The growing public awareness of the war in Yemen—and the historic Congressional invocation of the War Powers Act this winter—could not have occurred without the dedicated activism of Yemeni Americans and their allies. A contributing editor to this issue, Stacey Philbrick Yadav, spoke to three activists working from different corners of the United States—Seattle, Atlanta and East Lansing—to advance peace in Yemen. The following conversation, edited and condensed, tracks the work of these three women—scholar-activist Shireen al-Adeimi, the Yemen Foundation’s Aisha Jumaan and the Yemen Peace Project’s Aliya Naim—across organizations and platforms, each guided by diverse concerns.
Please explain the kind of work you do and how you first became active on the issue of peace and justice in Yemen.
Aliya Naim: I’m a founding board member for the Yemen Peace Project, a US-based organization founded in 2010 by a group of students and activists who were unhappy with the lack of accurate representation about Yemen in the media and uneasy with US policies that affected Yemen. We started the organization to advocate for better policies and to promote personal relationships between Americans and Yemenis. As the political and humanitarian situation in Yemen worsened, the Yemen Peace Project has worked directly with lawmakers on Capitol Hill advocating for positive change, particularly with regard to US support of Saudi policies in Yemen. The organization also advocates for the extension of Temporary Protected Status for Yemenis in the United States and runs an empowerment fund program to help Yemenis make positive changes in their communities
Shireen al-Adeimi: My advocacy for Yemen began in 2015 when I uploaded an online template of a letter I wrote to my senator at the time, Elizabeth Warren, urging her to introduce legislation that would end US support for the war on Yemen. I then created and began circulating a Change.org petition on my Twitter account. This effort led to various interviews with media outlets, such as Democracy Now!, PRI’s The World and NBC’s Why Is This Happening, as well as speaking engagements around the country and writing that has appeared in In These Times, NBC and elsewhere. I have also organized fundraising events, including online fundraising campaigns in support of Doctors Without Borders in Yemen.
Aisha Jumaan: I started out informally with presentations and speaking in venues like churches, schools, clubs, etc. I continue to do this work and I always ask people to contact their representatives and senators to ask that the US stop supporting the Saudi coalition’s war on Yemen. As interest in the war has grown, I have organized events in Seattle and have done interviews for regional media.
In 2015 I organized a meeting with Rep. Adam Smith to present the Yemeni perspective on the war in Yemen. Smith had met with Saudi officials and lobbyists and was well aware of their point of view. I continued the discussions with his staff by phone and emails, providing them with material from UN reports that were not easily available to them. I also connected him with other community leaders. We similarly met with Senators Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell and some of their donors who shared their concern about the need to end US support for the Saudi war in Yemen.
I also realized that people’s livelihoods would be affected. When the war started in 2015, I contacted colleagues in Aden and Lahj to donate to those needing immediate assistance and then expanded to other governorates. As the economic situation deteriorated in 2016, I started approaching friends for contributions. All the funds were sent to Yemen to purchase food baskets, school supplies, book bags and Eid clothing for poor children. I received sufficiently large sums that I formally registered the Yemen Relief and Reconstruction Foundation in August 2017. In 2018, we provided over 5,000 families with food rations that sustain a family of six for one month, reaching some of the most inaccessible villages in Yemen. We also provide over 800 families with meat during Eid al-Adha and distributed 700 water filters in Aden and Sanaa, as well as critical medical assistance.
What are you proudest of accomplishing through your work so far? And what has been the greatest barrier to progress, whether personal or organizational?
Shireen: When Congress took an unprecedented step by passing a bill invoking the War Powers Act, it marked a significant victory for everyone who has long opposed the American intervention in Yemen. The war on Yemen, however, still rages on with full support from the United States, making it difficult for me to truly feel a sense of accomplishment or to be proud of efforts that I consider obligatory upon anyone who is aware of the immense suffering in Yemen and/or is in a position to speak out against those taking part in this carnage.
Aisha: I’m most proud of my work with Rep. Adam Smith, now the Chair of the House Armed Services Committee, informing him about the situation in Yemen and challenging the Saudi narrative. I’m also proud of the Yemen Foundation’s relief efforts with food baskets, school supplies, etc., reaching some of the most devastated people. These efforts have been limited by my inability to travel to Yemen easily or move safely when I am there. I was last able to go to Yemen in July 2018, and I spent a whole day traveling from Aden to Sanaa passing many checkpoints, some of which were hostile to a woman alone with a driver. On my way back to Aden, we had to reroute our way through the desert to avoid such checkpoints, which increased travel time by more than hour; then I had to spend a night in Aden before I left.
Aliya, to what extent is your work on the war in Yemen part of a broader set of activist commitments? How does the issue of US policy in Yemen intersect with others?
Aliya: I think a large part of my activism and career choices can be attributed to the fallout of the so-called War on Terror. The intellectual and social consciousness of many young Muslims in the United States was due to US policy conflating Muslims with the Middle East and with terrorism and the resulting policing and demonizing of our communities. This caused even moderately aware young Muslims in the United States to develop a sense of transnational empathy with groups who were also affected by the surveillance, suspicion and military interventions born out of that era. It spurred me to focus my graduate studies and career on migration studies and immigrant justice, and led me to my current “real” work and volunteer work as a direct service provider to immigrant communities. I remember following the story of the Wisconsin teachers’ strike and how activists described themselves as being partially inspired by the protests in Tunisia, Egypt and across the Arab world, including in Yemen. This was the first time I could recall seeing Americans on television saying they were inspired positively by something that had happened in the Arab world.
My activism on behalf of Yemen was born out of the sense that Yemenis and Yemen have either been misrepresented or ignored—not just in the media, but in the anti-war movement as well as in academic circles, where Yemeni issues have never received as much attention other than as an afterthought, or Yemen’s portrayal as a pawn in greater regional power struggles. As Americans have seen time and again, where there is a lack of good information, analysis and perspective, disastrous foreign policy follows. Considering the humanitarian disaster in Yemen, I feel the need to push in my own circles for more awareness about Yemen itself, instead of as tangential to the relationship between Saudi Arabia and Iran, or the United States and Saudi Arabia. Americans have a unique responsibility considering the enabling role that the United States has been playing in this crisis, to push not just for humanitarian relief but for better policies.
Who have you found to be your most unexpected allies? Is this durable?
Aisha: I have found so many unexpected allies in churches, especially Presbyterian churches. I have been invited to speak at many churches over the past three years and even to present a webinar to the PC-USA leadership. They have also been active in contacting their representatives about ending US support for the war in Yemen as part of a broader activist approach to foreign policy and human rights. These activities are consistent with their value system, so I expect it to be a durable alliance.
Shireen: I have seen the issue of Yemen taken up by anti-war advocates who joined the movement during the Vietnam era and have continued to oppose foreign interventions since then. While this advocacy is not surprising, I am inspired by folks who, despite decades of foreign intervention, continue to oppose war and advocate for the sovereignty of other nations. I have also connected to action-oriented university students and other young activists across the country who have organized teach-ins, rallies, protests and other forms of resistance to the US support for the war on Yemen. I believe this work is durable so long as these groups view the intervention in Yemen as part of a broader US foreign policy of imposing American will (through military means) upon developing countries, without concern for the immense cost to human life.
Aliya: I think this is a really good point—and I think that sometimes when explaining this conflict to people, those of us who have had an interest in Yemen for a long time spend a lot of effort explaining issues that are only of passing interest to the average American activist, like Saudi-Iranian relations, Yemeni politics and so on. Connecting the Yemen issue to Americans more directly is crucial. Many potential allies here in the United States want to be able to consider themselves (and their country) as moral actors, and therefore framing the issue as one of an immoral and self-interested foreign policy can be very effective.
This is also a good place to note that I am not Yemeni American or of Yemeni descent myself. I think people are often surprised to find that the Yemen Peace Project was not founded by any Yemenis or Yemeni Americans. I studied Arabic in Yemen for a short time in 2009, which is where my interest first took root. As (I hope) an ally, I think that what draws me to activism on this cause in particular, aside from falling in love with the country when I was there, is that Yemen and its people have been so disproportionately affected by misplaced counterterrorism initiatives, targeted killings, surveillance and of course the more recent drone strikes and bombings that are either direct goals or a byproduct of US foreign policy since September 11, 2001.
Have there been sources of solidarity that have been lacking? What do you see getting in the way?
Aliya: As someone who is active in Muslim-American circles, I would look forward to seeing Muslim-focused social justice organizations and nonprofits who work on related issues in the context of the Muslim community take more initiative to show solidarity in ending the US role in the Yemen crisis. There are so many ways in which justice for Muslim Americans has intersected with our relationship to Yemen—whether drone strikes, targeted killings, surveillance, immigration or justice for Guantanamo prisoners—and there have been and probably will continue to be many opportunities for these connections to be capitalized on by Muslim activists as opportunities for solidarity and further engagement.
Shireen: I have been disappointed by many prominent Muslim leaders and organizations around the country who have largely been silent or seemingly indifferent to the suffering of Yemenis.
Aisha: My biggest disappointment is the apathy or lack of support from the Muslim-Arab community. The injustices and devastation inflicted on the people of Yemen seem to either not move them or they were paralyzed by fear from saying anything about Yemen that would be interpreted as criticism of Saudi Arabia.
It’s really interesting to me that all three of us have focused on the Muslim community’s response as the biggest disappointment in terms of lack of support and activism, particularly since this is not necessarily the case regarding other underreported human rights abuses, such as the Rohingya in Myanmar or Uighurs in China. Aisha, your point about Saudi Arabia is spot-on—I certainly get the sense that many of our leaders and activists who were educated in Saudi Arabia, or who travel there for pilgrimage or other reasons, are very hesitant to say things that may jeopardize their access to Saudi Arabia. Although I do not think the Saudi government is viewed as a moral authority by most American Muslims, I have heard hesitancy to criticize them too vocally until they have completed hajj themselves. It definitely opens up a lot of questions about hierarchies within the Muslim community and the quality of the connections that we draw between our own civil rights and foreign policy.
The assassination of Jamal Khashoggi seems to have dramatically escalated Congressional pressure on the Trump administration to reconsider elements of its support for Saudi policy in Yemen. Aliya, what have been the advantages and disadvantages of this popular uptick in interest?
Aliya: I am definitely of two minds about what we’ve seen come out of the Khashoggi murder. On one hand, it is true that this has increased congressional pressure on the executive branch. If this leads to positive change vis-à-vis the US role in the devastation in Yemen, I would be very happy. It is disheartening, however, to know that it took the assassination of a Saudi journalist to bring attention to Yemen and that the murder of one person—although, of course, tragic—counts for more than the murder or slow death by starvation or disease of thousands of others, just because the former was a journalist and working for a prominent US publication.
The advantage is clear—there has been a big increase in the number of people willing to donate humanitarian aid, sign petitions and pressure their representatives on behalf of Yemen. I have noticed many more substantive pieces about Yemen in the media, in large publications such as the New York Times. A December 2018 article called, “From Arizona to Yemen—Journey of an American Bomb,” by Jeffrey Stern, was particularly striking in its complexity and analysis. Nevertheless, I have little confidence in the media’s ability to resist the urge to shoehorn Yemen into molds that the pubic and lawmakers already understand, such as a Sunni-Shi`i divide, or a Saudi Arabia-Iran issue, or counterterrorism. But I do think that there is plenty of space for activists, academics and community leaders to shape the narrative that Americans hear.
Shireen, as a Yemeni scholar with an active presence on Twitter, you are in a position to translate the conflict outside of any specific organizational channels in ways that Aliya describes. What has been the greatest challenge in navigating this space and your multiple audiences and interlocutors?
Shireen: I see my work on Yemen as two-fold: to educate the American public on the war and to advocate on behalf of Yemenis for an end to US involvement in the war. Working against commonly held beliefs about the nature of the war on Yemen can distract from highlighting the US role in the war. Getting Americans to view this as America’s war on Yemen (as Congress has acknowledged through War Powers bills passed in the Senate and in the House) is a challenge when the war continues to be under-reported and mischaracterized as either a civil conflict or a proxy war among Iranians and Saudis.
A second obstacle is working to inspire political action among those who are misinformed, apathetic or cynical regarding the impact they may have in ending the war. This obstacle also applies to how some Yemenis view my work: They may be uninformed about the political system in the United States and/or cynical of the power of the American public to end the US war on their country. Communicating to both sides that this work is worthwhile and that all efforts—no matter how simple or seemingly small—are necessary to end the war, can be challenging.
I believe that any discussion on Yemen with an American audience should include a plan of action such as supporting House Joint Resolution 37 passed on February 13, 2019, marking the first time a War Powers bill was passed in the House. The next step is to pass the Senate version of that bill—Senate Joint Resolution 7—which will require American voters to call upon their lawmakers in the Senate to end US involvement in the war.
All three of you are women who are doing essential work within your communities and through your networks. As Afrah Nasser makes clear in her contribution to this issue, women in Yemen are leading in their communities every day, responding to critical needs and bearing the costs of the war disproportionately. Yemeni women have struggled to get representation where peace-building and post-war planning are happening. A Yemen Polling Center poll of 300 Yemeni decision-makers released in February 2019 showed that only 9 percent see the inclusion of women as important for peace-building or planning for a post-war Yemen. What can the activist community do to ensure women are involved in deliberations and decision-making?
Aisha: The international community should insist that women are included in their delegations. As activists, we can raise awareness that decisions about war and peace in Yemen are excluding women who bear the brunt of the consequences of decisions made mainly by men. The other issue is bringing in new women’s voices from outside the political parties, women who don’t feel obligated to present the party line. Finally, it’s important to bring in the voices of Yemen’s silent women heroes, especially those who are working in the education and health sectors under unbearable circumstances.
Shireen: As Yemen rebuilds and recovers from this devastating war, it’s important for all Yemenis—men and women—to have equal participation and input over decisions that will impact them all. Both peace-building and post-war planning seem like a distant dream, however, while the war on Yemen continues and decisions are often made by non-Yemeni actors. The urgency now is to end the war and alleviate the suffering, and Yemeni women have certainly had an active role in achieving these goals in and outside Yemen without seeking permission to enter those domains.
Aliya: This is a tough question, because ultimately the way to ensure that women’s voices are heard is to listen to women. So many women are doing medical work, critical activist work and playing other roles in their communities. In terms of the activist community in the United States, amplifying the work and contributions of women both in Yemen and abroad must always be on the agenda both within activist circles and outside of them.
I think that there is often a great deal of attention given to the ways women in particular suffer in wartime. Drawing attention to these issues is important, but it is important to give equal attention to the ways in which women step up to the plate during difficult times, doing essential work in the community, in politics, in relief work and in activist circles. It’s important to avoid portraying Yemeni women (or any women) as simply victims of violence and chaos, without highlighting how they are constantly using their agency to create positive change.
1 Marieke Transfeld, “Youth Activism in the Yemeni Civil War,” Yemen Polling Center Policy Report, February 2019.