The Yemeni Student Association at the University of Michigan opened its inaugural cultural night with a simple invitation to attendees:
“We want you to experience the beauty of Yemeni culture,” LSA junior Ryan Shami told the more than 150 students gathered Thursday night in the West Quad Multipurpose Room.
Shami then danced his way through the middle of the room with other board members, all clad in traditional thawbs, multi-colored shawls and jambiya dagger belts unique to Yemeni men’s fashion. The women of YSA also took the floor for dabke, showing off dresses and headpieces from various regions of the country while making their way through the diverse crowds of students packed between various photo exhibits and food buffets. Guests ate dishes spanning from gallaba to harissa desserts, sipped Yemeni tea, flipped through pictures of ancient villages, castles and bustling cities and clapped along to the dance performances.
And so went YSA’s capstone event of the semester: a celebration of not only the rich heritage honored by Yemenis on campus, but also a growing community making its mark in bringing students together.
YSA was born two years ago in 2016 with just four students who saw the a need for a space created by and for the Yemeni community. Through informal shahee circles with the club’s signature tea service, networking with prospective students and showcases like Thursday’s cultural night, the student group has exploded from the four founders to almost 50 members and hundreds of supporters across campus. LSA senior Sadeeque Mohamed was part of the original group in 2016, and was overcome by the “amazing” scene he saw at the cultural night.
“We attracted Yemenis from different places and different majors, and got them to work towards this one cause,” he said. “It affirmed this identity we carry, and more people know about Yemen too.”
LSA junior Mehrin Fayza Ahmed is the marketing chair for the Bangladeshi Student Association, and confirmed Mohamed’s assertion about cultural awareness. She said she feels more welcomed by YSA than most other organizations on campus.
“I feel such a sense of belonging when I’m with the Yemenis, their energy is so vibrant and colorful,” Ahmed said, laughing over drum beats blaring throughout the room. “We all go back to our communities together in Hamtramck, so we try to bring those vibes here to campus.”
Michigan attracts more Yemeni Americans than almost any other state in the country to communities like Dearborn, Detroit and Hamtramck — according to Detroit News, more than 15,000 Yemenis call southeastern Michigan home. YSA President Azhar Aboubaker, an LSA senior, said the organization is beginning to attract the full force of these numbers to the University. Last week, the group hosted more than two dozen high schoolers from Dearborn and Detroit for a tour of campus. Events like the cultural night play an important role in making these students — many of whom are first generation college students — feel at home once they arrive.
“There’s a lot of obstacles for Yemeni students, they might come from low-SES families or don’t know the opportunities that are available to them,” she said. “They don’t know there are other people like them who attend these institutions, that it’s within grasp. It’s important for me to showcase this to younger Yemeni generations coming here now.”
YSA members said they would be remiss to the major reason Yemen makes headlines now: the three-year war in the country now logs more than 40,000 casualties, millions of displaced citizens and famine conditions in many regions due to bombings led by Saudi Arabia. The student organization holds an annual fundraiser for humanitarian organizations working inside Yemen, and many students said the plight of their families and friends weigh heavily in their minds. It was then doubly important to them, however, to re-center the beauty of their country.
“We still have the ability to enjoy ourselves with our culture, which is so important for us to feel united now,” YSA treasurer Fatimah Shuhait, an LSA senior, said. Though poverty, war and displacement are of utmost concern in Yemen, they “can make you forget we still have a beautiful history, culture and beautiful people.”
“From before, we were minorities on campus, even within the Arab community,” Shuhait continued. “At this moment, this is perfect because we’re bringing to light that we’re growing. We’re trying to connect … hoping to bring together a bigger community.”
LSA sophomore Nisreen Khokar said she, too, was attracted by that message.
“Yemen has such an interesting history of Muslim, Christian, and different kinds of kingdoms,” she said. “Most of the event focused on food, clothes, and the community aspect was a really cool fusion. The pictures—really the entire event— also showed a part of the country you don’t see very often.”
YSA outreach chair Yunus al-Garadi, an LSA junior, rounded the evening in a similar fashion to Shami, with a simple conclusion.
“We’re just trying to have fun,” he said. “We’re trying to unite and have each other’s backs. Being Yemeni is who I am, it’s everything … that’s why we have this night right here.”