If you were to enter my neighborhood, you might be either shocked or feel very at home, Here are some things you would notice:
- The close proximity of the homes to the smoke spitting Ford Motor Co. factory.
- Little kids walking home with grocery bags of food hanging off their arms.
- Men with beards crossing wide roads to get to the mosque.
You’ll notice a lot of slightly run down plazas with Arabic writing on their canopies. If you can read in Arabic, you may laugh at how many competing stores, clinics, restaurants and pharmacies are in the area. And yet, they all exist rather peacefully. This is my home, the predominantly Yemeni neighborhood on the south side of Dearborn that I’ve been blessed to live in all my life.
There is a beautiful simplicity and a silent history in this community. The factory tells a story of immigration where Yemeni men flooded into Dearborn to work to send money to their family back home in the poorest country in the Middle East. The walking back and forth to grocery shops and the mosque is symbolic of a certain grit, a principle of never taking the easy way out because there’s beauty in the struggle. The generosity of the neighbor women is unmatched. Where else can you get pots and pans of steaming hot food held by the little neighbor kids coming to your door on a regular basis?
But prejudice and erasure, no matter how covert or announced it is, has a way of making you forget every beautiful thing about where you are from. When I became friends with non-Yemeni Arab Americans, I realized how extremely far removed their understanding was from the Yemeni experience. It is an experience shaped by a legacy of poverty and illiteracy that my friends enjoyed a great deal of privilege to not have to think about as part of their upbringing.
They speak about their mother forcing them to learn Quran (my non-Yemeni friends are also Muslim). I think about how my mom was functionally illiterate, not being able to read or write in neither Arabic or English until this day, and yet she never let me miss a doctor’s appointment or parent-teacher conference. They speak about how their father grew up poor and despite that, he was able to attend medical school. I think about how to grow up poor and to grow up starving are two distinctively different circumstances; how my father would’ve made a heck of an engineer or accountant but college is just not an option when people are trying to survive.
I wonder, would they be surprised to know how many Yemeni families in my community lived below the poverty line? How many Yemeni mothers spent their days cooking breakfast, cleaning, preparing their six, seven, eight, nine children for school but when their kids got back, they couldn’t offer any help with homework? I wonder if they knew how many Yemeni kids didn’t get to see their fathers because baba was working long, exhaustive hours on an assembly line to make ends meet for his family in two parts of the world. I wonder if they understand that the local mosque is a place of refuge for men and women who struggled for decades. I wonder if they could ever understand the extent of pride for Yemeni parents to see their kids graduating from college, something that was but a hopeless dream for the parents.
In present day, the erasure and prejudice has found itself in a disgustingly shameful place. It is one thing to erase the experiences of Yemeni Americans. It is another thing to erase their right to live. Yemen is currently facing a humanitarian crisis considered the worst today in our world by many experts. And yet, we find news media outlets and even more painful, Facebook friends, being silent. We can guarantee you’ve heard of the atrocities in Syria before that in Yemen. If you think that is coincidence, you might lack understanding of how power dynamics function at a global scale. And just because I know some will think I’m suggesting that Syria deserves less coverage, that’s the farthest from the truth. Make no mistake – I’m not here to exploit tragedy to make a point. You don’t give one their due right by stripping another of it. As devastating as it is to see people ignore their prejudices at the expense of the lives of innocent individuals, I learned one thing, which I’d like to share with a poem:
Is it more devastating to see the mighty fall?
Then the fallen, crawl?
Tell me which mouth do you feed?
Then tell me again, why don’t you feed both?
Do you play God with your dollars,
While the devil wishes for you injustice,
Even in your tears.