Telling the Story of Yemeni Americans Through Their Corner Stores

Professor Helps Tell Their Digital Stories

Woman at protest. Colorful flags surround her.
Hanan Mubarez, who tells her story in the video project, appears at a protest against the war in Yemen. (Courtesy photo)

Sunaina Maira, a UC Davis professor of Asian American Studies, had planned to explore how President Trump’s travel ban on people from Muslim-majority countries affected Arab American communities in the Bay Area. When COVID-19 hit, she shifted her approach.

She found her story on her own street in Oakland in one of the many Bay Area corner stores run by Yemeni Americans.

“I’d go to the stores and combine my shopping with fieldwork,” said Maira. “They wanted to tell their stories and appreciated that I wanted to share them.”

boy child in a home setting
Muhammad Elbgal pictured as a child. He tells his digital story in the series Maira created. (Courtesy photo)

She created a series of digital stories with the StoryCenter in Berkeley, drawing from about 50 interviews. The videos and research project tell the stories of a few of the Yemeni Americans and Yemeni nationals in the United States, with about 10,000 living in the San Francisco Bay Area alone. Maira did her work as a recipient of a Mellon Foundation/American Council of Learned Societies Public Fellows scholarship.

Woman head shot
Sunaina Maira

The stories come from corner stores in Fremont, Oakland, San Francisco and other locales. The video stories are varied.

Among those featured in the videos, which include photos, artwork and poetry, are a social worker and therapist, an advocate for Arab and Muslim immigrant rights, a woman with a pop-up restaurant and a young poet and activist.

A young woman talked about her first protest, which she attended with her mother, understanding for the first time the suffering sustained by her ancestors. Another tells the story of how she was able to start her own restaurant with help from her children's school teachers after serving them a meal of traditional foods. Yet another talks about how he tries to tell his children of their heritage, but feels bad that he has not returned to his home country himself.

They share stories about growing up at the corner stores, the impact of the travel ban, the pandemic and the war in Yemen, which according to the Council on Foreign Relations, has killed approximately 100,000 people and displaced 4 million. They also talk about anti-immigrant sentiment, activism, and cooking and eating.

Finding stories close by

Maira began documenting conversations with people who operate the stores, their extended families and others, often as they served customers and helped their children with online schooling. Yemeni Americans have cornered the corner shop market in the San Francisco Bay Area.

According to the Bay Area Small Merchants Association, which is a Yemeni-led corner store organization, approximately 200 small grocery stores in Oakland are Yemeni-owned.

Maira's fellowship provided her with an opportunity to explore new research methods, collaborate with community members and organizations, and present findings in new ways — in this case, video.

“This was all completely new for me,” Maira said.

As she worked to conduct and record interviews online, Maira learned how many Yemeni Americans and Yemeni nationals are disconnected from the digital world, which has affected their ability to stay in touch with family members across and outside the United States.  It also has limited the community's ability to help their children with online school,  keep their shops open and continue to serve their neighborhoods that have few grocery shopping options.  

The work continues

Drawing from approximately 50 interviews, Maira is also working on a book chapter and plans to produce scholarly articles, hold public forums and produce a report that can be used by community members, policymakers and scholars.


In Their Own Words: What Those in the Videos Had to Say

“I always felt myself an American first. I was really patriotic. I finally felt the dark side when 9/11 hit. You didn’t know what was going to come at you.” — Faisa Abdulgawi Mazayed, long-time shop owner

“They were trying to escape harsh conditions and be reunited with their families in the U.S. Then Donald Trump came in and tried to make that as difficult as possible.” — Mohamed Taleb, a community advocate with Asian Americans Advancing Justice – Asian Law Caucus  

“I remember the first time (my mother) took me to a protest. I was 10 years old and didn’t understand why that was important. My grandmother was murdered in the war and that’s what really hit home and made me passionate about ending the war.” — Hanan Mubarez, San Jose State University student, poet and activist


The war in Yemen and its impact have largely been forgotten by those outside the Arab American community, Maira said, especially with concerns about migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border and COVID-19 grabbing the headlines. There are about 100,000 Yemeni Americans and Yemeni nationals in the U.S., with about 10,000 in the San Francisco Bay Area, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, although Maria said this is likely an undercount. 

“The community is so marginalized in many ways,” said Maira, who is affiliated with the College’s Middle East/South Asia Studies and Cultural Studies programs. 

The interview and video process used for the project is also being shared with UC Davis students. Maira and Amy Hill, a program director at StoryCenter, taught a graduate class on digital storytelling in the humanities and social sciences.

Her research and teaching focuses on Asian American youth culture and the politics of cultural production, as well as political movements. She is the author of The 9/11 Generation: Youth, Rights, and Solidarity in the War on Terror; Desis in the House: Indian American Youth Culture in New York CityMissing: Youth, Citizenship, and Empire After 9/11; and Jil Oslo: Palestinian Hip Hop, Youth Culture and the Youth Movement.


Media Resources

Jeffrey Day, College of Letters and Science,

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