The Yemeni community in the UK

by Mohammad Al Masyabi

The history of the Yemeni community in Britain can be traced back to 1885. It was the first Arab community and one of the first ever ethnic groups to settle in the UK. The community at the time was mostly single men working as sailors and donkey workers on British Merchant navy ships. Some Yemeni men joined the British Army and others worked at the docks.

Yemeni men gradually moved from the unsettling work of sea life to that of steel factories and foundries. Some married English, Welsh and Irish women, but others preferred to lead semi-single life with their wives back home in the Yemen. For obvious reasons at the time, none dared to bring their families over here, and instead preferred to go forward and backward to visit for a few months or weeks. In the late 1970s, many Yemenis lost their jobs due to the industrial decline, closure of factories and many left the UK to the Gulf States, and some to the USA to seek better job prospects.

At present the situation of the community is improving: a young generation is emerging better equipped with the necessary skills, education and the culture to meet the challenges of life. The Yemeni community is estimated to be around 30-40,000 people in total with around 16 Yemeni organisations in the UK. Some are involved in the welfare provision for the community, while others pursue political objectives. British Yemenis originate from what was previously known as "northern" as well as " southern" regions of the Yemen. From Shamir district of Taiz to Dhali`, al-Shu`aib, Yafi`, Aden , with a few from various other regions.

The community still consists mostly of working men in the steel industry, mainly in Birmingham and Sheffield, while there are those who hold on to their "own" towns where they spent their youth and have joyful memories in Cardiff, Swansea, Newport, Southshields, Middlesborough, London and Liverpool. Economically, some members of the community have taken on the challenge of setting up their own businesses. Although some are merely small corner and grocery shops, this is a new dimension in the life pattern of the community. Some have stared to prosper and grow, others have made impressive success.

Socially, the community is still far from progressive, marriage and issues relating to the role of women, for example, are still causing concern. Although, there are no religious barriers in lifting the cultural restrictions on women to take their full role and responsibilities in life, some are in need of support and confidence building. Islamically, we say that women are the equal sisters of men - " shaqa'iq ", and that they take their equal share of rights and duties of life. If they are not well equipped, how can they build a sound, confident, moral, spiritually and intellectually strong generation?

But there is a bright side to this picture: a group of young Yemeni women have started their own Yemeni Women Association in Halesowen, the West Midlands. They serve all women in the area independent of the men! This initiative is being replicated in other regions.

Politically, the community is still under-represented and its influence is still not that effective, with the exception of some organisations, such as the Mu'ath Welfare Trust in Birmingham and the Yemeni Community Association in Sheffield. This is an area where more work is needed. Young Yemeni men need to give this a priority and demonstrate their full integration to British life, and not Yemen. My personal view is that Yemenis here need to join the political movement here and not that of Yemen! This is if they want to improve their situation here. Becoming affiliated to the political movement in Yemen brought disarray to the community here! Divisions, confrontation and lack of trust caused a lot of loss to the well being of the community all over the UK.

Friends became enemies and instead of concentrating of the capacity building and development of the community, substantial efforts and money is spent on building political alliances and corrosion of the reputation, integrity and prosperity of Yemen and also of the Yemeni community here.

Still, the future is bright for the community. More and more young people are making their way to higher education and into professional careers. Equally more and more girls are achieving a better position in society and starting to marry men of their own choice here, building firm families and a future community that takes the best from both worlds and continue to contribute to this society and this country.

CAABU Focus Vol 6 Issue 1, February 2000

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