“I didn't hear shit about that. I think somebody is lying to the people on Twitter.”
That was Tarek Sulimani’s first response, a few days ago, upon hearing about the bodega strike that shut down shops throughout New York City on Thursday and brought thousands out to Brooklyn’s Borough Hall in protest of Donald Trump’s authoritarian executive order on immigration. It was his nephew Ali — a social media editor at The FADER — who broke the news to him. The idea for the strike came from a group of Yemeni business owners, over a dinner conversation last Sunday night. By Wednesday, the news trickled out online and throughout New York’s Yemeni community. Sulimani read up some more on Facebook, declared it legit, and decided to join.
Sulimani has owned his bodega, Yafa Deli in the Sunset Park neighborhood of Brooklyn, for over 20 years. He moved from Yemen to New York in 1996, and got help from his father-in-law to buy the store. “It’s a tradition,” he says. “Yemenis help each other. When you’re new here, you get a thousand from this person, five thousand from that person. Family. Sometimes friends. You pay it back — with no interest, of course. That’s the way we work.”
Sulimani is an American citizen, as are his wife and his four kids (two of whom were born in Yemen). “We love this country,” he said. “My kids, they’ve been only been back once to Yemen since we came to America. This is their country — that’s where they grew up, that’s where they have their friends, that’s where they go to school.” He’s got siblings, some in Brooklyn, some in Wisconsin. Despite multiple efforts, he has not managed to bring his elderly mother and father to join him in the U.S.
Of first hearing news of the Trump’s executive order, Sulimani says, “I was actually shocked. A law that banned everybody? OK! But to discriminate one community from the other? It’s really sad. And this time they discriminize Muslims. We don’t know who’s next.”
Acknowledging the absurdity of the situation, Sulimani can’t help but laugh. “Trump went far! He went too far! Nobody expect this person to win. But I said to myself, and I even had a comment on Facebook: ‘I don’t care who becomes the president of America. I believe in the American values and the American constitution. Even no matter how far he go. That’s what I believe.”
He works seven days a week, often up to 14 or 15 hours a day. We talked on Thursday morning, an hour before the strike was set to begin, over the sound of cash register dings in his spotless, freshly renovated shop. A stream of customers bought sandwiches, lottery tickets, packs of cigarettes, and newspapers in English, Spanish, and Chinese.
“In this kind of business? [Striking] is a tough decision,” Sulimani told me, a dish rag in hand. “You have workers, you have responsibilities. Every hour is important for you to survive.” But people had been coming in all morning, he said, and voicing their support for the strike. Many had even insisted he keep their change, knowing that he’d be losing money later that day. “How nice are the people?!”
Sulimani drifted away to tend to some business, and I chatted with one of his young workers, a fellow Yemeni-American named Zaid. He said Trump’s actions hadn’t yet impacted the quality of his daily life. “We good. Sometimes we even make fun of each other, like, ‘Shut up or maybe I call Trump to pick you up.’”
Zaid has been in the U.S. for five years, and feels comfortable in Sunset Park, a neighborhood defined by large Hispanic and Chinese populations. He’s married to a Dominican woman who works as a home attendant nearby. They met in the store. “She comes to buy her coffee, I put my number on the napkin,” Zaid recalls, smiling. “We start talking.”
Walking around the neighborhood, I fell into conversation with Jhad, a bodega proprietor who was only conditionally supportive of the strike. “It’s good. Let ‘em close down. Less competition. Probably like a hundred dollars more for me today.” A Palestinian-American, Jhad was born and raised in nearby Fort Greene. He didn’t vote in the presidential election, but not because his preferred choice — Bernie Sanders — wasn’t on the ballot: more so, he said, he didn’t want to be eligible for jury duty.
“I never thought he was gonna win that thing,” Jhad says, of Trump. “A three o’clock in the morning [of election night] I smoked like three blunts. Thinking about, ‘Oh shit. He really won?!’”
Now, cautiously, Jhad is optimistic that Trump will help small businesses with preferential tax breaks and a push-back on health department regulations. He’s also hopeful that a restriction on immigration will mean more money will “rotate” in the community rather than be sent back to families out of the country. “That’s it. He won. Let it be. Let him try.”
As he smokes a cigarette, Jhad peppers me with questions about the effects of the immigration ban and all the people stuck at airports. Then he relays a story about being detained by security at Ben Gurion Airport, in Tel Aviv, after visiting family in Ramallah. “People say Israel has the best security in the world? Not with me. I had two eighths on me. You know I had the Superman underwear on and I had ‘em under my balls.”
A man in his early thirties named David approached Jhad, to see what was going on with all the shop closings, and we filled him in about the strike. He identified himself as half-Colombian, half-Puerto Rican, then gushed about Yafa Deli. “These guys are sweethearts. You don’t have enough money? They say, ‘Don’t worry about it, take the coffee free.’”
Then he segued into a conversation he had once with a xenophobic older man, who started screaming at him about immigrants flooding the country and his “forefathers.” David, in his telling, snapped back: “Listen. As far as I know I only got one father. That’s the one that was humping on my mother. So what the fuck are you talking about, bro?”
At half an hour past noon, the appointed strike time, Yafa was still open. Sulimani had been waiting for one of his sons to return with a print-out to affix on the front of the closed door. Along with images of the Star Spangled Banner, the statue of Liberty, and the black, white, and red flag of Yemen, the print-out read, “In support of our family, friends and loved ones who are stranded at U.S. airports and overseas we are closing our business today. You can help by calling your representative or joining the protest called for by the Yemeni American Community and their friends.”
Before he finally pulled down the shutters for this ultra-rare afternoon out of the shop, Sulimani told me, “I’m not only doing this for the Yemenis. I’m doing this because I believe in the American values. And I don’t want this to happen to any other people. If they won this time, that means we don’t know who’s next. He’s gonna keep doing it. Worse and worse.”