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1,000 Yemeni bodega owners close their doors to protest the Muslim ban

“It’s our right to stand up and challenge the president.”

Abdoulkarim Yafai CREDIT: Bryce Covert
Abdoulkarim Yafai CREDIT: Bryce Covert

BROOKLYN, NEW YORK — Abdoulkarim Yafai has played by all the rules. He’s an immigrant from Yemen who’s been living and working in the United States for 22 years, has become a citizen, and pays his taxes. But his wife and children are living in Djibouti, so five years ago he started the paperwork to bring them here to live with him. They were scheduled for an interview with immigration officials for this coming Sunday.

That process was abruptly suspended after President Trump issued an executive order on Friday that bans people from seven Muslim-majority countries, including Yemen, from entering the United States for at least the next three months.

Now Yafai is not sure when his family will be able to come join him. They’ve been told the process is paused for at least 90 days. “I don’t know what we’re going to do,” he said.

But one thing he knows he will do for sure: close up the bodega he owns, Cobble Hill Mini Mart, at noon on Thursday.

Yafai will not be alone. Across the city, 1,000 Yemeni-owned bodegas and businesses have already shut down or will shut down from noon to eight to protest the administration and its Muslim ban. “This shutdown of grocery stores and bodegas will be a public show of the vital role these grocers and their families play in New York’s economic and social fabric,” according to a statement announcing the shutdown. Then they’ll gather at Borough Hall for a call to prayer and a rally.

Saad S. Almontaser CREDIT: Bryce Covert
Saad S. Almontaser CREDIT: Bryce Covert

Saad S. Almontaser, a Yemeni immigrant who owns Champion Deli Grocery and has lived in the country for 24 years, will be one of them. “What made me decide is the Constitution,” he said. “The Constitution give[s] the opportunity for everybody in this country as [an] American citizen to participate and raise our voice if we feel that we are oppressed.”

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It’s “the minimum things we could do: protest, and show that we are part of this fabric,” he added. “It’s our right to stand up and challenge the president at least in civil [dis]obedience.”

Almontaser hasn’t been directly impacted by the travel ban yet. But he’s still motivated to speak out. “In one way or the other it’s going to affect everybody,” he said. “I read a lot of stories that make me feel this is not America, this is not the generous and big heart America that I know.”

And he takes offense at his community being singled out by the president. “We work seven days a week,” he said. He noted that he and his community also pay taxes and follow the law. But, he said, “at the end of the day we are the target.”

Almontaser will be at the protest, but by shutting down his bodega, he stands to lose some business — about a couple hundred dollars, he estimates. He says it will be worth it. “Got to look at the bigger picture,” he said. “We have a lot of support from the community and the neighborhood. They know us and we know them and we serve them and we share every day… They understand our situation.” That’s another reason to take action, he said: to rally the rest of the community around the issue.

The outside of Yemen Cafe. CREDIT: Bryce Covert
The outside of Yemen Cafe. CREDIT: Bryce Covert

Bodegas won’t be the only businesses to shutter their doors. Yemeni restaurants on and near Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn Heights had already closed Thursday morning and plan to stay closed. Muthanna Nassir, the owner of Yemen Cafe, said he had closed in protest of the president and his administration. “They close like this,” he said of the ban, but then “he will make another war” in Yemen, trapping people in a war-torn country.

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Nassir moved to the United States from Yemen in 1971, and he still supports family and friends in his home country, particularly because he knows so many are going without food. People “cry when you see the people in the street, when you see the children,” he said. Just this weekend, the U.S. conducted a raid that Yemeni officials say killed 16 civilians.

Losing money by closing his restaurant for the day doesn’t bother him. “I don’t want,” he said of the money he may miss. “This is for me nothing… I’m happy I’m closed.”

And he thinks that even though his restaurant is one of the most popular Middle Eastern places in the neighborhood, the community will appreciate why he’s closed. “They will say thank you for standing for our rights,” he said through the help of a translator. “Because they understand the situation and they support us… We feel that we have people backing us.”

“It’s a message for the new administration,” he said. Yemeni people are “not dangerous.”

Yemen Cuisine, another closed restaurant. CREDIT: Bryce Covert
Yemen Cuisine, another closed restaurant. CREDIT: Bryce Covert

Mocha Hookah is one place that won’t close, but that too is strategic: it will serve as a gathering place for the owners of businesses who are shutting their doors before and after everyone goes to the protest.

Amer Yafai works at Mocha Hookah and has also already had to personally grapple with the fallout of the Muslim ban. He’s been in the U.S. for five years and has his green card, but he’s still afraid to travel back to Yemen to visit his wife and two-year-old daughter who live there. He hasn’t seen them for a year and a half, and had been planning to visit in a few months, but now he’s had to change his plans. “I’m afraid that they’re not going to let me come back,” he said.

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That’s led to some tension. “Oh she’s mad at me,” he said of his wife. “She said, ‘Leave America and come here.’ I said, ‘Hell no, I can’t leave America.’”

His long-term plan is to bring his family to live in the U.S. with him. “I have two countries that I love the most: America and Yemen,” he said. “I can’t live anywhere else.” If his wife and daughter were finally able to live here, he doesn’t even think he’d go back to Yemen except to visit relatives every five years. “I’m just going to live here with my family,” he said.

These are the reasons that he’s eager to join the protest, which he’ll do after his shift at Mocha Hookah is over. “We have to stand for each other. All of us, doesn’t have to be only Arabs or Yemeni or specific communities… When somebody has a problem, we have to stand for them,” he said. He thinks the larger community will support them. “They always stand with us… You’re the one that has this problem, you have to stand, then everybody is going to stand around you.”

“Sometimes by yourself you’re not going to do something. But when you have too many people, you will do something, they will hear your voice,” he added.