By Sarah Freeman-Woolpert | –
( Waging Nonviolence ) – From the brutal war in Ukraine to the devastating school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, aggression and mass atrocities seem to define today’s world. Yet, even as we navigate this trauma and tragedy, there are glimmers of hope to be found in the lesser-known stories of collective action, as people come together in the face of these terrible events. Now more than ever, the world can learn how to challenge violence from those who are organizing for peace.
By emphasizing support and solidarity, groups led primarily by Yemeni-American women are building momentum to end the world’s “forgotten war.”
There is perhaps no better example than the mobilization to end the war in Yemen — a country with a rich history and vibrant culture, but one most Americans would struggle to find on a map. For years, a small, close-knit network of organizers led primarily by Yemeni-American women has been driving a major mobilization for peace. Working on shoestring budgets and without much fanfare, they organize rallies, meet with policymakers and lead community events. Many balance their activism with full-time jobs or school work, while caring for children or aging parents.
“We support each other,” said Jehan Hakim of the Yemeni Alliance Committee, a grassroots group in the Bay Area. “It’s more than an antiwar movement. It’s a sisterhood.”
After years of organizing, activists finally saw an important step forward this week, as the U.S. House of Representatives introduced a bipartisan measure to end U.S. support for the war. The day after this bill was introduced, the temporary truce in Yemen was extended for another two months. Under the truce, Yemenis have experienced the longest period without airstrikes in seven years, and the first commercial flights have left Yemen since the war began.
Since 2014, the Saudi-led war in Yemen has wreaked devastation on the Yemeni population, contributing to the world’s worst humanitarian crisis — one in which over 370,000 people have been killed, as the Saudi coalition has bombed weddings, hospitals and a school bus full of children. In fact, a Yemeni child dies every 10 minutes from preventable causes alone. The U.S. continues to provide logistical support, spare parts and maintenance to the Saudi coalition, despite President Biden’s announcement in Feb. 2021 that he would end U.S. support for the coalition’s offensive operations.
Through protests, hunger strikes, meetings with policymakers and creative actions, the movement to end the war in Yemen is building a model for what a powerful peace movement can look like when grounded in a culture of solidarity. By centering the expertise of those most impacted by the war and honoring the many unique roles we can each play, their efforts show that peace activists can shape a different story — one in which the world is not defined by violence, but by how communities organize in the face of violence and work together to build peace.
Origins of a grassroots movement
For years, activists have worked to raise public awareness and pressure lawmakers in countries like the U.S., Canada and the U.K. to end weapons sales and support for the war.
According to Neda Saleh, a Yemeni-born activist who started a high school club called Hands Off Yemen, the lack of public knowledge about the war was a major problem when she began organizing in 2017. “People asked us, ‘There’s a war in Yemen? What’s going on?’”
One source of power behind Yemen’s antiwar movement comes from the close-knit community organizing that’s happening behind the scenes. The trusting and welcoming approach to engaging new people in their efforts allows activists to feel supported and sustained as they grow in this work together.
“The work we do isn’t rooted in any political agenda or anything to do with recognition,” said Iman Saleh, a Yemeni-American organizer working with Detroit’s Yemeni Liberation Movement. “It’s a deep sense of humanity, and seeing not just our families by blood, but our families by nature, who have been suffering for so long.”
After her early days of running a bake sale to raise money and awareness as a high school student, Neda Saleh moved on to work with another group called Action Corps, which grew out of Oxfam. It was at this point Neda realized, “It wasn’t just me and my cousins handing out cookies on the streets of San Francisco. People were pushing their members of Congress. That part was so powerful to me.”
Neda called her cousins in June 2021 to help plan a coalition rally in front of Rep. Ro Khanna’s office. Despite his progressive record on many foreign policy issues, Khanna had not been responding to the broader coalition’s requests for a meeting. Then, finally, on the day of the rally, his legislative director reached out, offering to set up a meeting with Khanna. “We would actually be able to talk to the person making the decision,” Neda said. “It showed that our work made an impact.”
Welcoming many different roles in the movement
As Quaker activist Bill Moyer theorized in his influential book “Doing Democracy,” strong movements need people who play many different roles. This includes helpers providing direct service to those in need, advocates working with legislators, organizers gathering large numbers of people to take action, and rebels engaging in disruption and civil disobedience.
When it comes to Yemen, a range of groups and organizations have brought their skills and strengths to the table, while also providing opportunities for young organizers to try out different roles and find the tactics that feel most energizing to them.
Some play the rebel role, creating crisis and urgency through civil disobedience. One stark example was the 24-day hunger strike staged by Iman Saleh with fellow activists in front of the White House in 2021. Another was led by a group of Canadian activists in front of the deputy prime minister’s Toronto office, where they dropped a multi-story banner reading “Blood on your hands” to protest Canadian arms exports to Saudi Arabia.
Meanwhile, others play the helper role, addressing the immediate needs on the ground. This includes the kids in the United Kingdom who set up “Lemonade for Yemen Aid” stands to raise money for humanitarian relief in Yemen. Organizations like the Yemen Relief and Reconstruction Foundation provide direct support to families in Yemen through local networks of volunteers.
There are also those playing the advocate’s role, engaging with policymakers directly. The organization I work for, The Friends Committee on National Legislation, or FCNL, has mobilized local teams of peace advocates to conduct nearly 200 meetings with policymakers since January. Some advocates find creative ways to play this role, like Charlottesville, Virginia resident Carol DiCaprio Herrick, who dressed up in an angel costume and stood on the side of a busy street with a sign that read, “Heaven knows we should end U.S. support for the war in Yemen.” The sign included the congressional switchboard phone number.
At the same time, many groups play the organizer role, bringing together larger numbers of people to increase pressure through collective action. Organizations like Action Corps, Yemeni Alliance Committee and Peace Action have all mobilized large numbers of people to raise attention to the war with events like the Yemen Global Day of Action on January 25, 2021. On that day, over 100 organizations called on President Biden to end U.S. support for the war in Yemen as part of his first 100 days in office. From large-scale actions in New York City, San Francisco and Chicago to smaller rallies in Vermont and New Mexico, organizers have increased public awareness and pressured lawmakers to end support for the war.
The people and organizations playing these various roles have developed relationships of mutual trust and collaboration that are refreshing — and somewhat rare — to find in movement spaces today. The feminist antiwar organization Code Pink led a Ramadan fundraiser that raised $20,000 for the Yemen Relief and Reconstruction Foundation. Quakers in Idaho joined with local activists from Action Corps and World Beyond War to meet with staff of Idaho Sen. Jim Risch, the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
The openness also means that people can decide when they don’t want to play a particular role, knowing that others will step in.
“It’s so hard for me to do lobbying,” Jehan Hakim said. “I would bring Yemeni families to meet with congressional staff, and they were crying about airstrikes in their communities. I have learned to hold my tears because you will not be seen as serious if you’re crying. I can’t put my members and community through it anymore.”
In this case, hundreds of Quakers, people of faith and other peace advocates can play an important role. Although they may have no direct connection to the war in Yemen, they tell congressional staff personal stories about their own children and grandchildren, and how no child should grow up living in fear and insecurity.
“It’s not sustainable for us to do lobbying along with other organizing work, leading digital actions, protesting, hosting webinars,” Jehan said. “We need their allyship.”
Instead of competing or clashing, this mobilization opens space for many different roles, creating powerful opportunities for coalition-building and creative action.
Taking leadership from those most impacted
The movement to end the war in Yemen is a powerful example of how peace movements can and should be led by the people whose lives and families are directly impacted by the wars themselves. The leadership of Yemeni-American women enables organizers to understand how they can engage communities strategically, by knowing some of the reservations people might have about participating.
After the school bus bombing in 2018, Neda worked with Hands Off Yemen to organize a community vigil commemorating the lives lost in the brutal airstrike. “We decided we wanted to get members of the community who might not typically show up,” Neda said. Some Yemeni-Americans are concerned about repercussions for speaking out against the war, or have a different opinion on the conflict, so the group worried they might not attend. To address this, they kept their messages general, and focused on shared grief and mourning. “It was one of the biggest turnouts we had at an event,” she said.
Understanding these dynamics makes the movement more powerful, and allows organizers to center the perspectives and experiences of those impacted by the war. “We need more Yemeni people represented at the forefront of this cause,” Neda said. “Having people from a Yemeni background is crucial. I always tell my cousins and sisters that we need to be the face of this movement, because no one understands our struggle like we do.”
This has not always been the case in other peace movements. “In so many antiwar movements, we don’t see people impacted by the war themselves,” Jehan said. “I want to say, ‘Can we hear from them?’ But that’s always a missing piece.”
This approach makes the movement stronger, and connects organizers to a deeper sense of community driving their work.
“When people most impacted are at the center of a movement, that’s what organizing should look like,” Jehan said. “It’s how our ancestors worked. We need to go back to doing things the way our elders used to do it, knocking on doors and talking to each other. That’s what I love about this movement. It’s not transactional.”
Now that legislation has been introduced in Congress, activists will work to build support in the Senate, hoping to gain enough momentum for the bill to pass before the truce expires at the end of July. Bipartisan majorities in both chambers of Congress passed a Yemen War Powers Resolution in 2019 to end unauthorized U.S. support for the war, but President Trump vetoed the resolution. Some experts claim that renewed Congressional pressure is strengthening Saudi commitment to the truce, preventing airstrikes and civilian casualties in the short-term. In the long run, much work remains to be done in order to achieve a truly peaceful future in Yemen, but activists say this future must be determined by Yemenis themselves.
“Yemen has its own right to self-determination,” Iman Saleh said. “No [other] country should ever be involved when it comes to a people trying to build a future for themselves.”
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Building a culture of solidarity
Above all, this movement has built a culture of support and solidarity between organizations, rather than fostering a sense of competition for credit, donations or supporters. This is demonstrated in part by the biweekly coalition calls that have taken place with a range of organizations, policy experts, activists and even congressional staff. A WhatsApp group has helped facilitate information-sharing and strategizing, further strengthening a community that builds trust and transparency within the larger movement.
Activists have also drawn inspiration from other movements, emphasizing solidarity with other groups experiencing oppression. Iman Saleh of the Yemen Liberation Movement said that much of her activism was inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement and the uprisings in 2020.
“I saw how that movement resonates not just with issues here in the United States, but also how those issues relate to the Global South,” she said. “These forms of settler violence and military violence are rooted in the same machine.”
This culture of solidarity has extended to community events and actions. According to Neda, “Every time we planned something, more people would show up. We had Filipino advocacy groups, Palestinian groups, Democratic Socialists and others just showing their support.”
There has been strong solidarity with activists working on a range of issues. For example, in 2018, the climate action group Earth Defense Coalition parked a painted school bus in front of a Boeing facility bearing the slogan “Boeing gains from Yemen’s pain” to protest its sale of guided missile kits and other weapons to Saudi Arabia.
“I’ve been in other antiwar spaces,” Jehan said, “and I haven’t seen anything like the Yemen antiwar movement.”
Jehan then described “two ends of a spectrum” in antiwar organizing: progressive, predominantly white groups and marginalized communities raising their voices alone. “What makes the anti-Yemen war movement different is you have that all meshed in together,” she said. “That’s what makes it beautiful.”
Sarah Freeman-Woolpert is a writer, researcher and organizer focused on nonviolent social movements and creative action. She lived for two years in the Balkans, studying and supporting youth activist movements. Sarah now works as a grassroots organizer for peace and justice and is based in Boston.