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Yemeni Chicagoans Ready for Candid Conversations About Religion in America

Chicagoans from each of seven countries listed in President Trump’s travel ban explain how the executive order has changed their lives.

Alaa Abdulla, originally from Yemen, poses for a portrait in his uncle’s restaurant Mandi Noor in Albany Park.   Photo: Alyssa Schukar

Alaa Abdullah, 27, and Abdulrub Albakri, 32, are brothers in law. Both are naturalized U.S. citizens who came here in the 1990s. Abdulla was in Yemen getting married when war broke out in late 2014—Albakri petitioned the U.S. government to help get him and other citizens out of the country.

With everything that’s happened since the executive order, how did it make you feel?

Abdulla: What really bothered me personally, was the fact that he chose specific countries that kind of have no economic power. They can do very little damage, or have little effect on the U.S. economy. And then if you look at the history of all the terrorist attacks, a lot of them were home grown. And the big major one, 9/11, involved Saudi Arabians, people from the U.A.E., Lebanon, and Egypt. And none of those countries were on the list.

Albakri: Initially, I felt anger. Second, I felt fear. I immediately got a call from my father. He couldn’t wrap his head around it. And my father, to a certain extent is a little bit naïve; after Trump won he had the attitude of, “Look, he’s our president. Give him a chance.”

Abdulla: And that’s what we did.

Albakri: And I respected my father’s attitude. But Trump didn’t give it a week before issuing the ban. He didn’t give it a week. So it was anger, and then fear, and then confusion, because it didn’t make any sense.

Abdulla: In a sense it makes you, you know I hate to say it, but it makes you feel less American or un-American. It makes you think that the American people are in this state of deception of what Islam is. Is this what the media is actually presenting, do they think that’s really us?

What’s something that you wish someone who is a Trump supporter or who is skeptical of Muslims, what would you want them to know about yourselves?

Albakri: This is a consistent conversation I have with people I work with because I’m always surprised by their ignorance. Someone knows you for a long time, for years, and you have a connection with them and introduce them to your family. Yet you see some of these hurtful social media postings by people who I respected and admired and I thought they were educated. And I think, maybe I’m not doing my part by exposing my culture or being the best ambassador—but no, this is ignorance.

So if someone who supports Trump reads this, I would hope they get that, despite our differences that are based on religion or skin color, I just want to take care of my family. I want to live in peace. I love everything about America. I can’t wait to watch the Super Bowl on Sunday. Just because I’ve experienced what real tyranny looks like—we grew up in a place, honestly, where people would disappear. Reporters would disappear. Nobody would know what happened to them. There was no due process. Because they had said something or read something that was against the government. So I have a deep love and respect for a place that accepts you for who you are. That allows you to practice the religion that you believe in and as long as you live your life without hurting anybody, you’re free to do so, as long as you pay taxes. I love America—it’s an idea. There’s no better experiment like this in the history of the world where people can come from everywhere to practice whatever the hell they want to practice and be left alone.

How do you think you bridge that gap, to make people understand that we are not all so different?

Albakri: I was talking to one of my friends who is American. He’s come a long way—he used to be not as open minded, but I think our relationship over the years has changed that. And my neighbors, one is a white guy and we’ve had political conversations. In this culture you don’t talk about politics, you don’t ask a woman her age, you don’t ask someone how much they make, right? But I think this affects everyone. I think, honestly, Muslim communities are not known to be the most open. There is an onus on us to be open and to listen. If there’s Trump supporter who is curious to know more about Muslims, find a local mosque. Find a friend. Ask questions. People are not afraid to answer and people don’t get insulted if you come at them with the right intention.

Abdulla: Even if it may sound like it’s the wrong question, if you come with an open heart and just ask, they’ll open up to you.

Albakri: I think we’re ready as a community. I think people recognize the importance… I see it with my parents and my family and friends. We’re ready to just share. Being a student of history you learn real quick that, when a certain type populist leader comes to power, I quickly get reminded of the 1930’s. I’m reminded of Germany and how the Jews in Germany were treated. They don’t just put them in concentration camps. It started to fear, to isolate them.

What about people who are against the ban, who want to show support for communities like yours?

Abdulla: I went to the airport on [the Sunday after the ban] to protest with everybody, and I was amazed to see that there were less Muslims and less brown people there. There were more white people, people that basically have nothing to do with the ban. Believe it or not, they were passing out water, they were giving out candy. They’re actually thanking us, me—as a person that should be there because I have people that are affected by this—thanking us for coming. That, to me, was very humbling.

Albakri: I was excited when the governor of Washington state, he went to the airport protests. We need more people like that in leadership positions to speak out about any kind of injustice, but especially on a scale like this.

You both came as young children to the U.S. and you’re citizens now. Why did your families decide to leave Yemen?

Abdulla: Well, like everybody who comes here, we came for a better life. I think that’s why my father brought us here—you know, to better our future and better our education.

Albakri: My dad came here to New York in the early 1970s to work odd jobs, like as a dishwasher or a clerk at a store. A lot of Yemeni people back then worked in the metal factories, which brought him to Chicago in the mid-1970s. He married my mom in 1984 and I was born later that year in a small village in the mountains of southern Yemen. For the next ten years he worked really hard to get us to the U.S. It was a journey.

We came to Chicago in February 1994. I’d never seen snow and that year there was a big winter storm. I guess I was asleep when we left the airport. I just opened up my eyes and it was just very different, very modern. I’d never seen cars like that. I’d never seen paved roads all over and never seen traffic lights where people actually followed the traffic lights. As a 10-year-old, it was a lot. We lived in a one-bedroom apartment with cockroaches. Luckily this neighborhood has a lot of different people and is very diverse, so we did not have a lot of problems. Plus there was a lot of Yemeni people that live in the building that we lived in. I would teach myself English by reading the newspaper. My dad would buy me the Chicago Tribune or Sun-Times back then for 50 cents. Particularly that year, in 1994 when we came here, by the middle of May there was a civil war that started in Yemen. It was lucky for us, because I think there were like 30,000 people who were killed in that war.

In your opinion, how has the ban affecting the Yemeni community in Chicago?

Abdulla: The Yemeni community here in Chicago, it’s like everybody knows everybody. Recently with the attacks near the U.S. embassy in Djibouti, a lot of people came here. I actually brought my wife through that and it was a stressful and dangerous experience. My family went to Yemen in 2014 and on December 24, I got married. We stayed [in Yemen] in January, February, and then March. That’s when war broke out.

They were bombing not too far from where I was. My windows would shake; the whole house would shake. But thank God our neighborhood wasn’t hit. The sound of gunshots were becoming the norm, AK-47s going off like it’s like the 4th of July every day. It was very, very scary. I had just gotten married and I didn’t know what to do. They were saying the only option was to go to Djibouti. But the airport was closed. At the time using a boat was not even on my mind. I was wishing for a U.S. ship to come and take us out.

Albakri: Why this is interesting: There were Chinese, Pakistani, Indian, and Russian government-sponsored military ships that, as soon as the war broke out, if you were Yemeni but you had a citizenship to that country, they sent these ships so you can get out. The U.S. was the only country that didn’t. And we petitioned, we were going to the representatives and begging them.

So you [Albakri] were here, stateside, and trying to help your brother-in-law [Abdulla] out in Yemen?

Albakri: I was advising them to come home as soon as they could. But we didn’t know war was going to break out. It was one of the scariest times in my life because even as they were deciding to leave, there were a lot of ships that were sinking. Are they going to get on a sinking ship? Are they going to be attacked by pirates?

Abdulla: I decided we had to leave, and there was an opportunity at the U.S. Embassy in Djibouti. I was very fortunate that they allowed me to petition my wife to come to the U.S. So we took a boat, and within half an hour of taking off, we heard people yelling to duck and get down. I started wondering what the hell I had gotten myself into. It was night and they told us to shut down our cell phones because someone might see the light and they might start shooting at us. I heard shots but we weren’t sure if they were coming at us or not. There were like 500 people on this wooden boat. It took us 12 hours to go from the Gulf of Aden to Djibouti. It was very tense. Everyone was throwing up.

When we got there, we stayed in Djibouti customs for another 12 hours, standing in the middle of the sidewalk in 125 degree weather with my pregnant wife. But I was very fortunate. I thought, OK, the U.S. didn’t come to get me [in a boat], but by opening the doors of the embassy it made me happy. I got married in December of 2014 and I brought her with me three months after. This never happens. Yemeni citizens, their cases can take six to eight years to process.

Knowing what it’s like to navigate all this paperwork, how did it make you feel when Trump’s executive order was rolled out and people who waited years for visas were either detained or turned away?

Abdulla: It’s like a stab in the heart. Imagine these people that have risked their lives and are hopeless. Imagine being a person who has been in Djibouti for like a year, in a country that they never been to before. You get issued a visa, and you don’t find flight tickets until after this executive order. Then how do you fly home? For each ticket I paid $2,500 just to come over here.

This interview was conducted on February 1 and has been edited for length and clarity. See interviews with Chicagoans from each of seven countries listed in President Trump’s travel ban here.

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