BROOKLYN, N.Y. — Thousands of Yemeni-Americans in New York City turned out to peacefully — if not passionately — protest the White House ban on immigrants entering the United States from seven Muslim-majority countries, including Yemen. The protesters waved American and Yemeni flags, shouting slogans like “United we stand against the Muslim ban.”
Held at 4 in the afternoon at Borough Hall in Brooklyn, the crowd of mostly young, middle-aged and old men crammed on the steps of the municipal building and its park in front to demonstrate their deep unhappiness and dismay at the ban initiated by President Trump less than a week ago. Besides Yemen, the countries that immigrants have been banned temporarily from entering the US are Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Syria.
“I’m here to stand for what’s right,” said Ashraf Alraziqi, who has lived in New York for 17 years and makes a living as a driver. “This country is about immigrants. It should be called the United States of Immigrants.”
The protest, which also drew some young women and a few families, began with a prayer and culminated two hours later with another call to prayer, or adhan.
Everyone made room for the prayer service at sunset, when the scene was jammed and protesters faced toward Mecca as the mournful Arabic recitation by the muezzin echoed through a loudspeaker across the Borough Hall park. New York City police officers stood on the sidelines quietly and three helicopters hovered nearby as those praying repeatedly stood and lay with their heads, knees and hands on the ground for a half hour.
The protest accompanied a citywide shutdown by Yemeni-owned bodegas and delis from noon to 8 p.m., emphasizing that Yemenis provide essential services throughout the five boroughs. For years, Yemenis have been buying bodegas, formerly Latino establishments, to suit Yemenis’ entrepreneurial, family-run spirit, selling everything that New Yorkers want. That includes beer, cigarettes and pork, which Muslims are not allowed to partake of themselves.
Most of the protesters who were interviewed for this article were eager to talk about the immigration ban and their feelings about Trump, generally unafraid to give their names and to voice their sadness as to why the country they immigrated to for its freedoms, security and opportunities is suddenly a heartless place.
Whether the Yemenis assembled at Borough Hall were aware that a newly disclosed letter from the US State Department could have more ramifications on people from the banned countries who want to immigrate to America to join their families was impossible to tell, though protesters said the Trump ban was upsetting families tremendously.
The ban, said Mage Ahamed, is “no good for Yemenis and all Americans.” Ahamed, who lives in the Bronx, added, “the law is racist and unconstitutional.” Did he think America was a great country? “It’s still great — until now.”
A surge of Yemenis who lost their jobs as a result of the Gulf War in the 1990s led them to New York and other regions in the US where Arab communities have grown and prospered. In New York, Yemenis live throughout the city, though Bay Ridge in Brooklyn has a predominantly Arab-American population. Atlantic Avenue, blocks from Borough Hall, has a concentration of Yemeni restaurants and shops, where they are always busy.
The dozen or so protesters at Borough Hall who were interviewed worked as either taxi drivers or in shops. They each said they had been living in New York for at least 10 years. They expressed a strong desire to make their hurt known through means of protest, or as one man said, to let Trump know “what he is doing is wrong.”
At the same time, many men said they wanted to demonstrate that they could hold a peaceful protest, to counter stereotypes that Muslims are violent.
“The US was a perfect country — for everybody,” said Hakim Alquaiti, adding that he hoped that the demonstration — and more like it — would stop the Trump order. Alquaiti, who has lived here for 26 years, said he had no qualms about not working for the day so he could participate in the protest. “It’s not all about money.”
As the protesters organized to pray, Hussein Mohsen, who had flown from San Francisco the day before to take part, said the muezzin, speaking in Arabic, was saying that “everybody loves peace” and “we love America.” But Mohsen also admitted that he hadn’t voted in the November presidential election, explaining that he had been asleep, adding, “Trump is making us mad.”
A US war veteran watching the demonstration, who said he was of Turkish-Sicilian descent, shook his head when he described his feelings about the Yemenis’ protesting.
“I think this is great, long overdue,” said Richard Tora, a Brooklynite who works as a concierge. “This nation is built on immigrants. My mother and father were immigrants who worked their tails off after World War II here. A lot of people here don’t live off the system but are small-business owners, and they go to school.
“As a vet, I’m insulted by Donald Trump’s administration.”