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Yemenites in Brooklyn

In the aftermath of 9/11, every foreign national was suspect -- until you sat together for a cup of tea

I’m not in the US just now, so maybe I’m misreading the atmosphere, but these days are reminding me of the immediate aftermath of 9/11.

My first job as an attending physician in the emergency department was in Brooklyn, in a section that won the “Typical ‘Hood” title hands-down. I was barely out of my residency diapers that September, when the towers roared to the ground, and our hospital became the closest receiving facility for downtown casualties, if you walked over the Brooklyn Bridge. I had trouble recognizing our patients as human, because they looked identical to the Pompei victims in my childhood encyclopedia, all covered in soot and white powder. We received only the walking wounded, but we did not know that at the time when we cleared all the beds and called all available staff to work, ready to stabilize the critical patients who never arrived.

My residents and colleagues included people of all origins, including Saudi Arabians and Egyptians, and Middle Eastern people in all phases of ESL levels. Most had come to serve at the hospital on work visas. There weren’t, and still aren’t, enough doctors to attend to patients in what we euphemistically call “the underserved areas,” but which are really ghettos of the poor, people of color, and new immigrants. On September 11th, people were terrified and uncertain, and we as physicians were as stunned as everyone else. Arabs and non-Arabs, Muslims, Christians, Atheists — everyone. Who did this? Why? Was there another attack coming? What should we do in response?

Over the next several days, mumblings were heard from different corners of our work community. Whom should we trust? One resident, who was originally from Syria, walked around quietly for several days, his white face reminding me of the dust coated victims I had treated only days before. Police officers, fire fighters, and volunteers, already reeling from their losses, frequently stopped by the emergency room for treatment, or even to chat.

Our neighborhood store owners were predominantly Yemenite. The bodega across the street sold excellent tea and coffee, and, most importantly, they were open all night. The Yemenite men always looked after me ever since the day when I saw a picture of their homeland taped to the glass and exclaimed: “Sana’a!”

How do you know?

My great-grandfather was from from Jiblah, near enough to Sana’a.

You are family! You must visit!

Well I’m a Jew, so I can’t.

Nonsense! You are Yemenite family! Come with us and be our guest!

For a split second on September 12th, I was afraid to go to the store. What if they really hate Jews? Then I felt ashamed, and thought about what the store owners were likely facing. And that was before the police came. There would soon be arrests, deportations, and one emergency medicine doctor hauled out of his shift in handcuffs due to false accusations, leaving the patients literally abandoned for a few hours. One nurse, who objected to the police taking the only doctor away, was arrested as well, kicking and screaming and resisting all the way.

I found the store locked, its shutters drawn. But there seemed to be light oozing from under the door.

Ana ayeza shay (I want tea), I called out.

The door opened cautiously — two men peeked out, one head on top of the other.

Oh it’s you, Dr. Jibli (my family name before anglicizing). Alhamdullalah! We are so scared!

Me too. My husband’s cousin died. In the towers.

Allah yerachamu! (May Allah have mercy on his soul), they said.

Shukran. Can I hide here with you? I just don’t want to go back to the emergency room.

About the Author
Chana Gable Selmon is an emergency medicine physician practicing in both New Jersey and Jerusalem, sometimes in the space of the same week. She likes to tell stories.
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