Al Jazeera World

Britain’s First Yemenis

The story of one the UK’s oldest Muslim communities – and the challenges facing their British-Arab descendants today.

Yemen has been in turmoil since the revolution of 2011, the overthrow of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh in May 2012 and the Houthi-led rebellion beginning in September 2014.

I'm not British. I'm an Arab living in this country. Arab and British cultures should coexist. We should try to take the best of Arab and Muslim traditions but at the same time, take advantage of what Britain offers us.

by Nawal Abdullah, Yemeni-British Social worker

Half a world away in the UK, British Yemenis view events in their home country with concern – and feel a responsibility to offer help to the country and its people at a difficult time.

But their own story is also worth hearing.

Yemenis are among the longest-established Muslim communities in Britain. They have put down firm roots in several coastal towns and industrial cities across the country.

Yemeni sailors worked in the British merchant navy in the engine rooms of steam ships leaving the old colonial port of Aden in the mid-19th century.

When British sailors were called to fight in World War One, their places were taken by Yemeni men who then started to settle in the UK. Their lives were tough, working first as seamen and then as cheap labour in heavy industry in England and Wales.

Some of the immigrant men who arrived in the 1950s are still alive and tell their stories, providing a unique insight into life in the British Yemeni community – but also touching on race riots, unionisation, integration, intermarriage and cultural identity.

Second, third and fourth generation Yemenis in Cardiff, Sheffield and the West Midlands also talk about what it means to be British Arabs today, about maintaining tradition, the survival of their language and community, about Yemen itself and what they can do now that a major conflict has broken out.