It’s 5:30 in the morning, unseasonably cold and still dark in New York. Haidara Nasser, Osama Alsahybi, Ahmed Alzandhani and Abdullah Shaiba are on their way to the Bronx in Haidara’s minivan, which is at least a decade old but impeccably clean with an improbable sunroof. They’re on the way to play their first game as members of the Yemen United Soccer Club. All of them worked until midnight, and no one has eaten a proper breakfast.
The day before, Ahmed, 18, and Haidara, 19, both of whom grew up in Brooklyn and speak fluent English and Spanglish, went to a Dominican barber shop for a “medium skin fade”. They wanted to look slick for the game. Afterwards, with gelled curls piled high above freshly shaved temples, Haidara headed to his afternoon shift at the family bodega, and Ahmed headed to Friday prayers.
Suddenly the van fills with bright twangs of oud – a lute-like string instrument – and Ahmed lifts his arms and twitches his shoulders to a traditional wedding song. Beside him, Osama, 20, snaps the downtown skyline on his phone.
After a few more Yemeni tunes, Ahmed takes over. “I have some very good music. Put the volume up, please!” Even when making demands, Ahmed is unfailingly polite.
These guys seem way too alert for the schedules they keep. They attend college full-time, work seven days a week and practice soccer biweekly. Some of them practice more often, playing for college teams and city leagues, as well as Yemen United.
“Soccer is one of the best things in life,” says Osama. “Believe me. When I’m tired, when I’m angry, I just play soccer. I forget everything.”
Osama is a solid striker, hyper-focused when he’s on the field; always lanky and graceful, with expressive eyebrows, a charismatic grin and an expanding bush of black hair that his family urges him to cut (“Never!”). He moved with his parents and two siblings to New York from Sana’a in 2016. They waited in the Houthi-controlled port city of Mokha for three days, before taking a small boat across the Gulf of Aden to Djibouti. Then they stayed in a hotel and an apartment for a few months while being vetted.
Now Osama works nine-hour shifts at his family’s bodega and sleeps on a pull-out sofa in a room he shares with an older brother. His brother pays the rent, since Osama has to cover college expenses. Osama also sends money back to Yemen, where six of his 10 siblings remain.
In Sana’a, Osama lived in a big house with his parents, his siblings and their families. Two of his older brothers (already in New York) and his father (who used to split time between New York and Sana’a) would send money, and his oldest brother, a doctor, spearheaded HIV prevention for Yemen’s Ministry of Public Health. Osama didn’t have to work. Instead, he went to school and played soccer and video games. He’s still easygoing (and doesn’t mind if customers call him “Oz” when they’re uncomfortable with his name, which means “lion” in Arabic), but now he worries about his family’s safety.
“Every day you hear that someone died,” he says. “I still remember the bombs. Every day you’re going to hear it. You have to get used to it.”
His family is part of an estimated 44,000 foreign-born Yemenis in the US, according to 2016 statistics from the US Census Bureau. But at the moment, Osama is in a van 7,000 miles from Sana’a, with prayer tassels dangling from the rearview mirror, and the sunrise over the East River casting everything in a rosy glow.
Yemen United is an optimistic name for a club of players hailing from a country divided by proxy wars for much of a century.
“The message is that we can actually unite our community,” says Jamiel Altaheri, 33. “And hopefully that message will be heard abroad. A lot of people lost hope in their own community, as well as in their governments back home. We’re trying to create that sense of hope and self-empowerment.”
A New York Police Department captain, he’s the highest-ranking Yemeni-American on the force as well as being a community leader who helped found the soccer club and handles its business operations.
In recent history, North and South Yemen have been separate countries more often than a united nation. North Yemen was part of the Ottoman Empire until 1918 and South Yemen was ruled by the British from the 1800s until 1967. During the ’60s and ’70s, North Yemen was supported by Saudi Arabia, while the more secular South gradually turned to Marxism and Soviet support.
In 1990, the collapse of the USSR and Gulf War-related disagreements caused both North and South Yemen to lose critical foreign funding and encouraged unification under shared economic interests. But a large Shia minority felt marginalised by the new government and its leader, Ali Abdullah Saleh, who seemed to treat state coffers as his personal bank account.
Some of these angry Shias became Houthis, a rebel group which engaged in armed clashes with the government. During the Arab Spring, tens of thousands of Yemenis protested and eventually Saleh was forced to step down. (Later he was killed by Houthis, whom he was aligned with until he publicly courted the Saudis.)
From the ’60s on, and especially during the economically troubled ’90s, Yemeni men emigrated to the US, sending money back to their families and establishing the bodegas and delis that are now synonymous with New York’s Yemeni diaspora. But these men rarely settled permanently, travelling frequently home to Yemen, where their families often remained, and usually retiring there.
By 2015, Yemen was too dangerous a place to return. Bolstered by Iran, the Houthis controlled much of the country, while the Saudis were steadily bombing schools, hospitals and cultural centres – under the guise of bombing rebels – using missiles purchased from the US and the UK.
Saudi blockades have kept food, oil and medical supplies from Yemen, causing a humanitarian crisis that now has eight million Yemenis facing potential starvation and spawned the worst cholera epidemic in modern history.
Hamoud Almathil’s family came to New York in 2013. As a seventh-grader, he marched against Saleh during the Arab Spring. “Saleh had been there for 33 years, and he didn’t do anything for the country… and actually, he was one of the world’s richest presidents,” Hamoud, now 18, says. “With, like, one billion dollars, you can maybe fix the whole of Yemen. He had seven billion.”
In actuality, the UN believes Saleh may have amassed between $30-60 billion in assets.
By 6:45 on Saturday morning, about 20 Yemeni players stretch or run drills on a worn astroturf field, surrounded by a track populated with joggers. The players greet each other with low hand slaps, wrestling and jostling playfully.
This game is a “friendly”, which means that neither Yemen United nor the Jordanian team are playing as part of an official league. In a few months, Yemen United will apply to join one of the semi-pro city leagues, after the coaches know the players better.
Two of the team coaches held prominent positions in Yemeni soccer. Ahmed Rashed, 50 has been coaching for 30 years, most recently for the Yemeni National Team. He came to the US last year on a lottery visa and is trying to get a visa for his wife, a process that has been complicated by Trump’s immigration policy. Another coach, Tariq Al-Haidari, played for the Yemeni Olympic Team in 2008.
The Jordanians are nearly an hour late. Coach Rashed gathers his players and outlines the strategy, punctuated with Inshallah (Arabic for ‘God-willing’). The players listen intently and respectfully, no trace of their earlier impishness.
At 8am, an hour after the game was supposed to start, the Jordanian team is ready. They’re less athletic and disciplined than the Yemeni team, and they’re a few players short.
Sid Hatem, 22, a Brooklyn-born goalie whose grandfather founded the oldest Yemeni restaurant in New York, agrees to play for the Jordanians. He yells something to Yosef Aymar, a striker the coaches have banned from the game became he was late to practice.
Yosef – a dead ringer for James Franco, but for his ombré undercut – has been sulking on the sidelines. Now he springs to his feet yelling, “I’m in? Hell, yeah!”
He strips off track pants, shouting, “I’m going to destroy my team! I know their weaknesses.”
Later the father of a Yemeni player, an older man who came as a spectator, subs for one of the Jordanians. Shady Amari, a Yemeni player sitting out with a broken collarbone, rubs his sling and jokes that he might sub for them, too.
It was actually Shady, 24, who suggested that Jamiel start the Yemen United Soccer Club. Shady grew up near Ibb and came to New York when he was 14.
“I would like to go back if the country changes and try to use the experiences I gathered here,” Shady says. “The soccer team has no value because the [Yemeni] government doesn’t care about sports [or] support them travelling and playing. I would like to work with sports over there, to coach the kids with no money and no education but a soccer dream.”
Shady speaks quietly but assuredly, seeming like an ancient soul. He knows deferred dreams. At seven, he was already playing teenagers. “They motivated me,” he says. “My older brother used to tell me, ‘They talk about you and how you play. They like it, but you’re going to get hurt.’”
Shady describes his father as “old generation. The country people don’t look at soccer as a career. All they think about is being a doctor or something big. They don’t know what the heart wants.”
In high school, Shady signed his own medical release to play soccer, so he wouldn’t have to ask his father. He got two scholarships to New York colleges, but his father didn’t want him to play. Shady couldn’t see himself studying something he didn’t love so, when he graduated, he began working 12-hour shifts in his father’s bodega.
Now his father lives in California, while Shady lives with cousins and drives for Uber. He hopes to one day study sports management and coach soccer.
“You know how you have something inside of you, like a dream?” he says. “You grow up, but that dream just keeps getting younger and younger. You see the parents looking at them like they’re just doing it for fun, but if only they knew the kids playing soccer, what’s inside of them and how they feel. I still have that dream in me.”
“I think it’s too late to make it professional for me,” he adds, “but I could help other people and be part of their careers.”
On the hour-long ride back to Brooklyn, the victorious Yemen United players are subdued. They won 13-1, with Yosef, their own team member, scoring the single goal against them. In a few months, they’re supposed to play a tournament against a Yemeni club in Michigan.
This crew is talented but raw, more accustomed to playing park pick-ups than coached games. The guys in the van know their chemistry needs work to cohere into a true force.
“I know there are stronger teams that we’re gonna play, but now we know that we have good players on our team, and we can communicate with each other,” says Ahmed.
He feels confident about Yemen United, but he’s concerned about the trip to Michigan. “I hope my father lets me go. I hope he doesn’t make me work.”
Both Ahmed and Haidara describe their fathers as “strict”.
Ahmed is in his first year of college, studying criminal justice. Haidara will graduate from high school in June. He’s been offered a soccer scholarship from a college upstate, but his father isn’t comfortable with him leaving home. Now he’s trying to find the best soccer program in the city.
“They didn’t go to school. That’s the big reason. They don’t know that we have other options,” Haidara says.
In the passenger seat, Abdullah, 24, curls over his phone, watching the game they just played, which Osama’s older brother Khalid streamed to Facebook. (That same day, Khalid’s seven-year-old daughter Haneen played in her first soccer game.)
Ahmed tries to nap, laying his head on Osama’s shoulder. As they get closer to the city, traffic stalls.
Haidara asks, “What time do you have to start work, Ahmed?”
“How you gonna get there?”
Ahmed shrugs. “Fly.”
A few minutes later, at 11 on the dot, Ahmed’s phone rings. He has a brief, tense conversation with his father, and Haidara exits the freeway, hoping to make better time on side streets.
Ahmed hangs up and mutters, “I can’t control traffic. I told him I have a game!”
Yesterday he had said, “It’s the right thing he’s doing, letting me work nine hours instead of being out on the streets, doing the wrong thing and spending a lot of money.” Today, he seems frustrated.
On Sunday morning, it’s windy, overcast and even colder. At 7am, the boys are back at their home field in Brooklyn, which juts against the river and offers a striking backdrop of the iconic New York skyline.
They’re playing next to a team of small girls. Omar Saleh, 22, watches approvingly. “The one with the pink hair-tie, she really goes for it,” he says.
Omar is two years into a radiology tech program. He has been shuttling between Yemen, where he was born, and America since 2006. His five older brothers finished college, and he knows his parents expect him to do the same.
The 22-year-old has been playing soccer as long as he can remember. If he had to do it over, Omar says he would try to play professionally, but now he thinks he’s too old. “My parents were not supportive, because of injuries… and I didn’t know what steps to take, whether to apply to college and get a scholarship or how to try out for the MLS [Major League Soccer].”
Like Shady and several other players, Omar forged his father’s signature just to play for his high-school team.
“On the field, you feel like you belong to this place,” he says. “You feel comfortable.”
After practice, about 10 people pile into Haidara’s van to ride four blocks to a Yemeni cafe. Haidara doesn’t park – he worked till 3am and wants to sleep before going back to work at 3pm. Omar is also heading home, after driving all night for Lyft.
The restaurant is below street level – dim, small, cosy and, since it’s too early for lunch, empty. The players crowd into a booth. Waters and tiny styrofoam cups of sweet cardamom tea appear; spiced beef and liver with bread are followed by a honey and heavy cream dessert.
The topic at hand is a company called AX Soccer Tours, which is coming to New York with (according to their website) European coaches and potential contracts. But tryouts cost $500, and the Yemenis aren’t sure if it’s legit.
Hamoud, the player who protested in Sana’a during Arab Spring, is studying to be a firefighter, but his dream is to play soccer. “Omar’s friend from Jordan, he went to the tryouts last year and now he’s in Denmark playing,” he says.
Sid shakes his head. “No, bro,” he says vehemently. “If I pay the 500 and get cut, I’m gonna start swinging.”
Ahmed Elsamet, 19, says he knows someone who plays for a local pro-club, the New York Red Bulls. “They pay him, like, 100,000!”
“That’s basically like a doctor,” Hamoud says.
In Yemen, Hamoud used to skip school to play soccer. “When I’m home late, my mother, she knows. She sends my brother to find me. He knows the places I play. He comes and beats me and takes me home.”
He’s joking. Hamoud only works in summers, which gives him time to focus on school and soccer, and his parents are okay with sports. Even so, he misses Yemen, where no one yelled at him for praying in public (this happened once, on a New York beach) and where he was free to roam around, without constantly checking in with parents.
Hamoud’s friends back home ask him to send phones, which they think are cheap in America. When he mentions visiting Sana’a, his parents tell him there’s no one there anymore.
But Hamoud still has friends there. “They don’t play soccer anymore,” he says. “And they were good players.”