Mohammed Jubary says he grew up thinking he belonged to the Sunni branch of the Islamic faith. But after his country fell into a sectarian war, he learned his family is actually Zaydi, which is part of the Shia sect of Islam.
“I don’t think I’m an exceptional case. I think at some point in Yemen, we didn’t have sectarian movements or calls for divisions as much as there is right now,” he said.
For example, he says when he went to the mosque on Fridays, he removed his shoes next to all different types of worshippers, and no one really knew or cared. That probably wouldn’t happen now, he said.
Yemen has deteriorated into a humanitarian catastrophe. According to the International Committee of the Red Cross, six out of ten Yemenis are at risk of starving and an estimated one million people there have contracted cholera. Much of this suffering is due to the war between a rebel group called Houthis and neighboring Saudi
Sitting in a Springfield library, Jubary says the Houthi rebels controlling Yemen right now are implementing a strict, theocratic ideology.
“It’s an ideology that, they claim to have the power based on a descent from the Prophet Mohammed. They think they are superior,” Jubary said.
Saudi Arabia is leading a coalition of Arab states to try to remove the Houthis from power through airstrikes and embargos.
But the Saudi-led effort has killed civilians, damaged infrastructure, and made it harder for supplies to get in to those in dire need.
The United States has been helping Saudi Arabia in its attempt to oust the Houthis from Yemen.
But a few weeks ago, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives voted 366-30 to pass a resolution that said America’s military action there has not been authorized by Congress. That military action includes providing intelligence and refueling to Saudi-led coalition warplanes, according to the House resolution.
At the same time, the US is providing an extraordinary amount of humanitarian aid to the Yemeni people.
“Since 2015, the US government, through USAID and State [Department] has provided more than 1.3 billion dollars in assistance to the Yemeni people,” said State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert in a press conference last month that aired on C-SPAN.
Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Arabian Gulf Affairs, Tim Lenderking, said the United States is urging Saudi Arabia to separate the humanitarian aspect from the military operation.
“We believe that there is room for the Houthis in a political settlement. We welcome that—but not when the Houthis continue to rocket a key ally like Saudi Arabia on a regular basis,” Lenderking told reporters last month in that same press briefing.
One reason Yemen is strategic to the US is because it controls an important waterway, the Bab Al-Mendeb strait.
Mohammed Jubary says he feels compelled to find a solution to the fighting and the suffering that comes as a result.
“The solution to the war right now in Yemen is to let the aid and food and agencies to get in. Feed the people. Get the people cured, and get the people medicine and the vaccines from cholera and all that,” Jubary said.
When asked whether he will return to live in Yemen, Jubary says he battles with that decision every night.
“I have two options: either to pursue a beautiful, smooth, easy life, and just be concerned about myself. Or go home, bringing change and enlighten the people. Because I have seen what most people have not seen,” Jubary said.
Here in Missouri, he’s learned that people of different backgrounds can live peacefully.
“And that’s what I tell my friends. I tell them, ‘My neighbor could be Jewish, could be an Atheist, could be anything. It doesn’t concern me. And why would you have to get everybody to become Shia or become Sunni. We can just live peacefully if you keep your religion to yourself,’” Jubary said.
He supports a separation of religion and the state, even though just talking about such an idea puts him at risk for being prosecuted when he returns home one day. But it’s that important to him, he says, that he has to push these ideas forward.
“I feel like I have some sort of obligation, a national obligation: to my people, to my country, to my family. I still have a dream, since I was really young, to become the president of Yemen at some point,” Jubary said.
Jubary studies engineering at MSU. His grandfather was Yemen’s Minister of the Economy, he said, and his dad’s cousin was a Congressman—so public service is familiar to him.
He says when his mother calls him now, she asks, “Are you ready? The people need you to come back.”