Yemeni Jewish refugees brought to U.S. in secret mission

Here’s a different kind of refugee story. The U.S. State Department has resettled about 60 Yemini Jews here since August, Miriam Jordan reports in the Wall Street Journal. The story begins:

MONSEY, N.Y. — In his new suburban American home, Shaker Yakub, a Yemeni Jew, folded a large scarf in half, wrapped it around his head and tucked in his spiraling side curls. “This is how I passed for a Muslim,” said the 59-year-old father of seven, improvising a turban that hid his black skullcap.

The ploy enabled Mr. Yakub and half a dozen members of his family to slip undetected out of their native town of Raida, Yemen, and travel to the capital 50 miles to the south. There, they met U.S. State Department officials conducting a clandestine operation to bring some of Yemen’s last remaining Jews to America to escape rising anti-Semitic violence in his country.

In all, about 60 Yemeni Jews have resettled in the U.S. since July; officials say another 100 could still come. There were an estimated 350 in Yemen before the operation began. Some of the remainder may go to Israel and some will stay behind, most in a government enclave.

An unusual story, to say the least. The Yemeni government is protecting the Jews; the persecution is from local Muslims.  The U.S. government initiated the action for geopolitical reasons.

The State Department took something of a risk in removing the Yemenis to the U.S., as it might be criticized for favoritism at a time when refugees elsewhere are clamoring for haven. The U.S. calculated the operation would serve both a humanitarian and a geopolitical purpose. In addition to rescuing a group threatened because of its religion, Washington was seeking to prevent an international embarrassment for an embattled Arab ally.

The Yemeni Jews may be the oldest Jewish community in the Arab world.

Jews are believed to have reached what is now Yemen more than 2,500 years ago as traders for King Solomon. They survived — and at times thrived — over centuries of change, including the spread of Islam across the Arabian Peninsula.

Most Yemeni Jews went to Israel years ago. Israel airlifted 49,000 to their country in 1949 and 1950, leaving only about 2,000. And that raises the question: Why didn’t these people go to Israel, which is experienced at bringing in relatively primitive groups like this, and teaching them to thrive in a modern culture? It might be because the action was initiated by Yemeni Jews in New York.

New York had a community of about 2,000 Yemeni Jews. Yair Yaish, who heads the Yemenite Jewish Federation of America, says he was barraged with “desperate calls from the community here saying we have to do something to get our families out.”

The U.S. Ambassador to Yemen urged Yemeni ministers to facilitate the departure. After initial reluctance — the government preferred to give the Jews safe haven in the capital city — Yemen agreed to issue exit permits and passports.

“It was the embassy’s view, and the Department concurred, that because of their vulnerability, we should consider them for resettlement,” says a spokeswoman for the State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration.

Unlike most refugees, these Yemenis have had money raised to help them.

Jewish Federations of North America raised $750,000 to help the effort. Orthodox groups also pledged to pitch in. The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society was tasked with their resettlement.

Maybe there’s a clue here:

In the U.S., the Yemeni refugees are being settled in Monsey, a suburban enclave of ultraorthodox Jews, lined with strip malls that sell black coats and wide-rimmed hats worn by Hasidic men.

The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society’s network established a Monsey office, where case managers arrange housing and disburse food stamps, cash and other refugee benefits to the Yemeni arrivals. Many of the adults, caseworkers say, aren’t yet capable of budgeting, following a schedule or sitting still in a structured classroom to learn English.

It doesn’t sound as if the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society initiated this, so it’s not for the money they receive from the government. Some ultraorthodox Jews (most? I don’t know) are not Zionists: they don’t believe in the State of Israel. Perhaps they were trying to get the Yemenis here to live in their community instead of going to Israel. This story doesn’t compute, and I’d like to find out more about it. Still, one thing about the article is quite routine: the way it ends, which is pretty much the standard kind of ending for refugee stories:

On a recent morning, Mr. Suleiman, a 36-year-old father of three, retrieved an alarm clock that he received with his furnished apartment.

“I still don’t know how to use this,” he said. “The children have been playing with it.”

Hat tip: Janet Levy.

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