Yemeni bodegas and restaurants are here to stay

Despite travel ban, Yemenis remain key part of NYC social fabric.

by Conor McCormick-Cavanagh and Vivien Ngo

Exterior of Yemen Cafe in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. Photo by Conor McCormick-Cavanagh.

Travel ban and bodega strike

On January 27, 2017, signed an Executive Order forbidding citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries from traveling to the United States. Less than a week later, Yemeni residents of New York took to the streets of Brooklyn to protest against the travel ban, which banned entry of all non-American Yemenis. In what later became known as the “bodega strike,” Yemeni convenience store and deli owners throughout New York closed down their shops for a whole day and gathered together to rally against the Executive Order.

February 2, the night of the bodega strike, served as a wake up call for Yemeni residents of New York that the time for apoliticism regarding immigration issues was over. “Yemenis are very busy people, but they became politically active. People that used to criticize us for having rallies about the war in Yemen are now more active.” says Yemeni-American activist Rabyaah Althaibani.

Rabyaah Althaibani helped organize the Yemeni bodega strike on Febraury 2, 2017. Photo courtesy of Rabyaah Althaibani.

More than a half year later, Yemenis continue to push back against the Trump administration’s laws against them. Some of them may not realize the true significance of the work they are doing by simply participating in their neighborhoods.

Yemen Cafe

Bay Ridge has been called “the heart of Brooklyn’s Arab community.”

Yemen Cafe in Bay Ridge is part of a pair of restaurants which have operated in Brooklyn since 1986. Its twin restaurant, Yemen Cafe, in Brooklyn Heights, is the original. Founded by two cousins back in the ‘80s, it now serves as an entry point for non-Arab residents of New York to try Yemeni cuisine and experience Arab hospitality. The other restaurant, in Bay Ridge, caters itself specifically toward the Arab community of New York, as Bay Ridge has a growing Arabic-speaking population. In 2012, the Census Bureau found that 53,000 New Yorkers speak Arabic at home. Sid Alsubai, the manager of Yemen Cafe in Bay Ridge, talked about the restaurant’s role in the Yemeni community and his identity as a Yemeni-American.

Yemen Cafe in Bay Ridge serves as a place of community gathering and solidarity in the tumultuous travel ban era. It also shut down on the day of the bodega strike. When the two restaurants and the bodegas closed for eight hours that day, people noticed. “A lot of people were empathizing. I think that a big part of it is because the bodegas and restaurants are part of communities,” says Althaibani.

Not just that, but Yemenis also have a reputation in New York for their hospitality. “Yemenis are very nice, happy-go-lucky people,” Althaibani says. Yemen Cafe illustrates this with its lively atmosphere, where customers and staff laugh, joke, and share food.

“We have to stand together”

Nashwan Saif, a Yemeni bodega owner known by his regulars as Nash, also exemplifies this friendly attitude. Since his father opened it in the 1990s, Saif’s bodega has been a staple of the community in Harlem, and Saif shares good rapport with many of his regulars. Such relationships between bodega owners are common; in fact, organizers of the Yemeni bodega strike originally planned to start at 8am, but delayed it because grocers wanted to make sure their regulars got their morning coffee.

Regulars have been entering his shop for decades and continue to support Saif in light of the travel ban. “We have to stand together,” Vanessa, a middle-aged African-American customer says.

With their enduring warmth, these Yemeni small-business owners add a welcome presence to the lives of the New Yorkers that they serve daily. This warmth does not appear to be disappearing anytime soon, as people like Saif plan to stay “because we know we’re going to have a better life sooner or later.”