We Spoke to the Yemeni-Americans Who Took Part in NYC's Massive Bodega Strike
"We lost money but we regained our rights. We have a right to protest and have our voices heard. If we have to loose money to show others that we are human beings, no problem.”
New York City is home to thousands of bodegas, many of them run by Yemeni immigrants. It should be no surprise, then, that President Trump's recent executive order on immigration and travel—which targeted immigrants from Yemen as well as six other Muslim-majority countries—has hit New York City's Yemeni-run groceries and bodegas very hard. Yesterday, thousands of Yemeni deli-owners and their supporters took to the plaza in front of Brooklyn's Borough Hall to protest the order, after hundreds of grocers closed their stores yesterday from noon to eight in protest.
The demonstrators waved American and Yemeni flags as New York City public officials greeted them with the words "Assalamu alaikum." Brooklyn borough president Eric L. Adams told the crowd that the rally was sending "a loud and clear message to America," and Mayor Bill de Blasio tweeted "New York City's bodega owners are bravely shutting their doors to oppose the president's shameful executive order. I stand with them."
Mohamed Alnowfi, an organizer of the protest and owner of Metro Finest Deli in Downtown Brooklyn, told MUNCHIES that the Yemeni community owns more than 4,000 delis and groceries in the city. His family has been in the US for three generations; he has lived in Brooklyn for more than 40 years. "My children grew up here and went to college and they have no connection to the old country," he said. "America is all about creating a better place to live and dream that has freedom of religion and speech. This is really painful, what happened to the American Dream?"
Alnowfi says he helped to organize the rally because he wanted to make a point. "The countries that were banned have weak central governments and of course some terrorists flourish, but nobody likes terrorists. Nobody likes bad people. When Trump says to ban the bad people, of course, none of us want the bad people here or anywhere in the world." Alnowfi says the bar to enter the US is already extremely high: "It already takes two years to go through the system and then when they get to the airport, they have to go through questioning on top of that. At the very least, If they already have a visa or a permanent resident card or student visa, let them in."
Nader Muharram, manager of a deli in downtown Brooklyn, closed his store to attend the rally. He told MUNCHIES many people he knew from the Yemeni-American community were there. "Everyone just wants justice and liberty," he told us. "I was so surprised with how many people showed up. I thought only a few people would actually come. I can't believe how many people closed their stores to come."
Muharram's story—of a family caught in transit once the executive order came down—was typical of many we heard at the rally. He explained, "My cousin is in the process of getting his wife over here from Yemen. He's been trying to get her here for almost five years and she was supposed to come in the end of February. They had made all the plans and he got an apartment for them but now she can't come anymore just because she is a Muslim and from Yemen. We don't know what to do and he is very sad. This isn't the way America is supposed to be."
Gamal Al-Zokari, owner of J & A Deli in Bed Stuy, told MUNCHIES a similar story: "I met somebody yesterday whose eight-year-old son and wife are stuck in Egypt. He gets them a visa, so they travelled from Djibouti to Egypt so they can come here and now they are stuck there and don't know anybody. This is not fair. We are all human beings. I'm about to cry again just thinking about it." He added, "Even if the ban lasts three months, that's way too long."
The nephew of one bodega owner in Bed Stuy told MUNCHIES that he had wanted to attend the rally, but had to watch the family store for his uncle, who had traveled to Sana'a to see his sister after she was unable to board a flight to New York.
"I was so shocked when I heard about the ban," said the manager of Golden Deli One in Hamilton Heights, who did not wish to give his name. "We love this country and we want to be here. We have the right to freedom just like everyone else. My customers are glad we are shutting down and told me I had to go to the protest."
There are more than 40,731 Yemeni-born immigrants living in America, according to recent US census data. Yemen has suffered from severe political instability for years, especially since a civil war erupted following the Arab Spring and the resignation of its long-serving authoritarian president Ali Abdullah Saleh. Since then, relations between Yemen and the US have been extremely fraught, and the US closed its embassy in the capital in 2015. It hasn't been easy for Yemenis to get visa to the US since then and many have been directly or indirectly affected by American drone strikes in Yemen and bombing by US-backed Saudi forces.
The owner of Best & Tasty Deli Grocery in the Bronx, who identified himself only as Adnan, said that his extended family has more than 35 businesses, all of which closed for the day. "We never thought this was going to happen. I was so shocked. Everybody is upset. I hope things get better."
Although many of the store owners were stunned by Trump's executive order, several said they were committed to expressing their commitment to civil rights—and their appreciation for their adopted country: "Everybody I spoke to was happy to shut down their businesses and we had no problem with customers," Muharram told MUNCHIES. "We lost money, but our customers were very supportive and told us we should go to the protest. We lost money but we regained our rights. We have a right to protest and have our voices heard. If we have to loose money to show others that we are human beings, no problem."
Al-Zokari of J & A Deli summed up the feeling of many: "I saw a lot of stores closed. This is very good. We have to show people we came here to America to live, not cause trouble. I'm so happy with what happened."
Nabil Ahmed Aljomai owns three shops that he closed in protest. "We are trying to make America great but in our way, not Trump's way. America believes in freedom and rejects racism and that decision made is pure racism. He is an enemy to everyone who believes in freedom, not just us. We are trying to send a message."