You Can’t Go Home Again

A Yemeni American struggles to settle into life in a new country

By / January 2016

In March of 2015, Ibrahim crammed his wife and nine kids, along with a few belongings, into a car and raced out of the Yemeni city of al-Dhale as it crumbled around them. Fighting in the region between forces loyal to the former president (Ali Abdullah Saleh) and those loyal to the sitting president (Abed Rabbuh Mansur Hadi) had spilled into the city streets. At one point, Ibrahim was forced to drive through the center of a gun battle. Bullets zipped around the car as his wife and children huddled as low as possible.

They hoped to find a way out of Yemen at the port city of Aden. But first they had to pass through a checkpoint. Houthi soldiers, fighting for Saleh, manned the blockades and demanded to see paperwork, reports, anything that could prove Ibrahim and his family were simply civilians fleeing for their safety.

Ibrahim, a Yemen-born American citizen who had moved back to Yemen a few years earlier to help take care of his extended family, handed a soldier his navy blue American passport and the Houthi man immediately became suspicious.

“Why do you have this one?” the soldier said.

“I am United States citizen,” Ibrahim said.

“You are from there?”


“Why? Why do you follow them?”

“They don’t take my religion away, they don’t bother me, it is a good country.”

In Rochester, New York, where Ibrahim had lived in the U.S., he worked at a beauty supply store owned by his brother.

“You are a spy,” the soldier said. “You spy for them. The US doesn’t give just anybody a passport like that, only people that work for them.”

The soldier forced Ibrahim to move his car out of the lineup and wait while they decided what to do with him. He was terrified that they would conclude, wrongly, he was a spy. He knew many people who had been taken away and never seen from again, even members of his own family. What would his wife and children do without him? The soldiers pressed and pressed and made him swear that he wasn’t a spy for the Americans. He swore and finally they let him go.

When the family reached Aden, they waited for three days at the coast for a ship, any ship going any direction. They had nothing, there had been no time to grab household supplies and no room in the car anyway. Ibrahim and his older sons slept outside on the beach while his wife and younger children slept on the floor inside a mosque with about fifty other women. During the daytime, he sent his oldest son to find food, anything. Usually that meant cookies, chocolate, or biscuits. He passed his own time at the port, asking every day for ships that would take people away from the war. Always the answer was wait, wait, wait.

Finally a ship came in and prepared to turn around, back to Djibouti. This was a ship designed for animals; goats and sheep, not humans but during the Yemeni crisis, it hauled flour and other supplies to Yemen and people away from Yemen. It was old, wooden, and filthy. Close to two hundred people, including Ibrahim and his family, climbed aboard at the cost of one hundred USD per person.

On the fourteen-hour journey to Djibouti, almost every single person on the boat became seasick. People vomited into the sea, onto the floorboards, into plastic bags. They suffered headaches, hunger, thirst, and dread. Even with calm weather, the boat swayed from side to side, dangerously close to the water. Everyone had heard stories of migrants coming out of the Horn of Africa and drowning at sea in boats just like this one.

They arrived at the port of Djibouti on May 3. Some boats from Yemen docked at Obock, a remote village in northern Djibouti where a Yemeni refugee camp had hastily been set up. But Ibrahim’s boat landed directly in Djibouti City. Since he was American, he and his family would have been quickly moved to the capital anyway, but he was thankful they didn’t have to endure extra time at sea.

US embassy staff met the boat, looking for citizens. They wrote down his name and the names of his children but because his family was so large, they were unable to find immediate housing for them. They gave him blankets and some food and the family set up in a big camp inside the port. The camp was filled with so many people there was barely room to move. By the fourth day, Ibrahim had made friends with a man from his home state in Yemen and the two agreed to rent an apartment together in town, anything to get away from the cramped port camp.

The two families lived together briefly and then Ibrahim, now out of the confined space, found a three-bedroom apartment and settled his family there while he worked out paperwork with the US embassy.

Their arrival in Djibouti felt, at first, like a relief. Now they were safe from bullets and war and hunger and they had hope of a quick repatriation to the US. But that initial relief slowly drained into despondency and then despair as the time in Djibouti stretched on and on. They had hoped for a few weeks but when I met Ibrahim, his family had been in limbo for five months already.

According to Ibrahim, the US embassy was incredibly helpful and he continued to be impressed with the hard work and efforts of people in the consular office to help his family. But, they were swamped with cases like his own. The embassy had brought in extra personnel just to handle the Yemenis and every afternoon, the street outside the office filled with families waiting for news of their paperwork and visa processing.

“One of the first women who handled our case,” Ibrahim said, “told me, ‘I am going to change your life. I will make all your kids citizens.’” Then, just a few weeks later, she was reposted and a new official replaced her. Ibrahim’s case started over.

Life in Djibouti has been challenging for Ibrahim and his family. He said many Yemenis have found it so difficult that they returned to Yemen, preferring to face the war over the frustrations of life in transition.

“It is so expensive here,” he said. “I can’t work, my kids aren’t in school, they don’t have any friends and have no space to play outside, we don’t speak French. We feel so much stress.”

Djibouti has always been expensive, with almost everything from food to clothing shipped in from abroad. But when Yemenis began flooding the city, prices went up. The store across the street from my own house (three doors down from Ibrahim’s apartment), a small dukaan selling items like popcorn, phone cards, tomato paste, Coke, raised their prices on everything. When I asked the shopkeeper why, he said it was because of the refugees.

“At first my wife felt hopeful,” Ibrahim said. “But now she constantly feels bad, to be honest with you. She keeps asking, ‘when we leave, when we leave, when we leave?’ I have no answer for her. This is not a life, but this is the situation we are in, so this is our life. Nobody can shame us for that, we just want to live and work and go to school and Yemen is terrifying right now.”

Ibrahim is in the unique situation of being an American citizen but living, in some ways, the life of a refugee. He is in transit, fleeing danger. He left behind work, home, and loved ones. He carried nothing with him and risked his life on the journey. But he is not stuck in a camp or without prospect.

He simply must wait out the bureaucratic timeline of paperwork for his large family and then he can take them to Rochester, New York where he has work and relatives waiting for him. He is technically not a refugee but his experiences put an American face on the current global refugee crisis. Here is a family forced to flee the bullets of a war that destroyed their nation and all they want is to be together, to build a life, to have dreams.

Ibrahim’s daughter-in-law is pregnant, his son hopes he will get his paperwork to leave for the US before she gives birth. This will be the first grandchild in the family, a new life in a new country.


Rachel Pieh Jones, a contributing editor for EthnoTraveler, lives and writes in Djibouti City. Ibrahim and his family did eventually receive all the paperwork needed and left for the US where they hope to heal from the trauma they have experienced and integrate into their new life.