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Mobility and Agency in Contemporary Yemeni Diaspora

Panel X-8, sponsored byAmerican Institute for Yemeni Studies, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Saturday, November 4 at 5:30 pm

Panel Description
This panel forges a space for a conversation among leading and emerging scholars in Yemeni migration studies around meanings of mobility and agency in contemporary Yemeni diaspora. The conversation is multi-layered and explores various contexts of Yemeni voluntary and involuntary movements into Africa, Europe, and the United States. While two papers dwell on East Africa, as they examine the Yemeni refugee experiences in Djibouti and Ethiopia, the other three papers focus on the Yemeni lived experiences in European and American contexts, as the contributors pay close attention to culinary, sonic, and visual expressions of Yemeni identity in diaspora. The common thread tying the various papers is their emphasis on Yemeni migrant precarity and resistance. The first paper examines how Yemeni refugees navigate Djibouti's intolerable hosting conditions by going back and forth to Yemen, risking their lives and refugee status. The second paper explores the complex interplay between culture, religion, and labor conditions in the case of Yemenis in Ethiopia. The third paper captures the classed and gendered undertones of Europe-based Yemeni refugees’ relations to food. The fourth paper locates the emergence of Yemeni visual art in the United States as a response to urgencies shaped by anti-Arab and Islamophobic sentiments and the unfolding war conditions in Yemen. The final paper traces the production and circulation of Yemeni folk songs composed by Yemeni women in Yemen’s northern highlands and diaspora, particularly in the United Kingdom and the United States. Together, the contributors provide insights into various identity crises in contemporary Yemeni diasporic experiences, shaped by disruptions of Yemeni migrants’ mobility, their disconnections from the familiar and the intimate, and their experiences of longing for a home constantly fragmented by wars and corruption. Equally important, the contributors also articulate a complex sense of Yemeni diasporic resilience. The significance of this panel lies in its timely emphasis on the importance of theorizing contemporary Yemeni mobility and agency as transnational and vibrant. This sheds light on Yemeni experiences beyond contemporary scholarship’s extensive examination of Yemen as a failed state fractured through military division, sectarian unrest, tribal conflict, regional disunity, partisan polarization, and foreign intervention.
Political Science
Media Arts
  • This paper examines the intertwinement of visual art and advocacy in the artworks of Yemeni American artists Asiya Al-Sharabi, Yasmine Diaz, Alia Ali, and Ibi Ibrahim. I locate this intertwinement between urgency and emergence. By “urgency,” I refer to the multi-layered pressures and traumas that Yemeni Americans, including artists, have increasingly experienced since the turn of the twenty-first century, resulting in constant urgencies to tackle at the local, national, and international levels, often simultaneously. Consider, for instance, how many Yemeni Americans have been forced to navigate the extra-layers of US institutionalized forms of post-9/11 policing and surveillance while also being forced to navigate the impact of the post-2015 war in Yemen on their lives. Add to this the existing generational tensions and various forms of identity crises across the Yemeni American communities in terms of partisan affiliations, tribal networks, educational levels, and other particularities such as class, religion, gender, and sexuality. While these multi-layered urgencies have led to divisions and contradictions in advocacy, I argue, they have accelerated the emergence of contemporary modes of Yemeni American agency. Therefore, this paper traces the emergency of such agency in Yemeni American visual art, particularly through the artworks of Al-Sharabi, Diaz, Ali, and Ibrahim. In this context of urgency and emergence, these artists have advanced their advocacy and reverberated their agency in ways that are therapeutic, durable, and eclectic. The significance of this paper lies in its theoretical framework and in its focus on understudied Yemeni American experiences in the fields of Arab American Studies, American Studies, and Middle East Studies.
  • In migration and diaspora studies, food tends to be approached through the lens of memory and belonging, as something that takes migrants back home, but also allows for home-making in the present (Hage 1997). Thinking about foodways beyond the tropes of nostalgia and emplacement, this paper draws on ethnographic research with Yemeni male refugees across EUrope to shed light on social life of migrant cooking, in its gendered and classed dimensions. Besides the acute food crisis in Yemen, some of those who have left the country experience food insecurity in asylum. In my research interviews, food- that is served in asylum accommodations or that is unaffordable- is often evoked as an illustration of dehumanizing experiences of asylum procedures, or even as concerted efforts to exhaust people’s bodies. Out of necessity, and longing for familiar flavors, Yemeni men who travel to EUrope alone, learn to cook on the move, and by doing so they gain, to some extent, control over what they eat and how they live. Keeping hidden pressure cookers and portable gas stoves in camps where cooking is forbidden, or sharing expenses and preparing food together in other, less restrictive contexts, are some of the ways through Yemeni refugees try to secure nutritious and homely meals. But cooking and eating together become also central sites of socializing and community building among men, who share ‘bread and salt’ (al-‘aish wal-milh) in their new locations. Finally, at times cooking and serving food turn into a source of income for those, whose other skills are not recognized in the host countries (Gowayed 2022). As Yemeni refugees are forced to sell their labor to sustain themselves and their families back home, some find their first (often informal) employment in EUrope in Yemeni, Arabic and fast food restaurants, joining ranks of surplus, exploitable workforce. I foreground these different practices of sharing and serving food as a lens, through which to think about textures of Yemeni migrant social life, marked by conviviality and care as much as precarity and abjection. From this vantage point, my paper challenges the arbitrary distinction between ‘forced’ and ‘economic migration’ and reveals how refuge – rather than a gift of sanctuary- is a terrain of struggle for people, as they actively pursue moral and dignified lives amidst undignified conditions.
  • One of the central “problems” encountered by the refugee hosting regime in Djibouti is that Yemeni refugees do not stay put. Contrary to the UNHCR imaginary of an organized, sustainable resettlement and/or repatriation guided by an array of stakeholders (host and origin countries, UNHCR and partner NGOs, as well as refugees), many of the officially recognized refugees from Yemen have been returning to Yemen on their own accord, independent of any state or organizational assistance. This self-repatriation is facilitated by the proximity between the host and origin countries and by the refugees’ ability to navigate these Red Sea waters, both literally and figuratively. Yet, it is also a function of the refugees having given up on the international humanitarian regime and of the hardships of camp life. Nonetheless, Yemeni refugees in Markazi, Djibouti’s camp for refugees from Yemen, have returned to their homeland for a variety of reasons. Some (self) “repatriated” because they were lured back by the promise of Gulf state assistance or because they were bored, fed up, and giving up—insisting that there was “no future” in Djibouti for them or their children. Others returned indefinitely to pursue university studies, to join the army, or to marry. These refugees’ ability to envision, secure, and produce “a future” seemed more viable to them in war-torn Yemen than it did in their place of refuge—even if the path to that future involved crossing frontlines. Other refugees continue to return regularly to Yemen for short-term visits, despite being intent on retaining their refugee status. They return to see family, to attend weddings or funerals; they return following domestic troubles such as divorce, or fighting with their spouses; they return for medical procedures; to check on their homes; to earn money, to engage in commerce or to fish. This paper explores the many reasons that Yemeni refugees risk losing their refugee status—and even, in some cases, their lives—to return to the country from which they fled, despite the Djibouti government’s recent focus on their socio-economic “integration.” In doing so, it sheds light on the problem of integration—rather than return—and the (un-en) “durable solutions” embedded in UN’s Global Compact on Refugees.
  • This presentation spotlights a component of The Global Yemen Project (TGYP), a digital humanities project. It spotlights a collection of folk songs composed by Yemeni women both in Yemen’s northern highlands and the “diaspora.” These women composed and sung these songs as they performed daily tasks, celebrated weddings, or yearned for loved ones out of reach. Some of these songs were popular folk songs, but most were originals composed—often on the spot—by each of these women or those they intimately knew. A prominent theme that emerged in the poetic stories captured in their words was that of yearning for the men (fathers, husbands, sons) who remained years in the “ghurba.” When some of these women later joined these men in the “ghurba,” the subject of their songs turned to longing for the valleys that once echoed their sorrows. This paper traces the shifting meanings of “home” and “diaspora” through the words of these women. There exists a rich scholarship on the importance of poetry and songs in Yemeni society. This scholarship reminds us that poetry has long functioned as a constitutive social and political practice in Yemen: poets mediated conflicts, marked important life events, or motivated others to do their bidding. Yet, little work has been done on the poetry and songs of Yemeni women. As such, this collection of folk songs is interested in a different function of poetry in Yemen: its ability to narrate new and important facets of Yemen’s global histories.
  • This paper considers the Ethio-Yemeni identity of individuals who left Yemen during the current war and sought out temporary refuge in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Migration policy categorizes such individuals into two separate groups according to citizenship status: Yemeni nationals are registered as refugees or residents, while Ethiopian nationals are labeled as returnees. Just as migration policy separates these two national groups into distinct legal categories, migration studies likewise flattens the migrant experience into mutually exclusive categories: refugees and labor migrants are addressed in separate scholarship, even if many individuals and families belong to both categories. Heritage-based migration factors are often unrecognized. The structure of citizenship status and migration categories obscures the personal factors that shape migration decisions for both returnees and refugees impacted by the Yemen War. Scholar Pardis Mahdavi has called these factors of kinship and friendship “intimate im/mobilities.” In reality, many refugee/ returnee families and social groups are mixed-status, meaning that they include both Yemeni and Ethiopian nationals. Furthermore, over the past eight years since the Yemen War started, these existing relationships of kinship and friendship have facilitated the ongoing integration of refugees and returnees at the community and civil society levels, as evidenced by a new local foundation founded by nationals of both countries impacted by the Yemen War. The paper adopts the late Ali A. Mazrui’s concept of “Afrabian” identity in order to structure its discussion and analysis of the complex interplay between culture, heritage, religion, political ideology, citizenship status, vocation, and the lived experiences of labor and conflict migrants, many of whom already had heritage connections spanning the Red Sea prior to their own personal migration trajectories between Yemen and Ethiopia. In conjunction with his scholarship on the “triple heritage” of Africa and his lived experience as a Muslim East African raised in the Swahili coast region, Mazrui theorized Afrabian identity as genealogical, cultural, ideological, and demographic. The paper explores the extent to which a similar framework can describe the range of Ethio-Yemeni identities embedded in the Ethio-Yemeni refugee and returnee community of Addis Ababa, then examines the implications of such a framework for migration studies and migration policy.