One week after Donald Trump took office and enacted a ban on travel from several Muslim countries, over 1000 Yemeni-American
bodega owners closed their stores, walked off the job, and rallied at Brooklyn Borough Hall in protest. The action garnered national attention and was a coming-out party of sorts for New York’s growing Yemeni-American community, which is becoming increasingly
politically engaged during the Trump era.
Building on the success of the strike, organizers discussed forming an organization that could harness the community energy and take it forward. They founded the
Yemeni American Merchants Association (YAMA) and got to work.
“After the travel ban, we needed an organization to empower our community and provide the opportunity to realize their potential,” says Dr. Debbie Almontaser, one of the organization’s founders.
The group began with outreach, working to register voters and talk to community members about problems with city agencies and the NYPD. But this soon surfaced an underlying need in the community: English language literacy. Especially for Yemeni-American women,
lack of English was a barrier to succeeding outside the home and becoming independent.
YAMA began discussions with the Consortium for Worker Education about an English as a Second Language (ESL) class last year. The group piloted the idea with volunteer teachers to gauge interest, not knowing how many community members would participate.
“Within two weeks, we had 40 participants – all women in the Bronx – who wanted this,” says Almontaser. “When we started we didn’t even have furniture. They were sitting on the floor with notebooks. Once we had funding from CWE, we could buy furniture, whiteboards,
materials, and books.”
A local mosque in the Bronx jumped at the opportunity to host the class. “They said ‘absolutely, this is an important need,’” says Almontaser. “They wanted women in their community to be civically engaged, educated, able to advocate for their children, and
to become independent of their husbands, who work such long hours.”
The classes run for three hours, two days per week. They are scheduled to finish before the women’s children end
the school day. Another member of the community volunteered to baby-sit, so women with younger children could also participate in the class.
To teach the class, YAMA has hired Masters-educated women, who speak the Yemeni dialect of Arabic. The teachers designed a curriculum specifically to meet the needs of Yemeni-American women, with vocabulary for use in doctor's appointments, school meetings,
and interactions with government officials like police or the post office. Students have been split into beginner and advanced groups, with the latter also learning about civics in preparation for future citizenship classes that YAMA plans to offer.
As the classes have gotten underway, word has spread in the community and the ranks of students have grown. And YAMA is looking to set up similar classes in Yemeni-American communities in Brooklyn and Queens.
A number of Yemeni-American women have also begun organizing bazaars, where women can sell homemade goods. To support them, YAMA organized a presentation from the NYC Department of Small Business Services on how to start a small business and become a successful
What all of YAMA’s programs have in common is the goal of developing engaged and independent community members.
“Yemeni-Americans realize that this is their country, they aren’t going anywhere, and they need to fight for their rights and become integrated into the society,” says Almontaser.
A Great Year for CWE and our Partners
In case you missed it last month,
visit our website to learn about all that CWE and our partners accomplished in 2018.