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With war back home, Yemeni immigrants deepen roots in US

For decades, migrants from Yemen have come to the US temporarily to pursue greater economic opportunity. Now, with a massive civil war in the Middle Eastern country, many newcomers are staying – and bringing a sense of cultural pride with them. 

Carlos Osorio/AP
Ibrahim Alhasbani measures coffee beans from his family's farm in Yemen at his cafe on Jan. 9, 2018 in Dearborn, Mich. Mr. Alhasbani has made his Yemeni identity a central part of his business model and has stated that his goal is to educate locals about his country's history and culture.

Ibrahim Alhasbani is like generations of Middle Eastern immigrants in the Detroit suburb of Dearborn: He fled war, came with dreams, and worked for others until he could strike out on his own.

Now, like an increasing number of people from Yemen who have come to the United States, he sees a long-term future outside the country he left and seeks to bring aspects of his native country into America.

"Here you build; over there you have memories," said Mr. Alhasbani, owner of Qahwah House, a cafe that serves coffee made from beans harvested on his family's farm in Yemen's mountains. "I live here, so this is the main thing. This is what's going to help first build my career, build my business ... and help the people over there."

Yemenis have been coming to the US for more than a century – especially since the 1960s – but in recent years they have been planting stronger roots, raising their profile, and looking outward – opening upscale restaurants and cafes and running for political office.

And, in cases like Alhasbani, they are making Yemeni culture a key part of the business proposition.

It's a path that's not unusual for first- and second-generation immigrants in the US. For Yemenis, the shift is also a reaction to chaos in their homeland, where a devastating civil war has killed more than 10,000 people and displaced 2 million.

"People are coming here and bringing their resources here," said Sally Howell, an author and associate professor of Arab-American Studies at University of Michigan-Dearborn. "In the past, they weren't really committed to here. Now the situation has been so bad in Yemen for so long, they're doing what other refugees and exiles do: they're acknowledging their future is here."

The highest US population of Yemenis is in the Detroit area, where Syrian and Lebanese immigrants had already settled and became more prominent in business. Unlike their Arab neighbors, many Yemeni men came alone and didn't have relatives follow them, so they were more likely to go back and forth between the US and their homeland.

"We're not going back to Yemen like we did before," said Rasheed Alnozili, publisher of The Yemeni American News. "We learn from [the] Lebanese. They built here then they built there. We made a mistake: We built there, now we built here.... We learned late, but we're still in process."

The New York City, San Francisco, Chicago, and Buffalo, New York, areas also have Yemeni communities. About 43,000 people of Yemeni ancestry are in the US according to a 2015 census survey. However, advocates say the number is much higher because of historical undercounting, and has significantly increased since that last survey because of deteriorating conditions in Yemen, which fell into chaos following its 2011 Arab Spring uprising that removed longtime autocrat Ali Abdullah Saleh.

Then, in September 2014, Shiite rebels known as Houthis seized the Yemeni capital of Sanaa, after driving out the internationally backed government of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi. A Saudi-led coalition backing Hadi has been fighting to defeat the Iran-backed Houthis since March 2015.

Dearborn and the Detroit enclave of Hamtramck have several sit-down restaurants specializing in Yemeni cuisine. In Hamtramck, where a Yemeni serves on the majority-Muslim City Council, there are also shops devoted to Yemeni sweets and sub sandwiches.

"The real difference today is that Yemeni are representing Yemen to the public, not just having ethnic Yemeni restaurants in tightly knit Yemeni enclaves," Howell said.

At Qahwah House, the goal is not only to serve Yemeni-style coffee, with its alluring tastes of cardamom and ginger, but also to impart information about Yemen's history and culture. The country is, as the National Coffee Association notes, where coffee cultivation and trade began, though Ethiopia boasts being the birthplace of the discovery of coffee.

"That's why I want to ... be like a messenger for my country – give the right picture about the people over there, and the coffee," said Alhasbani, whose brother was blinded after a bomb exploded near his family's home several years ago.

In Hamtramck, Abraham Aiyash, a first-generation Yemeni who is running as a Democrat for state Senate, is inspired by those who have struggled and recalls an uncle who died last year in Yemen after an airstrike.

"I'll always remember that in the work that I do.... I'll be reminded that people before me kind of had to toil and sweat to make this possible."

This story was reported by The Associated Press.

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