Uncovering the Yemeni American Experience
Digital Stories From Corner Stores
As a recipient of a Mellon Foundation/American Council of Learned Societies Public Fellows scholarship, UC Davis professor Sunaina Maira planned to explore how former President Donald Trump’s travel ban on people from Muslim-majority countries impacted Arab American communities in the San Francisco Bay Area. Then COVID-19 hit, requiring Maira to shift approach.
She found her new focus at the end of the street where she lives in Oakland, California, in one of the many Bay Area corner stores run by Yemeni Americans.
“I’d go to the stores and combine my shopping with fieldwork,” said Maira, a professor of Asian American studies in the College of Letters and Science. “They wanted to tell their stories and appreciated that I wanted to share them.”
Growing Up in a Corner Store Inspired UC Davis Alumnus To Give Back
Featured in the video above is Muhammad Elbgal (B.A., sociology, '07), whose family came to the U.S. from Yemen and ran a corner store in Berkeley, California, for many years.
Finding stories close by
She began documenting conversations with people who operate the stores, their extended families and others, often while they served customers and helped their children with online schooling. Yemeni Americans have cornered the corner shop market in the San Francisco Bay Area. According to the Bay Area Small Merchants' Association, which is a Yemeni-led corner store organization, approximately 200 small grocery stores in Oakland are Yemeni-owned.
The fellowship for community-engaged research provided her with an opportunity to explore new research methods, collaborate with community members and organizations, and present findings in new ways — in this case, video.
“This was all completely new for me,” Maira said.
Her conversations inspired her to create a series of digital stories with the StoryCenter in Berkeley, California. The videos and research project were recently unveiled at a symposium titled “Digital Storytelling in a Time of Crisis: Migration, War, and Pandemic.”
In the videos, community members share stories about growing up at the corner stores, the impact of the travel ban, the pandemic and the war in Yemen, which according to the Council on Foreign Relations, has killed approximately 100,000 people and displaced 4 million. They also talk about anti-immigrant sentiment, activism, and cooking and eating. Among those featured in the videos, which include photos, artwork and poetry, are a social worker and therapist, an advocate for Arab and Muslim immigrant rights, a woman with a pop-up restaurant and a young poet and activist.
Attempting to conduct and record interviews online, Maira learned how many Yemeni Americans and Yemeni nationals are disconnected from the digital world, which has affected their ability to stay in touch with family members across and outside the U.S. It also has limited their ability to help their children with online school, while keeping their livelihood and shops open and serving neighborhoods that have few grocery shopping options.
Doing ongoing research
Drawing from approximately 50 interviews, Maira is also working on a book chapter and plans to produce scholarly articles, hold public forums and produce a report that can be used by community members, policymakers and scholars.
The war in Yemen and its impact have largely been forgotten by those outside the Arab American community, Maira said, especially with concerns about migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border and COVID-19 grabbing the headlines. There are about 100,000 Yemeni Americans and Yemeni nationals in the U.S., with about 10,000 in the San Francisco Bay Area, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, although Maria said this is likely an undercount.
“The community is so marginalized in many ways,” said Maira, who is affiliated with the College’s Middle East/South Asia Studies and Cultural Studies programs.
The interview and video process used for the project is being shared with UC Davis students. Maira and Amy Hill, a program director at StoryCenter, taught a graduate class on digital storytelling in the humanities and social sciences.
Maira was awarded the Mellon Foundation/ACLS fellowship for 2019–20, but fulfilling the work was delayed due to the pandemic.
Her research and teaching focuses on Asian American youth culture and the politics of cultural production, as well as political movements. She is the author of The 9/11 Generation: Youth, Rights, and Solidarity in the War on Terror; Desis in the House: Indian American Youth Culture in New York City; Missing: Youth, Citizenship, and Empire After 9/11; and Jil Oslo: Palestinian Hip Hop, Youth Culture and the Youth Movement.
In Their Own Words
What those featured in the videos had to say:
“I always felt myself an American first. I was really patriotic. I finally felt the dark side when 9/11 hit. You didn’t know what was going to come at you.” —Faisa Abdulgawi Mazayed, long-time shop owner
“They were trying to escape harsh conditions and be reunited with their families in the U.S. Then Donald Trump came in and tried to make that as difficult as possible.” —Mohamed Taleb, a community advocate with Asian Americans Advancing Justice – Asian Law Caucus
“I remember the first time (my mother) took me to a protest. I was 10 years old and didn’t understand why that was important. My grandmother was murdered in the war and that’s what really hit home and made me passionate about ending the war.” — Hanan Mubarez, San Jose State University student, poet and activist