Longtime Citizen Struggles to Bring Yemeni Family to Central Valley
Saber Askar stands outside his apartment in East Porterville. A U.S. citizen, he's struggling to bring his family to the U.S. from Yemen. (Vanessa Rancano/KQED)
La Buena Vista is a corner store with a butcher in the back, a taco truck out front and a stray dog for a mascot. It’s the type of place that sells everything from lotto scratchers to engine oil to cilantro. It’s in East Porterville, a small farmworker town at the edge of the Central Valley where there aren’t any sidewalks, and there are as many dirt roads as paved streets.
It's an agricultural town in Tulare County, home to plenty of undocumented farmworkers who are feeling vulnerable nowadays. The guy behind the register at La Buena Vista, though, is an immigrant whose life has been turned upside down by recent changes in immigration policy. And he's an American citizen.
He's a big guy with weary eyes and a warm smile. He's from Yemen. His real name is Saber Askar, but he saves that for the DMV.
Here, he’s "Moe."
He was 15 when he immigrated. Moe's dad had been living in the U.S. for a while when he sent for him. Moe spent more than a decade working in factories in Indiana, then moved to East Porterville to help his cousin with the market.
He’s been here eight years now, and picked up a lot of Spanish.
“Como estamos, hermano?” (How you doing, brother?) he asks a guy in a cowboy hat. “Trabajar hoy o no?” (Working today or no?) He’s also taught his customers some Arabic, so the store’s official language is a kind of patois.
He shouts a greeting in Arabic as customers walk in. “Halahala!"
Some respond in kind, putting their own accented gloss on the word.
At the market everyone knows Moe as the goofy guy behind the cash register. But the cheerful demeanor masks another side of Moe -- one I saw when I visited him at home.
Moe has a wife and three daughters in Yemen. He calls them most nights. He says he always planned to bring them to the U.S. He wanted to save up money and buy a house so they’d have a nice place to live. But since the civil war started two years ago, he’s been desperate to get them here.
When he calls his family in Sanaa, Yemen, his 16-year-old daughter answers. He asks how she’s doing. Moe interprets for me: "She says the airplanes is all the time in the air and they scared they’re gonna drop stuff to them. She said she cannot sleep at nighttime."
Moe is especially worried about his 10-year-old daughter. The bombing has taken a toll, physically and psychologically. She has a hard time keeping her food down, so she’s lost a lot of weight. Moe says she has to go to a clinic for IV treatments regularly.
"They make me bleed inside," he says. "I don’t know what to do. Every time I call I’m afraid they not answer anymore."
The next day at the local mosque, people are gathered for Friday prayer.
The mosque manager, Basem Aqra, says it draws more than 100 families from Porterville and surrounding towns.
“They’re from all over, from Yemen, Palestine, from Egypt, from Jordan,” he says.
Some came as refugees or asylum seekers fleeing conflicts. Others, like Moe, followed family members here. The weather and agricultural lifestyle in the valley are familiar, and some started out working in farming. Aqra says today most of them are business owners, and he says recently they’re scared.
“We’ve never seen anything like that,” he says, referring to the rhetoric and policies of the Trump era. “People even they worry if they’re stopped with a traffic ticket or something they’re gonna be targeted.”
"I get afraid, you know, if something’s going to happen," he says. “They’re shooting people when they pray in mosques, stuff like that. So I think about this kind of stuff, too.”
Moe lived through 9/11 in the U.S., and it was hard. He says the climate today feels worse. For more than a year Moe watched the presidential campaign whip up anti-immigrant feeling among some of his fellow Americans.
“The last couple months I feel different,” he says. “They make me feel different. Even if you're an American citizen, you're nothing. That hurts my feelings bad.”
Now, after 17 years as a citizen, Moe’s place in this country feels precarious. He’s not just worried for himself, his family and fellow Muslims. He's also worried for his customers: the vulnerable farmworker families that keep his market in business.
Through all of this he has one solid source of support: his best friend, Darla. She’s been helping him with the immigration paperwork for his family. But even this friendship is strained now. Darla voted for Trump.
After a dinner of chicken and orange rice one night, Moe broaches the subject.
"At least say you’re sorry, you know,” he says.
“I don’t think I did anything wrong!” she responds. But before she can explain, Moe butts in. “Yes you did! Do you feel it now? He’s not good!” Moe shouts.
Darla is quiet for a moment.
“You know, I do feel bad,” she says finally. “I feel bad if you feel insulted that I would choose a president who is so discriminating and so racist. I had no idea. I had no idea that he was going to do any of that."
Moe's face softens a little as he listens, and Darla continues, "I just have total faith that everything will be OK,” she says. “Inshallah" (God willing).