Yemeni Shopkeepers Hit Back at Immigration Ban With ‘Bodega Strike’

02/03/2017 10:20 am ET Updated Feb 03, 2017

In response to 90-day freeze on new arrivals, New York deli owners stage rally

As one of the seven countries thus far included in the “Muslim ban” on entering the United States, Yemen is hardly the exception. Like most of the other failed states on the list, such as Libya and Syria, the place is wracked by proxy conflict, civil war and terrorism.

But locally, in the Big Apple, Yemenis are uniquely indispensable. They run over 1,000 bodegas, or corner stores, across Manhattan, Brooklyn, and other boroughs. With a management style that is both courteous and discerning, their delis function as an integral part of city life.

Known throughout the Arab world for affability, and the chaos of their homeland, Yemenis in New York City are not taking kindly to their inclusion in a most exclusive Executive Order.

On Thursday, Yemeni shopkeepers -- owners and employees -- shuttered their stores for the bulk of the day, to send a blunt political message. For the occasion, many thousands turned out for a late afternoon rally in brisk weather on the steps of Brooklyn’s Borough Hall.

A Facebook page set up for the event declared its purpose was to highlight “the vital role these grocers and their families play in New York’s economic and social fabric.”

Waving even more American than Yemeni flags, the protesters shouted slogans and held up banners saying “No Ban, No Wall,” “Immigrants made America great & they will make it greater again" and “No Hate, No Racism.” They also cheered on raucous speeches by activists, and conducted evening prayers on the paved stones in the borough’s municipal center.

The event was organized by the Arab American Anti-Discrimination Committee and the Muslim Community Network in New York City.

Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams told the rally that his support was with immigrants from all seven of the targeted Middle Eastern nations, listing each of the nationalities in an unflinching show of solidarity. The city’s public advocate, Letitia James, exclaimed, “We are all Muslim today.”

Mohammed Saleh, right, who has lived most of his life in the United States, said he opposed the new immigrant ban.
Mohammed Saleh, right, who has lived most of his life in the United States, said he opposed the new immigrant ban.

Mohammed Saleh, 36, came to express support for his coworker at a bodega in the neighborhood of Ridgewood. Ali, whose last name he didn’t want to give, is currently unable to bring his wife and three children to the U.S. as a result of the new ban.

With his family waiting in Malaysia, Ali had an interview scheduled for the U.S. embassy in Djibouti. But a note on the door of the consular services building suggests that nothing can be done at this time.

“He’s losing money as a result, though he has all the documents ready,” Saleh, who himself has been in the U.S. for 20 years, said of his friend. “The ban will hurt a lot of people, especially in Yemen.”

“Every person who works in [America] from [Yemen] supports 15-20 people,” Saleh added, saying that many people who had sold land, houses and gold to afford the journey and paperwork are now stuck in limbo.

As he was explaining the collective predicament of his fellow countrymen, a loud chant erupted across the crowd: “United, we stand, against the Muslim ban.”

“In Djibouti, life is expensive, and no one can help them there,” said Saleh, who spent a chunk of last weekend at JFK airport showing support for new arrivals in detention at New York’s biggest entry point from overseas.

Saleh’s mother, 65, remains in the Yemeni capital, Sanaa. He said she had minimal interest in emigrating for her later years — despite seemingly interminable political strife at home — but that she certainly would be unable to come now.

“At least the people here, we are peaceful people,” he concluded, before disappearing into the crowd of gracious bodega workers furious about the Trump administration’s anti-immigration actions.

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