Yemeni Americans push for representation in key US Arab community

Advocates say Yemeni Americans are becoming more involved in politics, as three vie for Dearborn, Michigan council seat.

Dearborn city council candidate Saeid Alawathi says many Yemeni Americans feel like they do not have a say in the affairs of their own city [Ali Harb/ Al Jazeera]

Dearborn, Michigan – In a Detroit suburb that has seen growing Arab American political influence over the last decades, several Yemeni Americans are running for office to ensure representation for their own community.

Dearborn, Michigan, is known for its large Arab and Muslim population, and residents have elected dozens of officials of Arab background over the past 30 years, including to the city council, the school board, and the local court.

But almost all of these officials have been of Lebanese descent. Now, with an expanding Yemeni presence in the city, three candidates are vying to become the first Yemeni Americans to join the seven-member city council in municipal elections on Tuesday.

Advocates say Yemeni Americans have become more involved in politics locally and nationally after former US President Donald Trump’s travel ban on several Muslim-majority countries, including Yemen.

They also say the increase illustrates the diversity found within Arab and Muslim communities across the US.

“The Arab community in Michigan is a reflection of Arab Americans across the country,” said Rasheed Alnozili, publisher of the Detroit-based Yemeni American News, a bilingual English-Arabic publication.

“So, the Yemeni American community is growing and flourishing. The community is looking past the stability that the early immigrants were looking for. The new generation wants more, including a political voice.

“What we’re seeing is that the Arab and Yemeni experience represents the American dream.”

Push for representation

Sam Luqman, one of the city council candidates, said after years of raising residential and environmental issues affecting residents of Southend, a predominantly Yemeni neighbourhood of Dearborn, she decided to run for a council seat to try to effect change from within.

“You know what, I’m going to change you from the inside if you’re not going to listen,” Luqman told Al Jazeera about her motivation.

A single mother of two who works as a legal administrative specialist, Luqman said she regularly attends local government meetings, including the city council and regulatory boards, to voice concerns about pollution in the neighbourhood that hosts the city’s largest industrial zones.

“There is an underlying frustration in people in general – just not having their voices heard and not being represented accurately or properly,” she said, decrying the lack of Yemeni representation in elected office as well as within the city’s agencies and appointed boards.

The three Yemeni-American candidates – Luqman, Saeid Alawathi and Khalil Othman – face an uphill battle to win a seat on the council, however.

They placed in the bottom three qualifying spots in an August primary that saw 14 out of 18 candidates make it to the final round of voting on Tuesday. The top seven vote-getters will win a four-year term on the council.

Three seats are open, while four incumbents are running and likely to win re-election.

Luqman said it would be an honour to become the first Yemeni-American city council member in Dearborn – as well as “the first Yemeni woman, especially”.

But she stressed that Yemeni-American candidates coming from a “minority within a minority” cannot rely on identity politics to get elected but instead must reach out to voters across the city of 110,000 people.

“If I represent your issues, you’re not going to care what I am; you’re gonna vote for me. That’s how people work,” Luqman said.

Alawathi, another of the Yemeni American city council candidates, echoed Luqman’s remarks on representation, saying that many Yemeni Americans feel like they do not have a say in the affairs of their city.

“It’s about time to have someone who understands the Yemeni cultures, the Yemeni values and principles,” he said. “And it’s not only to represent Yemenis but the city as a whole.”

Greater involvement

Last year, Adel Mozip became the first Yemeni American official elected in the city after winning a seat on the school board.

The result came as members of Dearborn’s Yemeni community are taking up a greater place in the city’s business and cultural scenes, with many restaurants, coffee shops and grocery stores opening in and around the city over the past 10 years.

The final year of former President Barack Obama’s presidency in 2016 saw an uptick in immigrant visas granted to Yemenis following the outbreak of the civil war in Yemen, which helped grow Yemeni communities in Dearborn and across the country.

But Trump’s travel ban slowed down the arrivals.

Alawathi said the travel restriction, which he described as a “Muslim ban”, had a “devastating” effect as it separated families in the community. He added that the ban was a “wake-up call” for many Yemeni Americans to become more civically engaged.

“People became more active as much as they could to do whatever they can to resolve the issue,” Alawathi said.

Sam Luqman says she’s running to try to effect change from within the government [Ali Harb/Al Jazeera]

Othman, the other city council candidate, said the growth of Yemeni American businesses and political participation is a result of the population increase. “There is always supply and demand; if there is a demand for one thing, that will grow,” he told Al Jazeera.

An information technology expert, Othman is facing criticism for publicly rebuking what he called efforts to get Arab and Muslim voters to only elect Arab and Muslim candidates.

“Segregation of candidates based on race or ethnicity, that’s wrong,” he said. “Voting solely based on race or ethnicity is wrong. Simple as that.”

Nevertheless, all the candidates, including Othman, have stressed that representation matters.

‘Gaining experience’

Ali Baleed Almaklani, a prominent Yemeni activist in Dearborn, said Yemeni Americans appear to be more invested in the local politics this year, partly because of the three candidates.

“But what matters is what happens on election day. Sometimes people post about the elections on social media but they do not vote,” he said.

Almaklani acknowledged that the Yemeni candidates’ chances of winning are not great based on the primary results, but he praised them for running, saying that Yemeni Americans and the Arab community at large advance their issues by participating in elections – even if they lose.

Alnozili, of the Yemeni American News, said with greater voter participation and the emergence of more serious and qualified candidates, it is only a matter of time before Yemeni Americans gain a greater foothold in local and national politics.

“Yemenis have been contributing to Dearborn and America on all levels – economically, socially and politically,” he told Al Jazeera. “At this point if one candidate wins, it would be an achievement. If not, I am sure that the coming years will ensure Yemeni representation. The Yemeni community is gaining experience.”

Source: Al Jazeera