Faraj: I was born raised in Sana’a, Yemen – the capital of Yemen. Thriving city, lots of traffic, lots of cars. It's a very busy scene. I come from a mixed background. My mom was born raised in Vietnam, so she grew up closer to her Vietnamese roots than anything. So was brought up as a Yemeni Vietnamese, which is pretty hard to come by.
Dana: Do you know any other Yemeni Vietnamese?
Faraj: Uh, yes, there is actually a – all the Yemeni Vietnamese who migrated out of Vietnam were captive in a camp. They lived there and all that, but they were all like, you know, restrained in there. After a while the camp was taken over by a military coup, they spread out, but all of the families kept in touch with each other. So we do know a bunch of other Vietnamese Yemeni families.
Dana: We need a backup a second! What? What is this? Can you tell me like in more detail?
Dana: Hey everyone. This is Dana, I’m a producer at Kerning Cultures – I’ll be taking over from Hebah for this episode. This story will be told in two chapters. This is chapter one. all of it begins and ends with one person, 24 year old Faraj Al Baadani, who you just heard. He is a Yemeni Vietnamese living in California.
And when I first met Faraj I initially thought, woah, that’s a cool mix, a Yemeni married a Vietnamese in Yemen, they had kids, interesting, not a mix I’ve heard of before, but it’s not insane right? And then Faraj started talking about how his parents met – about this small moment in time when Vietnamese refugees fleeing communism were secretly sent to Yemen for safety and lived in camps in northern Yemen. And I thought, what?
Few people had studied this, there was almost nothing online, and the most Yemenis could tell me about this Vietnamese community in their country was that that they remember eating at a Vietnamese restaurant once upon a time in Sana’a. But about how the Vietnamese got to Yemen in the first place? Who took them there? Who facilitated the relocation of these families? Who ran the camp that they stayed in? And under what policy? Nothing.
So today, we’re bringing you a story from a fleeting moment in history that so few people have ever heard of, or researched. All told through the lens of Faraj and his family.
My name is Dana Ballout, and you’re listening to Kerning Cultures, radio documentaries from the Middle East.
Alex: Well, okay, just, why don’t you just start by explaining to me how you got into the story?
Dana: This is KC’s managing producer, Alex Atack - who really held my hand through a lot of this process of discovery.
Okay, so I met Faraj through a mutual friend. A friend of mine made a documentary about breakdancing in different parts of the world. And Faraj was kind of featured in that documentary when he was still living in Yemen, and I went to a screening of the documentary and there I met Faraj and I remember my first impression was that he had walked to the screening from the local airport, and it was a two-hour walk. And I said, why didn’t you just like Uber something? and I remember him to like hinting that he was kind of tight on cash, but also telling me like, oh that's nothing. I used to walk like double the distance every day in Yemen to my school, so it wasn't a big deal at all and he just brushed it off like it was nothing. And I remember he just like, he stayed in my mind. And then two years later, I wanted to explore doing a story with him, and I thought it would be about maybe breakdancing in Yemen, but then it turned out to be nothing to do with breakdancing.
Dana: So the story I guess starts, I guess our story starts, we can start in 1975. And it actually starts far away from Yemen and starts in South Vietnam, in what used to be Saigon.
AP newsreel: Saigon, April the 30th, 8 o’clock. The last American helicopter on the roof of the American embassy prepares to lift off the last of the evacuees fleeing the advancing communist armies.
Dana: North Vietnam was communist, South Vietnam wasn't and 1975, what they call the fall of Saigon is when the North Vietnamese forces ended up taking over South Vietnam to become you know, what eventually – still is – a communist government.
BBC newsreel: For the first time in 20 years, the face of Ho Chi Minh was on display.
AP newsreel: The evacuation plan was a shambles. Desperate refugees walked or ran along the side of the road. Many have already covered 200 miles in 12 agonising days since the decision to abandon the central highlands without warning.
Dana: So how the story goes is that there was a community in South Vietnam that had Yemeni blood or had they had Yemeni descendants or were half Yemeni in some way, and when the communists took over, feared for their lives
AP newsreel: The American airforce only took a fraction of those who wanted to leave. And for hours after the last departure, scores of people crowded onto the embassy roof in the vain hope of rescue.
Dana: What historians have told me is that these, these Yemeni – let's call them Yemeni Vietnamese, although a lot of them are just Vietnamese but – had some sort of ties to Western allies so allies of the West allies of the US and I think that's why they feared for their lives. So in 1976 as far as I know, these half, quarter, 1/8 Yemeni Vietnamese families ended up getting almost smuggled out of the country and flown to Yemen. And one of those women was Linh, who happens to be Faraj’s aunt. He lives with her now in California.
Linh: We leaving at night time and we have to be at the office by 10 o'clock in the morning.
Dana: At this point, Linh was about 17 or 18 years old.
Linh: And then I remember there was a bus. A bus that take us, the few people who left the country that did go to Yemen – it was many families, not just my family, to go to the airport.
Dana: So 500 families from South Vietnam – was Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh – left, were almost smuggled out of South Vietnam and the way Faraj’s Aunt and Mom kind of tell me is that they left, they remember leaving at 10 o'clock in the morning and they didn't tell any of their relatives.
Linh: Because we were afraid somebody will find out we left the country and they might we get arrested or something like that. That's what I remember.
Dana: Ten o'clock in the morning, they left it until anyone else around them were taken to what they say was like the Yemeni consulate in Vietnam. Slept there overnight and then in the middle of the night these two or three planes were filled with these families that like them had some sort of Yemeni connection to them. And then were flown from South Vietnam to, first Thailand,
Linh: When we get to Thailand we had to sleep in the airport for three or four days, I think.
Dana: and then from Thailand to Pakistan for a couple of days and then from Pakistan to Yemen where they ended up in a refugee camp in Taiz.
Alex: I mean what, so what kind of life did Faraj’s mum and her sister kind of move to when they moved to Yemen?
Dana: A hard one, a very very hard one. So, Faraj’s aunt, as she recalls it, she says her entire family had $5 and two change of clothes and that was it.
Linh: We were only allowed to have two outfits, for each one of us, that’s all we had. And we have no money, no nothing at all. And it is very scary.
Alex: So, why do we know I mean do we know like who arranged or enabled these flights and who was kind of running that whole thing?
Dana: So they had come under the, I guess under the I don't want to say invitation, but I will say under the welcoming of the Yemeni president at the time which was President Hamdi. In particular this kind of policy of Hamdi to welcome refugees because in addition to welcoming people from Vietnam, he also welcomed people from Ethiopia and I guess it was an overall policy to welcome these refugees that were seeking, I guess in quotations a better life. I didn't – I don't know that it ended up being a better life. They arrive to this place, they had no idea where they were arrived eventually to this camp. And they didn't have any money, didn't speak the language and had no idea how to act in this new country. So what happened eventually is that they needed a way to make money. So Faraj’s Aunt, who was around 17 at the time found a job, someone had mentioned to her, one of her fellow, you know Vietnamese in the camp had mentioned that there was a cookie factory that was accepting workers - Vietnamese workers.
Linh: Not too far from the camp, maybe about three or four miles away from the camp, and they came and they offerd us some jobs.
Dana: And that's what she did. She got a job at that cookie company for a few months, she said.
Linh: I'm the only one that can go to work to take care of my family, so I got a job at the cookie company.
Dana: Do you remember how much they used to pay you?
Linh: Not very much.
Dana: I think, and I don't think this is hard to imagine, it’s not like far-fetched for the Middle East is that – so they look different right? They look different than other women in the country and they were used to working. They were used to going out working, going out alone walking alone, going to get groceries, whatever. Of course this wasn’t it normal for women in Yemen at the time so they were cat called, they were – people called them names, verbally, sexually harassed. And this kind of hardship didn’t just end in the 70s. Linh happened to meet an American and got married and went off to California but Faraj’s mom stayed in Yemen. She met Faraj’s dad, a Yemeni who was born and raised in Ethiopia, but moved back to Yemen - also a crazy story. They had three kids. And even though by then she had been in Yemen for decades, had children there, was fluent in Arabic, Vietnamese and English, ran a restaurant in Yemen, she was still different. And now, so were her kids.
Faraj: It was weird, it was really difficult blending in. I mean, I do blend in look wise.
Dana: This is Faraj again.
Faraj: But what really gave it off, which probably I still remember till now, was my mom didn't wear the hijab and she dropped me off at school which caused a lot of controversy. I had, I mean, elementary, school, middle school people are telling me my mom's going to hell cause she's not wearing the scarf for the longest of time which, you know, and they asked why, I told them she's not from here which kind of gave out that I'm not full bred Yemeni that something – they would call it wrong. I just say different.
I have two siblings - I have an elder brother and an elder sister. I'm the youngest of the family. My house setting was very quiet, I would say. We weren't very loud. I mean we were humorous – we’d would joke around, but we're not a very loud family – probably mostly quiet, especially as my Dad used to sleep in the afternoons. He worked night shifts, so we couldn’t be too loud. We lived on a dead-end road. So nobody comes in. Nobody goes out from there except people that live in the neighborhood. So we all knew each other.
And my Mom's the kind of person that likes to wake up early, go out, clean, help just clean in front of the house, keep the neighborhood organized, which made the people favour her because they did it to in our neighborhood. So everyone just got along. Actually, a lot of people would send their kids over for my Mom to tutor them. Keep them in daycare, teach them English.
Dana: What was your Mom like?
My Mom is the definition of a saint for me. I mean she would house any living creature that needs housing. She’d cook for whoever is hungry, help whoever she can, she’d never complain. She was really resilient – the definition of a hustler, I'd say. But she had rules and if you break the rules, it got bad. Typical Middle Eastern Mom, she’d throw you with a sandal or something, chase you with a belt around the house
My dad was an alcoholic for as long as I can remember.
Dana: But in 2012, there was a breaking point in the family and Faraj’s father took off. Around the same time, things started to get a little worrisome in Yemen.
WSJ Newsreel: You’re looking at the aftermath of a deadly attack on Yemen’s defence ministry in the capital of Sana’a.
BBC Newsreel: Men wearing army uniform have attacked the gates of the Yemeni ministry of defence.
Vice Newsreel: The barely reported attack in the capital city of Yemen was typical of Al Qaeda’s current tactics.
BBC Newsreel: There is some gunfire now in the background, I’m not sure now if you can hear, but just as we came on air, there was also continuous gunfire.
Faraj: I remember it started to getting a bit more hectic, starting to hear more explosions around, suicide bombers started appearing everywhere. I mean it was like in your region like, you know, you can hear the explosion; your windows shatter. You hear the windows flapping around, you can hear the glass buzzing and all that and it just progressed more and more from there on.
Dana: With this in the background, it was also becoming clearer that there weren’t too many promising careers for people like Faraj, smart, trilingual, hard working – but also, you know, not fully Yemeni, so in 2014, Faraj’s family made a decision.
Dana: What why did you decide for us told me that as a family it's like you all decided that he would be the one to go to the US.
Dana: This is me speaking on the phone to Faraj’s Mom, who is still in Sana’a.
Dana: Why him? Why not Jamal or Hind, or –
Fatima: I want him to don’t feel bad about because his father left when he was very young. I want him to think about his future, not like his sister and brother. We sacrifice because we want him to become not like us, not like me or somebody else. My daughter and my son said that is okay because Faraj is not like another child or something, we say okay, let him go. We can sacrifice our life, but not him.
Faraj: I remember my family dropping me off to the airport. We had our neighbour drive us because he has a big bus and we could fit all the luggage inside. My mom's lecturing me on the bus ride, you better behave, be well, don't make a mess of your aunt's house. Don't eat all their food. My mom didn’t break a tear until I walked through the scan gate. That’s the only time she actually cried while they were prepping the entire thing. I came out and gave her a hug. And get my other siblings a hug, and then just headed out.
Dana: So what happens when a family puts all their eggs into one basket? In this case, in the youngest in the family – Faraj. How big of a difference is there between what you think America will be for your son, and what it actually ends up being? And how does it feel for Faraj to watch his country spiral into a gruesome, terrible war while your Trump-supporting neighbors hand you anti-Muslim flyers?
In the second part of this story we’ll follow Faraj’s new life as he navitages it in America. It’s a story about what modern migration looks like for a young Arab at a time of social, economic and political tension in the US. Not surprising that its very different than the time our parents generation migrated to the decades ago. That’s coming up in two weeks.
This episode was produced by myself, Dana Ballout and Alex Atack, with editorial support from Hebah Fisher. Sound design by Alex Atack. Thank you also to Bella Ibrahim, our Marketing Lead, who helps bring the episode to you.
I want to take a quick second to first to thank Adam Sjoberg who directed the film Shake The Dust that features Faraj and other amazing break dancers from around the world. Shake The Dust is an awesome film on Netflix that you should please watch, it’s truly beautiful. And secondly, a massive massive thank you to all the Yemeni scholars and researchers who helped me unpack some of the complex history, especially the Najwa Adra, Hasan Al Ansi, and Jon Swanson.
I also want to thank Faraj and his family for being so open and warm with us despite us poking around in their family history.
And finally a big thank you to everyone who is supporting us on Patreon. A shout out to our new patrons, Ann, Ahmed, Bedoe, Jana, Jeff, Michael, Nina, Norah, Philippe, and Tim.
Thank you guys, until next time.