PHoto by BRYAN R. SMITH/AFP/Getty Images

How the Yemeni-American bodega community stood up to Trump and his travel ban

Gaby Del Valle
February 07, 2018

Bodegas are always there when you need them: they’re the source for morning coffees, hungover bacon egg and cheeses, midnight beer runs, whatever. Most are open 24 hours a day, open during blizzards and hurricanes, open when everything else is closed. Your bodega is always there for you—until it isn’t. Last Thursday, over 1,000 bodegas across the city, primarily owned and operated by Yemeni-Americans, shut down in protest of President Trump’s executive order barring travel from seven Muslim-majority countries. The message was clear: if this ban had been in place when we immigrated, we wouldn’t be here—and neither would your bodega.

“After the ban was approved, the Yemeni community gathered and discussed what needed to be done,” said Zaid Nagi, one of the strike’s organizers. Nagi immigrated to the U.S. from Yemen in 1994 and now owns and invests in 20 bodegas and other stores in the city, all of which temporarily shuttered on Thursday.

“We don’t know who the idea to close the bodegas started with,” Nagi said, but it quickly became clear a strike would send a message. “As business owners, we’re friends and family—we know each other, and the news spread.” During a community meeting on Sunday, Nagi and other organizers set the plan in motion. Just four days later, more than 1,000 stores closed up for the day at noon, and over 5,000 business owners, employees, and supporters gathered at Borough Hall in Downtown Brooklyn.

Nagi reached out to Debbie Almontaser, a friend, activist, and community leader, to help spread the word and secure the necessary permits for the rally. Almontaser handled the press releases, permit requests, and inevitable deluge of media requests. Nagi and other business owners, meanwhile, were tasked with reaching out to leaders in the community and asking them to spread the word. According to Almontaser, Nagi initially contacted “six or eight” bodega owners, and the news quickly caught on.

Photo by Spencer Platt via Getty Images

“Permits are handled through the NYPD and Parks Department, and I didn’t want us to get caught up in the red tape,” Almontaser said. “I called the Brooklyn Borough President and told them about this, how important it is to the Yemeni-American community, how much we wanted them to support the merchants. He said, ‘Of course, this is your place. Whatever we can do to support the community, we are there with you.’”

On Thursday, exactly one week after Trump implemented the travel ban, the community received an outpouring of support.  The rally was slated to begin at 5:00 p.m., but people began gathering outside Borough Hall hours earlier. By 5:30, thousands of Yemeni-American Muslims performed their evening prayers outside the building.

A rally wasn’t originally part of the plan, though. “They wanted to close the stores, rent a banquet hall, and have a community town hall,” Almontaser said. “And I thought that was great, but we need to let the whole world know what we’re doing. We need to send a message through the shutdown.”

Photo by Kholood Eid/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Although the travel ban has been temporarily suspended by federal judges—due in no small part to rallies at JFK  and the bodega strike—this is the first of many battles American Muslims face under a Trump administration.

“Everyone in this room, you can grab anyone and they’re affected by this,” Nagi said.

This past Sunday, three days after the rally, the community had a town hall at Widdi Hall in Sunset Park. It was announced that supporters had raised over $8,000 for CUNY CLEAR, a non-profit that provides legal support and Know Your Rights workshops to communities across the city, through GoFundMe.

“It’s time for us to be part of a larger movement,” one speaker said. “Everything that’s impacting us, it’s impacting everyone else, too.”

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