Tales of a Yemenite Millennial
At seventeen years old, Ebrahim Anaam is as much of a millennial as it is possible to be. When I met him in August, he was working a summer job at a local deli, raising money for his freshman year of college, which was starting in September. Anaam likes the Marvel movies — his favorite is Avengers: Age of Ultron — enjoys going out to eat, and Friends is “his favorite show.” But as a Yemenite immigrant, his roots lie in a world far from America and the First World. “I don’t have many memories from there,” he told me of Ibb, the city where he was born and where much of his family still lives. “But my foundation is from there. The way your parents teach you — like respect — is from there.” Our first conversation was over the phone, and Ebrahim would pause occasionally to answer one of his younger siblings in Arabic.
Anaam came to America at the age of six. He has been able to watch Harlem’s Yemenite community, located largely between the 120s and 130s, develop over his lifetime. “It has grown,” he told me. “Not just in numbers, but in views. We used to be more conservative. Now we’re starting to become more liberal.”
Speaking to Ebrahim, it became clear that the Yemenite community is currently living through its own iteration of the American melting pot, with all the attendant tensions between the customs of the old world and the realities of the new. “You know, [in Yemenite culture], males and females are separate,” Anaam said. “But now, the restrictions have eased up. Back in our country, women weren’t allowed to do anything. Now girls growing up can expect to go to college and go to school.” According to Anaam, this transition toward modern values has taken place with the blessing of community leaders. “The elders, they’ve changed their views,” he said.
A tolerance for change has also played out in Ebrahim’s own relationship with his parents. In general, they give him space to form a personal connection to the culture of his heritage. “They expect you to be loyal to their culture and ideals,” he said of his parents. “But it depends on your personality. When you grow up and get your own understanding of the world — obviously they want you to be like them, but our mentality is you have your own individual action.” So, while his parents may not be thrilled that Anaam prefers spending Fridays at Regale Cinema at Union Square to attending the mosque, in Ebrahim’s words, still, they “let him explore.”
The Anaam family’s arrival to the United States follows a typical storyline for Yemenite immigrants. Ebrahim explained the process. “Let’s say you come by yourself. Most people that come here don’t have an actual education degree,” he said. “So they start by working in shops, local stores, anything they can get their hands on. Now there are many that work in delis, but that’s how it started.”
Often, a head of family will come alone to pave the way for his family’s arrival. “Many pitched in and got apartments for multiple people,” Anaam explained. “From there, it came to people bringing their families.”
In the case of the Anaams, Ebrahim’s father preceded the rest by nearly ten years, during which time he sent money back home to his wife, children, and siblings (Ebrahim’s uncles and aunts). Eventually, he made enough money to pay for his wife and seven children to join him in America.
“As you know, it takes a lot of money to come here,” Ebrahim told me. “You have to pay fees, you have to wait. Some people don’t have that time, and some people don’t have the money to actually pay. How can I describe it to you? A lot of offices that take your paperwork, and that goes into getting you a visa and a resident’s pass.” “It takes a long time,” he concluded, “and a lot of money.”
Back in Ibb, the extended Anaam family lives in a multi-story home, which Ebrahim still returns occasionally to visit. But the ongoing civil war and the outbreak of cholera in some parts of the country has made him consider canceling his next trip. “I was planning to go to Yemen in December for a month,” he told me. “I was going to go through Aden” — the city name is pronounced Adahn — “so I’d never have to go through the capital.”
That much was a good planning: Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, is still controlled by rebel forces, and is the site of occasional violence, including U.S. backed airstrikes from Saudi Arabia. Fortunately, according to Ebrahim, Ibb is basically quiet, and the Anaam family was never in any real danger. But the trip, which Ebrahim was planning to take during his finals break from Hostos Community College, where he studies Criminal Justice, still might not be worth the risk. “I’m not going to risk the airports being shut down and losing my flight,” he explained. “I could end up losing a semester, for no reason.”
Despite the danger to friends and family back home, the Yemenite community mostly tries to live life as usual. “Everyone is getting on with their lives, working,” Anaam said. “Once in a while, we get together and chill.” Predictably, when Yemenites do get together, the conversation turns to politics. “Anytime they get together, they start talking about politics,” Ebrahim said with a laugh. “Automatically! I’m like, talk about something else. How was your day, man?”
Ebrahim’s father stays abreast of what’s happening in the war by watching a 9:00 p.m. broadcast of Yemenite news. The Anaam family are supporters of the former Yemenite president, Ali Saleh. “They strongly believe he was a good leader,” Ebrahim tells me. (Saleh was ousted in Yemen’s Arab Spring in 2012). Now, however, they try to stay neutral, as the new government of Abdrabbuh Hadi struggles to gain control of parts of the country that have been seized by rebels loyal to Saleh. “They just hope the government will settle down, and there’ll be peace,” Anaam said.
I asked Ebrahim if he felt frustrated that most Americans don’t care about the conflict in Yemen. He was surprisingly stoic. “People only start paying attention once it affects them,” he said. “That’s just how people are. We can’t complain about that.”
But Ebrahim also drew a comparison between the situation in his parent country and Martin Niemöller’s famous poem, describing the world’s failure to respond to the Holocaust in World War Two. I told him that I knew it. “When they came for Jews, I did not speak out because I am not a Jew…,” I recited. Anaam nodded. “When the Jews were getting killed, people said, ‘well, it’s not happening to me,’” he said. “It’s just how people are.”
Originally published in WAX Digital Magazine, an affiliate of The Harlem Bee.