti-Muslim travel ban. Seemingly every person in the crowd had a story to tell about how the ban affected him or her personally, and every story was one of separation.
Amer Yafai, who was standing near the top of Borough Hall’s stone steps, has lived in the United States for five years and works at a hookah lounge on Atlantic Avenue. His wife and two-year-old daughter are in Yemen, and he hasn’t seen them in a year and a half. With only a green card, he now worries about leaving the country. Ammar al-Mansouri, the owner of a small bodega in Brooklyn, is an American citizen. But his mother, wife, and eight-year-old son are all in Yemen. It’s been three years since he last saw them. Afrah Saad has lived in the United States for seventeen years and works in health insurance. Her sister is in Yemen, while her sister’s fiancé lives here. How much longer would they have to live apart? Bassem Saleh, an employee at a Yemeni restaurant, spoke with concern about a friend who went to visit Yemen recently, and who was on his way home to the United States when he heard about Trump’s order, last Friday. Stranded in Dubai, the friend had to fly back to Yemen, while his wife and children wait for his return.
Several yards from the steps, near a cluster of TV-news vans, stood Abdul Kareem Yafai, the owner of Cobble Hill Mini Mart, who has lived in the United States for twenty-one years. Yafai is an American citizen, and has been trying for years to bring his wife and their four children to the United States. The U.S. Embassy closed in Sanaa, Yemen’s capital, in February, 2015, owing to the increasing and unpredictable violence there, after which Yemenis were forced to travel to other countries to apply for visas to the United States. In the fall, Yafai’s family had flown to Somalia, then Kenya, and then Djibouti hoping to find an embassy to work with. But since Saturday, Yafai told me, a sign posted at the U.S. Embassy in Djibouti told applicants not to seek an appointment for ninety days. Yafai wondered if he should send his family to Egypt to wait it out. He estimated that he had already spent twenty thousand dollars on their flights, lodging, food, mandatory medical checkups, and visa-application fees. He grabbed one of the anti-Trump signs being passed around and entered the crowd that was shouting “No Wall! No Ban!”
Trump’s executive order, signed on Friday, temporarily banned citizens of Yemen, Iraq, Iran, Syria, Sudan, Libya, and Somalia from entering the United States. (It also halted all refugee admissions.) This week, the White House argued that the order’s focus on seven predominantly Muslim countries was not a ban on Muslims, and that its intent was to allow time for the establishment of “extreme vetting” measures for travellers and migrants from these countries going forward. Immigrant-rights activists and lawyers have long complained that travellers, immigrants, and even naturalized American citizens from Yemen, in particular, are subject to unfair and intrusive scrutiny. But Trump’s order was much bolder and more systematic than anything they or the community had seen before. Last Saturday, reports emerged of Customs and Border Protection agents detaining not just asylum seekers but also green-card holders and naturalized citizens from the seven countries targeted by the order.
Saturday night, as crowds at airports around the country gathered to protest the order, a group of leaders from the Yemeni community held an emergency meeting in Bay Ridge. Zaid Nagi, a businessman who lives in Brooklyn, arrived late—he came straight from the protests at J.F.K. “Everybody was scared,” he recalled. “We were paralyzed.” The group discussed possible measures they could take, and after the meeting ended the discussion continued on Facebook and over the phone.
An idea formed: members of the city’s Yemeni community would shut down their businesses for eight hours and hold a rally. The Yemeni community estimates that some six thousand of New York City’s sixteen thousand bodegas are owned by Yemenis. These shops, many of them open around the clock, provide New Yorkers with everything from morning coffee to lottery tickets to cold medicine. Owners of Yemeni restaurants and hookah cafés also pledged to shut down, as did a variety of other merchants. The community wanted to send a message: this is what New York would look like without Yemeni-Americans.
Flyers were distributed and messages were sent out on social media. By Thursday, the appointed day, the organizers estimated that more than a thousand Yemeni-owned bodegas and businesses has closed their stores that afternoon. Instead of going home, many owners and employees made their way straight to the rally site. “This is kind of a miracle,” Afrah Saad told me, shouting to make her voice heard over the crowd. “Yemenis here work seven days a week, twenty-four hours a day. They never shut down the store.”
The rally was meant to start at 5 P.M., but by three-thirty hundreds of people were already gathered in front of Borough Hall, a Greek Revival-style building that sits near the entrance to the Brooklyn Bridge. The crowd was predominantly male, but their ages varied widely. Young and old men alike waved American and Yemeni flags. People in the crowd blew vuvuzelas, chanted in English, and spoke among themselves in Arabic. By five-thirty, the crowd had filled the square in front of the hall. People shouted protest standbys: “U.S.A.!” and “What do we want? Justice! When do we want it? Now!” “This is the first time that the Yemeni-American community has come out in such numbers on an issue that has affected them,” Debbie Almontaser, one of the rally organizers, told me Thursday night. In the past, some in the Yemeni community had protested the New York Police Department’s surveillance of the city’s Muslim communities and Saudi involvement in the civil war in Yemen, but “nothing to this scale.”
By coincidence, just two blocks away from the rally site, at the United States District Courthouse in Brooklyn, a hearing took place Thursday afternoon for one of the class-action cases brought in response to Trump’s order. The courtroom was packed with journalists and onlookers. Outside, chants from the rally echoed up the city streets, but inside a contingent of lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Immigration Law Center, the International Refugee Assistance Project, and the Yale Law Clinic politely squared off against two young attorneys from the Department of Justice. The point of contention in the courtroom was whether the judge, Carol Amon, would extend a temporary relief order that halted the deportation of citizens from the seven countries named in Trump’s order. “I don’t know what concern there would be for the temporary relief order to be extended,” Amon told the government’s attorneys. She extended the relief order to February 21st.
Thousands of Yemeni-Americans perform evening prayers as part of a Brooklyn protest against Donald Trump’s anti-Muslim travel ban.Photograph by Mohammed Elshamy / Anadolu Agency / Getty