A common joke among Yemeni Americans goes, “What did the American astronauts discover when they landed on the moon?” The answer: “Yemenis, looking for work.”

There are two factors that brought Yemenis to the United States. One is the push factor—it refers to conditions at home that force people to leave. In the case of Yemen, it was the impoverished state of the economy coupled with the large number of young adults without jobs, unable to sustain themselves or their large families. Conversely, the pull factor refers to the more favorable economic conditions elsewhere that prompted Yemenis to seek employment outside their country, for example, in Saudi Arabia, their oil-rich neighbor. In the 1960s and 1970s, jobs were also readily available in America’s industrial and agricultural heartlands, and Yemenis flocked to work on the automobile assembly lines in Detroit, in the steel mills of Lackawanna—a neighborhood in Buffalo, New York—and in the agricultural fields of central California. These are the three major communities where Yemenis reside today. Others have taken up residence in San Francisco and Oakland, the boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens in New York City, and in Washington D.C.

Most of the Yemenis that came to the U.S. were single young men from the central highlands of the Yemen Arab Republic, in particular from a region called Ibb. Their objective was to stay for a period of five years, work hard, live frugally and save money to send home to Yemen. Sometimes several members of a family migrated and when they pooled their savings, considerable sums of money could be sent to help their families. These men were called sojourners—they would come to work in America for a limited time, return to Yemen for short visits, and then resume their work in the U.S. This process lasted for about 20 years until the economic slowdown in the United States brought migration to a halt.

Some Yemenis chose to stay stateside where they earned permanent residency and became citizens. Many married Yemeni women who joined them in the United States. They raised families in the communities where they settled. In Detroit, Yemenis live among a large Arab American community that includes people from Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, Egypt, and Iraq, some of whom arrived as far back as the early twentieth century also in search of work. In Lackawanna, the small Yemeni community resides among other blue-collar American families in an area called the First Ward. In California, Yemenis live in Delano and in small towns throughout the San Joaquin Valley.

Over time, the Yemenis who came to work in the factories and the fields retired, and their children who were schooled in the United States began seeking better jobs along with economic and social mobility. And although many have opportunities to move, they choose to stay close to their families and the Arab communities that nurture their religion and culture. Their preference is to marry partners who are also Arab and Muslim and remain connected to their ancestral homelands.

It is noteworthy that even though the number of Yemeni Americans is rather small, their experience in America is part of the worldwide labor migration phenomenon that included large numbers of Turkish Muslims settling in Germany and North Africans moving to France, Holland, and Italy. The history of the United States is endowed by the contributions of immigrants and their descendants who like Yemeni Americans enrich our ethnic and cultural mosaic.

   Further Reading

The Yemeni Immigrant Experience Learn more about Yemeni immigration and settlement in the United States. Article by Jon C. Swanson. From Sojourners and Settlers: The Yemeni Immigrant Experience edited by Jonathan Friedlander. 

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♦ Retrospectives

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