Inside the Inspiring New York City Bodega Strike
Just past 5 p.m. Thursday evening, a crowd of thousands in Downtown Brooklyn falls silent. As the sun sets over the cold, quiet mass of people, an Imam leads a call to prayer, his song interrupted only by the hum of helicopters overhead. The prayer opens a rally for Yemeni business owners and workers who’ve shuttered roughly 1,000 of their shops through the city and gathered to protest Donald Trump’s travel and immigration ban on seven Muslim-majority countries, including Yemen.
“We are the same, like any American – there’s no difference between us and Trump,” Nader Moharram, a deli owner participating in the strike tells Rolling Stone. “We want to say to the world: No ban, no racism; we want to protect the Constitution.”
Moharram, who immigrated from Yemen four-and-a-half years ago and is now a U.S. citizen, has friends and family members who are affected by the ban. After the closure of the U.S. embassy in Yemen in 2015, Yemenis eager to reach the U.S. have traveled to nearby countries to apply for visas. Moharram tells Rolling Stone that his cousin is currently stranded in Djibouti with his wife, waiting on a visa appointment that was “frozen” after the ban went into place. His cousin’s experience echoes that of refugees around the world, many of whom were already approved for entry to the U.S. but are now waiting – some of whom were detained in airports throughout the U.S. when the ban went into effect mid-flight.
Trump’s executive order, signed Friday, blocks entry to the U.S. for refugees from Iran, Iraq, Syria, Sudan, Libya, Somalia and Yemen. It has drawn the ire of everyone from directly effected citizens to former acting Attorney General Sally Yates, who issued a letter to Justice Department staff saying she would not defend it in court and she was not “convinced that the executive order is lawful.” Shortly after the letter went public, Trump fired Yates.
As protests spring up across the country on a near-daily basis following Trump’s election, from airports to parks to the national mall, most have carried a tone of defiance, incredulity and solidarity. The mood Thursday is distinct from many prior marches and rallies: The enormous crowd of Yemeni workers and shop owners, along with their allies, fly hundreds of American flags, outnumbering Yemeni flags, frequently interrupting the speakers with jubilant cries of, “USA! USA!”
Rabyaah Althaibani, a Yemeni-American community activist who helped organize the rally, tells the crowd about her uncle and his family, who fled to Jordan during Yemen’s civil war as refugees and are now stranded, in spite of his application to resettle in Michigan being approved. She then calls on non-Yemeni protesters in the crowd.
“You are my hope,” Althaibani yells into the mic. “You have come out day after day in the worst weather and stood against this racist, un-American ban. I am begging you to keep coming out.”
Althaibani speaks along with a host of elected officials, Yemeni community members and organizers. Debbie Almontaser, president of the Muslim Community Network and a lead organizer of the event, tells Rolling Stone that members of the Yemeni-American community gathered over the weekend to discuss the ban, share their devastation and decide what to do. Through that discussion, business owners in the community agreed to close their stores. Almontaser initially encouraged the business leaders to close from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., but they declined.
“They said we can’t do 8 a.m., because we don’t want to disrupt the lives of the people we serve every day – our neighbors, friends and allies who stop by for coffee and the paper, or kids who come by for breakfast,” says Almontaser. They settled on closing from noon until 8 p.m. instead.
Of New York’s many revered institutions, the bodega – small groceries and corner delis found throughout the city – may be both the most popular and the most taken for granted. Almontaser estimates that as many as 6,000 bodegas and grocers in New York City are Yemeni-owned.
“They are part of the American fabric through the service they offer day in and day out for their communities,” says Almontaser.
Many shopkeepers have hung signs on their doors made by the organizers encouraging visitors to attend the protests, explaining that stores are closed “In support of our family, friends and loved one who are stranded at U.S. airports and overseas.” Others opt to make more personal signs with messages like “Closed: My family is detained at JFK.”
Mohammed Kaid, a Yemeni-American who’s been in the U.S. since 1986, has come to the protest to support his two sons, who both closed their bodegas in Brooklyn.
“I’m an American citizen, and I’m here to stand beside all Americans,” Kaid says. “This ban effects all of the people.”
Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer tells the crowd that 24,000 New Yorkers were born in the seven countries effected by Trump’s ban, prompting wild cheers.
“You are New York, you are part of our city, you belong here and we stand with you,” says Brewer. “Take that, Mr. Trump! You cannot divide us.”
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