The black man on the bus, they pat him on the head and push him in the back. They make jokes about his pronunciation of the name of the market he is going to. He sits still, waiting for the humiliation to pass.
A Somali man gets beaten at the bus station because he allegedly stole something. He doesn’t fight back, but cries. Passersby look the other way.
Minutes later, a woman is ignored by the bus driver because he doesn’t want Africans onboard. She patiently waits for the next bus.
One only has to use public transport in Sana’a, Yemen’s capital city, for a day or two to realize that being black here is no joy. There are no official numbers, but Yemen is home to hundreds of thousands of African immigrants. Most come from Somalia, Ethiopia and Eritrea as refugees and non-refugees both.
“A cultural thing”
According to Fouad Alalwi, head of the Sawa’a Organization for Anti-Discrimination, “It is a cultural thing in this region to treat non-citizens who are poor like this. People think that they bring criminality, although this has never been proven.”
“They see them as a burden for society, and for Ethiopians there is also a historical explanation,” he adds.
The history Alawi refers to goes back to Christianity’s start, when the country was invaded a number of times by Ethiopians. They tried to Christianize the Yemeni population, but were eventually kicked out.
Yemenis became one of the first Muslims, though a large group of Ethiopians stayed behind and became slaves – a practice that may influence how some Yemenis perceive Ethiopians today.
The schizophrenic thing is that Yemen seems much more hospitable than other, much richer, countries in the region. Churches are accepted so long as they are not publicly visible.
What’s more, Yemen has a generous attitude towards refugees; Somali refugees are automatically given asylum status. But once in the country, the newcomers find the streets not so welcoming.
“What you see in the street are reactions from people who are frustrated they do not have jobs or a good house,” says Alalwi. But he emphasizes that it is a small minority of Yemenis who behave this way towards immigrants.
“Educated people wouldn’t do this, and it is against Islam, which teaches us that all are equal, black or white,” he says.
Racism is not often discussed in Yemen. Organizations like Sawa’a mainly deal with government discrimination of minorities rather than focusing on everyday racism.
But this doesn’t seem so surprising in a country that faces an ocean of problems. In fact, some of those problems may compound the resentment towards black immigrants. Unemployment rates are sky-high and immigrants are frequently accused of taking away scarce jobs from locals.
In a paper on migration to and through Yemen from 2007, country expert Marina de Regt writes that poor Yemeni women told her they prefer begging to doing domestic work.
The latter has low social status and is often considered impossible because it would break with the traditional gender segregation (women working in the home of unknown men).
Not a single Yemeni friend
Some Yemenis believe that Ethiopians are promiscuous and more likely to have AIDS. “Many Yemenis say that our men snatch their women,” says Tigist Addisi, an Ethiopian woman who has been living in Yemen for 18 years, working long hours as a cleaner.
“They say that [Yemeni] women now go out, smoke sheesha and wear pants because of us.”
After all nearly two decades here, she does not have a single Yemeni friend. But she is used to it. Addisi sticks to her own people, sends her daughter to an Ethiopian school and prays daily to an enormous poster of Jesus Christ.
“They always ask me why I am a Christian,” Addisi says. On Fridays, she dresses in white to go to her Orthodox church. “I hurry through the streets,” she explains. “When people ask me where I am going, I say I am going to school.”
Making Ethiopian coffee in her small basement room in a flat building in Sana’a, she explains: “Almost every day people say I am a dog, they ask what I am doing here and [say] that we have changed their country.”