Featured Image: “Indifference to evil is more insidious than evil itself.” Dr. Cornel West and Imam Omer Bajwa end the Night in Solidarity with a prayer in united spiritual support for those in Yemen.
By Ariq Hatibie
In the face of a civil conflict deemed by the United Nations as the world’s “worst humanitarian crisis,” Mehdi Baqri ’21 and Daud Shad ’21 heard only silence on Yale’s campus. Since 2015, the war in Yemen has claimed thousands of civilian lives, rendered 22 million people (80% of the population) in need of humanitarian assistance, and lured a slew of international players to use force within its borders. The US government’s support for the Saudi-led coalition has caused numerous casualties, from Lockheed Martin’s missiles claiming the lives of 40 children in a school bus, to American cluster bombs destroying entire neighborhoods in the capital of Sana’a. Yet despite the bloodshed, nationwide activism emerged slowly. In the wake of the highly-publicized murder of Saudi dissident journalist, Jamal Kashoggi, and an advancing congressional resolution to end direct US military involvement in Yemen, Baqri and Shad wrote an op-ed for the Yale Daily News calling for students to break the silence. They announced the beginning of a campaign pursuing both political advocacy and fundraising, and at a meeting of supporters soon after, Students for Yemen was born. Motivating the group was the informational void regarding Yemen and US involvement in the war.
“The mainstream media really failed in its coverage of the US role in the war and the amount of weapons sales and defense spending,” Shad opined, explaining how the government’s allocation of American taxpayer dollars towards military intervention has gone relatively unnoticed. A letter from the Department of Defense to The Atlantic revealed that the US has contributed tens of millions to the Saudi-led campaign. Shad emphasized not just the moral, but also the pragmatic failings of US policy, which benefits defense contractors, politicians, and lobbyists, but not the average American.
Shad further contrasted the lack of activism related to the crisis in Yemen with the protests against the Vietnam War in the 60s and 70s. “Since the draft hasn’t been used, there’s less direct impact on the everyday life of Americans,” he said. “It’s really hard to build solidarity and action around these types of issues just because they seem so foreign and removed.” Compared to past wars abroad, and even to more recent operations in Syria and Iraq, American lives are not as at stake in Yemen, rendering the American public relatively apathetic. Marlika Marceau ’21, who manages logistics for the organization, noted, “this is something that has been going on since 2015, since I was in high school, and I didn’t know about it … No one was talking about it.”
Soon after winter break, Students for Yemen organized their first major rally. In January, the Senate reintroduced a bill to stymie US support for Saudi Arabia by invoking the War Powers Resolution. Signed in 1973, the act allows Congress to check the president’s ability to involve the US in armed conflict. Knowing that the vote would soon take place in March, Students for Yemen organized a phone-banking session in Bass Library, where they handed out flyers and encouraged people to call their congressional representatives in support of the bill. Amal Altareb ’22, a first-year member of Students for Yemen and one of the two first female Yemeni undergraduates at Yale (the first male having arrived just two years ago), saw the potential in the phone-banking drive. “I’ve never done phone banking before, and it was actually so powerful. You call and they actually listen. They actually relay your message.” The Senate approved the bill with a vote split of 54-46, followed shortly by a split of 247-175 in the House.
But while the political winds blew favorably at home, the situation in Yemen itself remained dire, driving the organization to hold a larger fundraising event on March 30. Drawing a crowd of over 200 in Battell Chapel on a Saturday evening, A Night of Solidarity with Yemen featured a mix of talks and performances to raise both awareness and donations for humanitarian efforts on the ground.
The organizers for the Night in Solidarity gather for a picture with the Yemeni flag.
Dr. Shireen Al-Adeimi, assistant professor of education at Michigan State University and an activist who has campaigned since the beginning to end US involvement, opened the night with a background introduction of the conflict, detailing key players such as former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, the Houthis, and the countries backing them. She emphasized the disastrous effects of Western involvement, from the 85,000 children who have died of malnutrition and curable diseases due to the blockade preventing people from escaping. Invoking the final line of the Yemeni national anthem, ‘and my heartbeat shall remain Yemeni, the world shall never see a foreign guardian upon my land,’ she reiterated the universal values of independence and self-determination currently under assault by foreign intervention.
Famed public intellectual and Harvard Professor Dr. Cornel West complemented Al-Adeimi by calling for universal solidarity, connecting the crisis with US imperialist ambitions against myriad peoples elsewhere throughout history. He said, “The American empire begins with the subordination of 8 million people of color in the 1890s in Cuba, in Guam, in Samoa in the Philippines. To go from 13 colonies to 35 is already internal expansion, they call it Manifest Destiny … losing sight of the suffering, the scars and bruises of our precious indigenous brothers and sisters. There’s no way to understand the US presence in Yemen without taking seriously the category of empire.” West ended the event with a prayer alongside Yale’s Director of Muslim Life, Imam Omer Bajwa.
While A Night of Solidarity mainly aimed to fundraise, contributing $7000 for Doctors without Borders, Students for Yemen wanted to show that there was more to the country than mass atrocity. Altareb sought to depict a more holistic picture of Yemeni culture through the event. “When we think of Yemen or any developing country, we just think of poverty, kids with flies on their faces, starving like skeletons. There’s no humanity, there’s no dignity, no culture, no sense that those people are resilient.” To avoid this characterization of her country, Altareb invited Hadi Eldebek, a New York-based musician to play two songs on the oud, a stringed instrument played across the Middle East and North Africa.
Dr. Shireen Al-Adeimi recounts her early activism against US foreign intervention in Yemen and gives a brief history of the conflict.
After the event, Students for Yemen looked to spread the movement nationwide, especially after seeing so many New Haveners and students from other universities expressing their support. The organization initiated a pledge and donation campaign for a day of fasting, which took place on April 11 from sunrise to sunset in the manner performed by Muslims during the holy month of Ramadan. That night, the group organized an iftar (a communal breaking of the fast) at the Women’s Table in front of Sterling Memorial Library, together with a candlelight vigil in solidarity with those in Yemen. A tracker on their website reveals that 660 people across the US, and also from countries as far away as Australia and Saudi Arabia, have pledged to do the fast.
Yasmin Abdella ’22 highlighted the importance of a wider reach. “We named our group Students for Yemen instead of Yale for Yemen because we want to be a network that operates anywhere and everywhere … the long-term goal is to be beyond Yale.” Central to this goal is the use of social media, which Abdella manages. “On Twitter, we made one of our first and most important contacts, Doctor Shireen Al-Adeimi … she’s been tweeting since the day the US got in the war.”
Students broke the fast on April 11 with a candlelight vigil at the Women’s Table. (photo taken by: Ismail El Hailouch, Ezra Stiles, 2020)
Looking into the future, challenges remain. For example, if President Trump vetoes the War Powers Resolution as expected, Congress can only override his decision with an unlikely two-thirds supermajority. On campus, the group continues to face the difficulty that all activist movements know too well: getting university students flooded with work and extracurriculars to care. When asked about future plans, Shad responded, “The main thing is to keep the group alive for a while to remind everyone that American imperialism needs to stop.”
While the group contemplates its next steps, there is no doubt that their actions thus far have contributed to the growing consciousness towards Yemen’s civil war. At the heart of their mission is a maxim of equality articulated by Dr. West in his speech, “that American life has the same value as a life in Yemen, as a life in Pakistan, as a life in Afghanistan, as a life in Somalia, as a life across the board.” Through their activism, Students for Yemen challenges us to think about the lives we truly deem sacred as we live our own whirlwind existence at Yale and beyond.
Ariq Hatibie is a junior majoring in Global Affairs in Grace Hopper College. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org