Trading corner stores for diplomas: Oakland's Yemeni revolution
The Arab country of Yemen is witnessing a simmering revolution, following in the footsteps of other countries in the region. Protesters have been taking to the streets for weeks now, demanding that Ali Saleh, their president of 33 years, leave office. And those same calls were echoed here in San Francisco this past Saturday.
Yemen is one of the Arab world’s poorest nations, with an unemployment rate of 65%. That has led to an exodus of Yemenis from their country. There’s a sizable number of them here in the Bay Area, among the Bay’s estimated 52,000 Arabs.
Here, Yemeni-Americans are mostly young men, mostly in the East Bay, and often in the business of managing or owning the family corner store. Some estimates say 80% of liquor stores in Oakland are owned by members of the Yemeni American Grocers Association.
Ahmed Alkholeidi is the California chapter president of the American Association of Yemeni Scientists and Professionals. His group hopes to change the life path of young Yemeni-Americans. Alkholeidi says last year, only nine Yemenis graduated from four-year colleges in California. KALW's Hana Baba sat down with Alkholeidi and asked him why he thinks this is happening.
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AHMED ALKHOLEIDI: Basically, the Yemeni community here is a dense commerce community. They all go into commerce. And, it's really rare to hear that someone went into education. So, basically, someone will just take over his dad's business. And that will happen right after high school.
So, the idea is that, "Why would I have to go through schooling if I can just run a business after high school and save my dad the money that I'm going to waste?"
HANA BABA: The word is “waste.”
ALKHOLEIDI: The word is “waste,” which is sad to hear.
BABA: In education?
ALKHOLEIDI: In education. So, that's how the idea is. And they see it, that it works for them fine. "I grow up, finish high school, go into my dad's business, my dad retires … and the second generation will come. I work until my son is 18, finishes high school, takes my place … I retire…" and then it keeps going on.
BABA: And in regard to girls, what is the fear exactly? We want our audience to understand. What is the fear of girls going to, in some cases, high school? I've read that sometimes, young girls in the Yemeni community are married earlier, at early ages – sometimes 16, sometimes 15 – and therefore they're expected to start the family and have their children. They don't even go to high school, let alone college.
So, what is that, if you can explain it? What is the fear there?
ALKHOLEIDI: Some of the families, if they have the power to have their girls not go to school, even high school, they would do so. But since laws here would not let them do that – that anyone under 18 has to be in school – it's a must. So, they don't have power over that.
So you see many girls go into high school, and yes, as you mentioned – most of them, if not all, get married at really young ages. The latest will be right after high school.
BABA: The latest?
ALKHOLEIDI: The latest will be right after high school. Except in rare cases, so we're not talking about the rare here. If that happens, if she gets married right after high school – and mostly, the marriage will happen in Yemen – then a year later, she has a kid!
So, she has to choose: either taking care of her kid or going to school. So they end up not going to colleges. And that's the major problem there.
BABA: So, in your mission statement, it says, "AAYSP wants to eliminate barriers to education in the Yemeni community."
Are you finding it easy to convince the families? It's one thing to talk to the boys in school, or the young men. But are you finding a hard time, or do you anticipate a hard time, convincing the families that their children should go to college versus the family business? Are they going to listen to you?
ALKHOLEIDI: This actually is our major challenge now – convincing the families. We're building a lot of workshops now, mainly for parents. We call them “parent workshops.” You know, with most of the Yemeni community, the place that you will find them is the mosques. They gather there a lot. They sit there; they like to spend their time there with other fellow Yemenis, because that's the place that they will gather.
So we target to those mosques, and just invite them for pizza or just to talk after one of the prayers. And we try to present them with statistics, in terms of the positions that their children can get and the money that they can make out of education. Because that's one thing: why do they choose business? Just for the money aspect of it! So we try to compare a person with a degree and a person without a degree, and how much money he can make, and how much time he will spend in making that money. And how his life will change.
So those are the things that we're trying to present them with. And, one good and bad thing about our community is that they like to copy things. So once they see other people – other Yemenis – going into education, they would like the same thing to happen to their kids!
The corner store was started by one Yemeni, but then the second one came. "So that Yemeni is doing good,” he says, "so I will have one like him!" And the third and the fourth and so on. So that's what's going on now!
So, when an individual, or a father or a mother, sees her son or his son going into school, and achieving, graduating with a degree, and working in a professional place, another parent will look at that kid and be like, "Why can't my kid be that kid, too?" So they would like to copy it, even though they don't know what's in there.
But then, that's one thing that we use actually. You know, "Look at so-and-so! He did this and that! And your kid can be that person, too!"