Dana: This episode is the second installment in a 2-part series. If you haven't heard part one, I highly recommend you go back and listen to that before starting this episode. In part one, we explore how one family’s story unveiled a series of events that our history books overlooked. Part one follows the journey of Vietnamese families migrating to Yemen in the 1970s. And today on Kerning Cultures, the story of their son and his own experience of migration, a little further West than his parents. This is where you left you last time.
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.
Dana: Faraj was on his way to the airport in Yemen, about to fly to America to start a fresh chapter of his life.
Faraj: 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 cried while they were prepping the entire thing and I came out and gave her a hug, and gave my other siblings a hug, and then just headed out.
Dana: This week, we trace Faraj’s new life, as he navigates it in California. I’m Dana Ballout, and you’re listening to Kerning Cultures. Radio documentaries from the Middle East.
Alex: Well, okay. So give me some background –
Dana: This is Kerning Cultures producer Alex Atack.
Alex: – like how, what were the events leading up to Faraj moving to the US?
Dana: Yeah. So, event number one, Aunt gets married to an American, so his Aunt Lynn – wonderful woman – meets Frank and they move to California.
Frank: Uh, yeah, it was love at first sight, plus I’d been contracting for eight and a half years in the Bahamas, Saudi Arabia, a lot of places. I was just tired of living out of a suitcase, I wanted to settle down.
Dana: This is Frank, Faraj’s uncle. He was a contractor for some American companies wanting to do business in the Middle East at the time, and was in Yemen, visiting, in 1979 when he met Faraj’s aunt through a friend in Sana’a.
Frank: and I was able to get her out on a tourist visa and get her to the States where we got married.
Dana: So that's event number one. Event number two is that Faraj does really well in school – he's a smart kid – and as the youngest I think his mom and his two siblings kind of collectively decided that Faraj was going to be their star child and I guess they sacrificed to give him an opportunity that they would never get. And the opportunity of course was the USA.
Faraj: I mean, definitely I wanted to come here and see things – the TV tells you everything about it, and it was California that I was heading to I mean as planned because my aunt and uncle live here. I was really looking forward to it – it was an experience that I wanted to try out.
Dana: So Faraj’s mom calls her sister in California and says hey, will you take my kid for a while? And can he live with you guys? And if he, according to Faraj’s mom, she tells her sister if he steps out of line, if he does anything wrong, you send him back immediately. And so Faraj applies to like the local community college in Dixon, or around Dixon I think, and he gets accepted and he gets a student visa, and off he goes.
Faraj: Direct in my flight straight from Yemen to Jordan. And I had to 7 hour layover in Jordan, in Queen Alia airport. And I didn't mind that, it was a big airport, first time in my entire life I can see the airport that big. I was roaming around, I was walking, I walked around the whole lot for quite a while. Next flight was from Jordan to Chicago to O'Hare International Airport. And what happened is, I landed in O'Hare and they – I missed my layover because they're I mean, it's typical, they had to go through my stuff and all that. They scanned me for about two hours told me that I missed my flight and gave me hotel room there so I could stay an extra night in Chicago, which was fun. I did not know how to cross the street. I didn't know there was that button you press for the light to turn green. So I was stuck across the road. I didn't know how to get to Wendy's across the street to eat.
Dana: Wait, you didn’t – so you could literally see Wendy's across the street, but you didn't know that you had to push the button?
Dana: So it so it never turned green?
Faraj: It never turned green, and I didn’t want to jaywalk, it was my first day there, it’s not smart to jaywalk. I didn't know what was going to happen. So I just went back to the hotel and just ate the hotel food and slept.
Dana: And then from Chicago what happened?
Faraj: Chicago, spent a night there, the shuttle and took me back to the airport, had my flight to San Francisco. That's when I was supposed to meet my family, and I've never met my Aunt and Uncle before, so it was weird because I didn't recognise him when I saw them. They were waving at me really hard and I was like who are these people waving at me? And I got close and I realised it was them and we went back. So my aunt and uncle decided to take me out to get some lamb – Afghani lamb. So they take me to this big restaurant, they give me a huge tray of rice and a huge, like lamb leg. And I start eating out, and I remember, I clearly remember this, I look up and my Aunt asked me if I need a box, she can get me a box to take the food back home, and I look at it with a straight face and like why would you need a box? I ended up eating all the food and halfway through my Uncle took a picture and I didn't know he took a picture and sent it to my Mom and my Mom sent the picture back to me and it was me munching on the lamb leg and he says, underneath caption: we can't afford him if he eats like this – take him back! It was a joke but – I mean my Mom sent it back in 2 minutes and was like you’d better not eat their fridge out and I was like, I won’t but I was just hungry.
I landed in San Francisco and I thought to myself this is the life. I mean that I don't mind doing this is a nice big city. It's diverse. It looks beautiful and we start driving up towards Oakland, and we drive up further towards the countryside, we end up in a little tiny town called Dixon. It's a very conservative city. I mean, I'm probably like the third Middle Easterner there, or fourth Middle Easter there. I mean, there's no Middle Easterners there. Barely any people of colour. You get some looks walking out the street, you definitely feel that they're not very – comfortable, I'd say, or it just familiar with having some of the my skin tone walking around. The cops are not the biggest fans of me. Within my first month, I got pulled over by a cop because I was riding a bike and he said I match the profile for someone who just robbed Home Depot, and all I had on me was just my phone and I was on a bike. I mean like where was I going to put the stuff that I robbed? So he ended up getting my ID and everything and I was like, oh, I guess it's not you, you just came from school. I was like, yeah.
Dana: When Faraj applied for his visa to America, and when he first arrived, President Obama was still at the white house. But not long after he got there, this sea change was taking place.
CNN NEWSREEL: Right now, a historic moment – Donald Trump wins the presidency...
BBC NEWSREEL: Donald J. Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States...
CBS NEWSREEL: President Trump today re-tweeted anti-Muslim videos today, posted by the leader of a far right extremist party in Britain...
AL JAZEERA NEWSREEL: The threat posed by the ban could impact on a way of life, not just a religious group
Dana: Did Trump being president directly impact your life?
Faraj: Personally, like on a personal scale. Not really. I mean, I grew up, I live in a small conservative city. It just made them more outgoing about it, which was not much of a big change.
Dana: What do you mean more outgoing about it?
Faraj: Soon after Trump you started having, there were some anti-muslim rallies, some guy giving flyers out in front of Safeway where I used to work I look hispanic so he didn’t bother me, he actually asked me if I wanted the flyers. I was like, no, thank you.
Dana: What did the flyer say?
Faraj: I mean, they mostly criticised, they’re like, no – ban Muslims, anti Muslims or something like that. I picked one up eventually because he left his stand and all that, there are papers. I was curious to see what's inside and it was, it was trying to say that Muslims invoke violence in communities and they'll kill you and they'll attack you.
Dana: Dear listeners, bear with me. I want to step back a bit to review. In 2014, Faraj moved to the US on a student visa because he got accepted to community college, right? But the downside of that kind of visa is that you can only work either on a college campus or if you want a job outside a college campus, there are very specific circumstances in which that would be legal, and so basically you can’t get real work. And if you can’t make money, well, that’s not really an option for Faraj because he needs to pay for his university bills. But he can’t pay for his university without a job and if you can’t pay for university, you lose your student visa. And without student visa, you become unwelcome.
Faraj: That is true. Soon enough, I'm probably going to become what they call an illegal alien.
Faraj: Originally my family was supposed to help me sustain financially here – situation got a lot worse in Yemen. Most of my family members had lost their jobs back then. I couldn't afford paying my school semesters.
Dana: So as the situation there got worse, temporary protected status – or TPS, as it’s known – was designated for Yemenis living in the US. This happened on Sept. 3, 2015 – a year after Faraj came to US. The exact definition of TPS is the following: The Secretary of Homeland Security may designate a foreign country for TPS due to conditions in the country that temporarily prevent the country's nationals from returning safely, like war, or in certain circumstances, where the country is unable to handle the return of its nationals adequately. So other countries under TPS are Somalia, El Salvador, Nepal, and under TPS, Faraj, a Yemeni national living in the US, could finally work legally.
Faraj: By the time I got to work, I was barely making enough to pay for the classes I was already taking and all that. I started off, my first job was a courtesy clerk at Safeway, so I was pushing carts. I did that for about three months, got promoted front end, and then a few months afterwards, I picked up my tutoring job.
Dana: You’re the…?
Faraj: Head tutor at the tutoring center. So I coordinate all the other tutors. I do the notes, the tutoring material, science fairs … any science events, I usually head them or run them. I did landscaping too, I picked that up after probably a couple of months to make extra cash here and there. So it's probably average out to around 60, 70 hours a week, work.
Dana: How much did you make?
Faraj: it approximately came out to 1500 a month, maybe a bit less.
Dana: And did you have a social life?
Faraj: Throughout that period of time, no. Spending that much time working and in schooling doesn't really cut you much time to socialize and meet people.
Dana: So although on July 5, 2018, the Secretary of Homeland Security announced a decision to extend TPS designation for Yemen through 2020, Faraj’s status does not renewed. And I don't know if there's a direct link to the Trump administration taking over, so I'm not going to say that there's a direct link, but I'm going to say that it wouldn’t be far-fetched. But basically his 2017 application for TPS doesn't get rejected, but it does not get renewed. Faraj continues to call them a couple of times a year and they continue to say it’s just pending. Usually, just for reference in the past, it only took him a month or two to get the status renewed.
Faraj: So Safeway, as my TPS expired end of 2017 and the day after, Safeway got an email from the government notifying them that well his employment is expired, so you guys got to let him go. And I got a two-week extended period because my boss liked me and she was like we'll give you two more weeks just get much work as you can done and just – we can't do anything about it.
Dana: So he is no longer able to work legally. And so he got this letter from Safeway saying we’re sorry we can't employ you anymore. So he lost that legal job. Which created this financial crisis for him right? Which is, a $15,000 debt to a school that also means that his school will no longer accept him in the next semester, which means he loses his student visa. So by the end of the year, Faraj will have lost his temporary protective status and his student visa due to the debt. So it's like a it's like a cycle, right?
Faraj: What happens is you learn to deal with it, you learn how to cope and exist with it. We call it numbing it out. So you have to just know that all that you're doing, everything that's happening, you just gotta keep your goal on your mind and just move forward to it. That's all you can do. You'd rather live with pride then swallow your pride and choke on it.
Dana: So at this point, Faraj is 23 years old and he’s not really sure what to do next. He’s losing his legal status in America, but can’t go back to Yemen.
France 24 newsreel: First we begin with a developing story out of Yemen and suicide bombers have targeted two mosques in the capital, Sana’a.
BBC: newsreel: The United Nations is warning that if the war continues, famine could engulf Yemen in the next 3 months.
NPR newsreel: Yemen is a country that is in meltdown.
Faraj: There’s not really a word to describe that – it’s, I mean, it's hard to explain, it's hard to express out. It puts you in a place that you really don't want to be and seeing everything you knew, everything your grew up to, being reduced to rubble. Being told that your people, the population, that your entire country is going down the drain. It just makes you feel powerless. It makes you feel hopeless, that your home is not your home anymore. Your home is not the same place you grew up in – it's being taken away and all you can do is just watch.
Dana: How does that reflect in your life here? How does that translate?
Faraj: I mean, I don't even talk to my family about my hardships here and difficulties here. I do owe my school a lot of money, I do go through a lot of work hours. I do go through all that, but I would never withstand being able to complain to my family, because at the end of the day I will be complaining about material things, while they're complaining about well, there's an air strike next to the house, the house just shook, windows just blew. We have no food, people are just getting sick, people are dying. So it gives you – you get the emotional strain they’re going through but you don’t get the physical one, so that does no give you a liberty to complain.
Dana: What happens now?
Faraj: There’s a lot up in the air now, because even – I mean even if my TPS status gets renewed, that just buys me an extra year and then it's transferred out, and it’s time to pay the rest – same amount of work, 60 hours a week, to barely maintain what I'm affording now not even paying off what I previously had. Even if my student visa renews for another year, that’s just more debt for me collecting up because I can't legally work. So the best alternative is just get out, find somewhere else.
Dana: What do you mean by that?
Faraj: What I mean is, if you have to survive rather than thrive in your community, then it’s not where you're supposed to be. You're you supposed to be living life, not struggling to get through day by day.
Dana: You mentioned the option of crossing into Canada. Is that something you're serious about?
Faraj: That's the most reliable plan that I have now. So this all originated when two people that I know – Yemenis that I know – who were in the same predicament as me just packed up and just drove into Canada. And so other Yemenis that I knew, people that I grew up with, people that I went to school with started migrating one by one. And soon enough my best friend called me and he was like have heard about everyone going? I was like, yes, and he was like you might want to consider it because I'm leaving soon, and if you want to hop on I'll take you with me. And I was like sounds good.
Dana: and what does your family think of that?
Faraj: There is no support of any sort from both sides.
Dana: Do have do you have like a vision of your future professionally and personally?
Faraj: Not a single bit. There is just a big void or blank and that's pretty much all I can see – as far as I can see is what's going on tomorrow. I can't reach any way further than that, and just perceiving the next day, it's still hard enough. Every single day is what will you do tomorrow? How do you get by today?
Dana: Faraj in an ideal world, what would your life look like right now?
Faraj: I mean, it's probably waking up at 7:00 in the morning and smelling some ajeen in the kitchen, my Mom would be baking. And the whole house would smell like pastries, or sometimes she’d just go buy them from the store and just make a cup of coffee and sit at the table, sunlight breaking in, looking at our backyard with all the green plants. With my mom making her infamous Vietnamese food in the kitchen, on the weekend, we’re all just eating at the table, talking over each other in Vietnamese, laughing. Enjoying a peaceful life.
Dana: So this is one version of what modern Arab immigration to the US looks like today. It’s a complicated web of visas, bureaucracy, financial headaches in your new country, while simultaneously worrying about your family, your neighbourhood and your country back home. And Faraj’s story with its twists and turns is not an extraordinary or extreme example either. All around the country, men and women are trying to make the the best of the hand life has dealt them. But in Faraj’s case, he found a way to go way, way beyond what anybody would ever expect of him.
Dana: Can you explain what you're looking at right now?
Faraj: I’m looking at my right arm, it has a huge circular bruising, the size of a dime, maybe? With a big red hole in the middle, it’s kind of bruised up, looks kind of yellow in the middle, which is scary but weird. It's right on the vein which they drew the blood from.
Dana: End of September 2018, I meet Faraj in San Diego. I took a train down from Los Angeles. It's like a 3-hour train, two and a half hour train ride down. And I meet Faraj in San Diego because he was donating stem cells.
Faraj: How it happened is, I was approached three years ago on campus by a small table two people sitting there and they asked me if I wanted to donate bone marrow and I said, okay, it sounds, it sounds like a work of fiction because they also told me like my ethnicity is probably not going to match up with anything else – I’m Middle Eastern–Vietnamese. So it's hard to come by someone who like is going to narrow down to that. But I signed up for it and about a year later, they contact me told me that I am a match with someone. They confirmed that I am the most suitable donor and they began running a lot of lab tests and stuff on me. I was getting like my blood drawn every other month and like is a lot of like shots, blood donations, checkups, physicals here and there.
They walked me through what's going to happen, they told me like where you're going to inject me. I was going through a lot of heavy symptoms because they had to give us a drug to induce our stem cell production. So I was going through a lot of migraines, a lot of achy joints, back pains, fever, nausea, I was throwing up all over the place. I looked like a mess. It was – I looked like a zombie walking in. And they just hooked me up to the bed gave me some Tylenol told me like after they soon as they draw the stem cells out of me then I’d feel a lot better. So I just told them hook me up right there.
Alex: And it's – it’s voluntary, it’s not like I mean, he didn't get anything out of it, I don't think? So, can you – I mean when you asked him like why he did it would like what did he say?
Dana: Because it’s the right thing to do.
Faraj: It's just, I mean the way I look at it is it's just doing what's right. You're doing what you're supposed to be doing in the world. You're supposed to be giving when you can. I mean, it's not going to harm me in the long term, in fact it’s not going to have any negative terms on me. Why not give when I can? So it just feels, it’s like, right. I'm just hoping it's someone that would make the best out of it.
Dana: I find this event so fascinating, because here is Faraj, only 24 years old, new to the country and within a couple of years, found a way to quite literally, and hopefully, save someone’s life. For free, by the way. But I find this form of giving back to a country that is hosting you particularly moving. Because no matter where you stand religiously or spiritually, there is something magical about what happens next.
Alex: So, explain to me what’s happening next.
Dana: So I told you I know Faraj through mutual friends, right? And so after I found out about Faraj’s $15,000 debt to his school and his plans to head up to the Canadian border and just cross it and figure out what to do, in his words – so no plan at all, basically. I reached out to our mutual friends and I told him the situation, and they collectively, basically promised Faraj that they would pay – they would raise money to pay off his debt, and allow him to stay and help him get transferred to a university where he can continue his education.
Dana: Actually in addition to our friends – Faraj’s uncle and aunt – Frank and Lynh – are also helping him pay off his loan. And as of last week, his student visa has been renewed for another year. He’s applied to over 10 schools to get transferred out of community college and enter a university to get a Bachelor's degree in engineering. So that’s karma for you. And a good note to end on ahead of the holiday season.
This episode was produced by myself, Dana Ballout, and the wonderful Alex Atack, with editorial support from the beautiful Hebah Fisher. Sound design by talented Mohamed Khreizat. And thank you to the extraordinary Bella Ibrahim for help in getting all this stuff online and looking pretty for you.
I want to take a second to say a few things. First, thank you to Faraj, again, for being such an inspiration to all of us at KC. Faraj also wants to particularly thank his uncle and aunt who have been hosting him since he got to the US, and supported him in so many ways, but most of all in their love and encouragement.
Second, and this is really important so hang in there with me: If you listened to first episode, you’ll remember that I met Faraj at a screening of the film Shake the Dust that features break dancers and hip hop artists in Yemen, Cambodia, Colombia and Uganda. Well now, a fund has been created to provide scholarships, grants, and donations to the organizations and individuals in the "Shake the Dust" global community. This includes helping people like Faraj, as well as so many awesome young people pursuing their dreams and changing their countries and communities. Help us, help them by going to shakethedustimpact.org -- again shakethedustimpact.org. Check it out, more info will be on our website too.
Merry Christmas, Happy New Year. We love you all. Until next time.