Yemeni family straddles border between Oakland and homeland
There’s been a lot of news about refugees from Syria, Afghanistan and Sudan and their attempts to enter Europe, but we hear far less about people trying to escape Yemen, where a war has been going on for just over a year now.
Since March 2015 nearly 200,000 Yemenis have flooded into neighboring countries, fleeing the bombs. Just 13 Yemeni refugees have come to the United States.
There’s another way refugees can enter the U.S.: under something called “humanitarian parole.” Sisters Khlood and Bedor recently moved to their brother Mohammed’s house in Oakland after receiving humanitarian parole last year. In their hometown of Sana’a, the capital of Yemen, there’s little food or clean water and no electricity. People there are under continual threat of being killed by missiles, cluster bombs, flying shards of glass, or sheer fright.
Khlood and Bedor have four older siblings who all became American citizens over the last ten years. We won’t use their last name here, because they still have relatives in Yemen whom they don’t want targeted for attack.
It’s remarkably calm at Mohammed and his wife Hanan’s home in East Oakland, considering that six adults and three children live here, and they’re all getting ready for the day. Mohammed doesn’t mind the crowding.
“I have my whole sisters around me, and I’m happy with my Mom, with my sisters, together,and my kids get used to socializing with other people,” he says.
Mohammed has lived in the U.S. since the year 2000. In the past decade, three of his five sisters have also married Yemeni Americans and moved here. They have kids, too.
Khlood and Bedor were the last two sisters in Yemen. The U.S. granted them humanitarian parole last July, and they’ve been living with Mohammed’s family since September. They’re still adjusting, and part of that is learning English. With Hanan translating, Khlood describes how she gets practice:
“She says she usually watches movies,” Hanan says. “And she tries to talk with the kids in English.”
Khlood studied British English in Yemen, but she wants to speak more fluently, so now she takes English classes in Alameda four days a week. She packs her books and papers, and we head out to the car. Hanan drives and continues to translate.
“First they’re going to learn grammar,” says Hanan.
“After that, stories I think,” Khlood adds. She also says that she prefers grammar, because it helps with conversation; she finds the stories boring.
A different life
Back in Yemen, Khlood worked as an accountant for a healthcare firm. She loved driving and had her own car. Here, she hopes to find a job and eventually start her own business. But she’s still making the transition to her new life. As we talk, we pass a huge dog on a street corner. It’s not unusual, but seeing it reminds Khlood of what she left behind.
“The dogs know it before it happens, so they’ll try to come inside the house,” Khlood says.
Her dogs back home were an early warning system for incoming bombs. This dog, on the street in Alameda, is one of many ordinary sights that can remind the sisters of life under siege. Hanan says helicopters are another.
“The first week they were here, they were just hearing maybe helicopters, and we saw them getting scared,” Hanan says. “And we’re like, ‘There’s nothing; nothing’s going to happen, you know. You’re okay!’”
In another few minutes, we pull up near the school and enter the classroom. The teacher hands out an exercise for the early birds to start on, while other students trickle in. Soon the class is reading sentences aloud and filling in the blank with correct verb forms.
“Your friends could have ridden their bicycles anywhere,” Khlood reads when it’s her turn. “Why did they ride them downtown during rush hour?”
“Okay, Khlood,” her teacher asks. “How do you spell ‘ridden’?”
Khlood replies, “R-I-D-D-E-N.”
Khlood’s sister Bedor attended English class, too, until January, when she got a work permit and began working as a dental assistant at Oakland Smile Dental. She got the job through her brother, Mohammed, who had set up a computer network for the office. This is how it works in this family – as new people arrive, everyone else helps out. Now Bedor works here five days a week.
“I clean the instruments and clean the rooms, and sometimes help the doctor [with] the patient,” Bedor says.
This is dull work for Bedor, because back in Yemen, she was first in her class in dental school; as a third-year student, she was already making and fitting dentures. She pulls out her phone and shows me before-and-after photos of a toothless old man – and the same man with a full smile.
“This [is] my patient, my first patient,” Bedor says. Hanan translates further: “After she did that for him, the first word he said to her was, ‘Thank you; now I can eat.’”
Bedor says her boss treats her well and is teaching her new things. Still, she remembers where she used to be. Her school in Yemen had to close because of the bombing, and she cries as she talks about it.
“When the war started, it messed her dreams up, and it stopped everything she was building to do,” Hanan translates. “She feels like now she has to start from the beginning.”
Bedor was told that to become a dentist in the U.S., she would have to enroll as a new student in a nine-year dental program. But right now, paying out-of-state rates for dental school is impossible. After living in California for a year, the cost would go down – that is, if the sisters are allowed to stay beyond the one year granted by humanitarian parole. That’s still a big question. If the war ends by September, they’ll have to go back.
“Am I going to die today?”
Bedor goes to work most weekdays, but her sister Khlood doesn’t have class on Fridays, so she can spend more time at home in East Oakland with their sister, Safa, and sister-in-law, Hanan.
This Friday is a school holiday, and two other sisters will arrive soon with their young children. While they wait, the adults drink coffee and eat figs and croissants. Hanan’s son is playing video games. Khlood’s mother hands me a glass of sweet, milky coffee spiced with ginger.
As we eat, I hear more about life in Yemen. Just over a year ago, the sisters’ lives were stable and predictable. They lived with their father in Sana’a, the capital city, and had no plans to leave the country.
Things started to fall apart in early 2015. Their father was partially paralyzed by a stroke and needed physical therapy and oxygen. At about that time, the president of Yemen resigned, and Shiite Houthi rebels took over the city. The president fled to Saudi Arabia, which is mostly Sunni and opposes Shiite expansion. In late March last year, Saudi Arabia began bombing the capital. Almost overnight, Sana’a became a war zone.
“They said it’s scary, you were feeling like your house is shaking, it’s like an earthquake, shaking,” Hanan translates for Khlood. “You can’t really sleep, so there’s a lot of days they’re not sleeping…. It’s just always looking out, like, ‘Am I going to die today?’”
The U.S. provides weapons to Saudi Arabia, and some of those bombs have been used against Yemen. Yet, it’s also the U.S. that granted the sisters humanitarian parole. And coming to Oakland has made a big difference for Khlood.
“Now she just feel like she’s much better; she’s in a good place,” Hanan translates for Khlood. “She said she even gained weight!”
After the ordeal the sisters went through, the family feels protective of them. Each day, someone drives Khlood to her English class and Bedor to work. Hanan explains why Khlood never takes the bus.
“There’s people who will harass,” Hanan says. “I would not want her to get that because she got so much from Yemen.”
I ask Hanan whether she’s ever been harassed here because she’s Muslim.
“Not really,” she says, “but there’s a sense sometimes that people just think you’re a terrorist because you’re wearing the scarf that we wear.”
Khlood’s sister, Safa, takes regular walks around Lake Merritt. She recounts an incident there.
“I was walking with my son,” Safa says, “and there was a guy, and he screamed at my face, ‘Oh, go back to your home! You are a terrorist!’”
Still, Safa, her two older sisters, and her brother Mohammed are all American citizens now, and their mother is a lawful permanent resident. And everyone in the family said how grateful they were that the U.S. allowed Khlood and Bedor to join them.
Khlood and Bedor have decided to seek official asylum in the U.S. They filed their application in early April. While they wait, they’ll keep on studying English, looking for meaningful work, and adjusting to their new life half a world away from home.