The Importance of Addressing International Students’ Mental Health

On September 17th, 2020,  21-year-old international student Amarinder Singh took his life while studying in Surrey BC, Canada due to a decline in his mental health, partly caused by financial stress. Hundreds of students deal with mental health struggles throughout their educational endeavors. Unlike others, international students struggle with more than just adjusting to a new country; they have the added stress of grappling with mental health issues in a foreign place. There are many factors that affect an international student’s mental health: family dynamics, the accessibility to mental health services, and the social stigma surrounding mental health stand out. 

Financial issues play a big role in an international student’s mental health during their time overseas. For instance, to attend the University of California, Davis, the average annual in state tuition is roughly $14,495 and the average annual out of state tuition is around $44,000. For international students the annual cost of attendance is around $56,000, along with the usual expenses such as food, housing, and frequent traveling. According to a study conducted by STILT, a fintech company focused on providing credit to immigrants and the underserved, 67% of international students feel stress related to the cost of attendance and 75% of international students feel stress related to the cost of travel. Studies have shown that students that are stressed about expenses are more likely to develop anxiety which interrupts their ability to learn and receive good marks.

Hundreds of students deal with mental health struggles throughout their educational endeavors. International students struggle with more than just adjusting to a new country; they have the added stress of grappling with mental health issues in a foreign place. There are many factors that affect an international student’s mental health: some of the top components can include family dynamics, the accessibility to mental health services, and the social stigma surrounding mental health. 

According to Dr. Nirmal Brar, a child, adolescent, and adult psychiatrist based in Fresno, California, there are multiple factors that affect an international student’s mental health. “One factor is that they are away from their family, away from their support system. Another is that there is a cultural difference,”  Dr. Brar said. “Depending on which country they are from, there is a social stigma around mental health, much more in developing countries.” While we are constantly trying to destigmatize mental health issues across all countries, being away from family and not having that consistency can be tough, especially if one heavily relies on their parents, grandparents, or siblings for support. “Things were pretty exciting in the beginning, everything’s new and interesting, so I didn’t think about my family much,” said Weijia Chen, a fourth-year international student studying computer science at UC Davis. “But after a couple of years, I started to feel tired to keep the social life and started to feel lonely.”

The COVID-19 pandemic, starting in early 2020, has exacerbated the challenges that come with earning a college degree in a foreign country. Early on, many college campuses allowed students to choose between staying in the dorms or going home. However, due to the nature of online classes, international students were still at risk. Many campuses, such as Harvard, decided that regardless of the campus being open to its students, international students would be prohibited from studying in the United States. Depending on the campus, many international students had to decide between going home or working out alternative ways to maintain their nonimmigrant status in order to continue their studies within the United States. “My biggest problem was trying to leave the U.S. and worrying about whether or not the U.S. would allow international students back in,” said Mohamed Aljishi, an international student studying computer science at UC Davis. “Thankfully, the U.S. didn’t force international students out; however, my country banned all travel the day I booked my ticket home.” 

While facing the new “normal” in regards to their education, international students were far more susceptible to feeling homesick and lonely. “This pandemic made things worse. The feeling of being alone increased every day. Most of my friends had left Davis; all my relatives and family members were back in China,” said Chen. “I was a little bit depressed for a period of time but got better after talking to the school counselor.” 

Like Amarinder Singh, there are countless international students struggling and in need of help. Many students struggle with financial problems, being away from their families, and most recently, adjusting to the online nature of classes. Throughout these past few months, many international students have learned to adapt to the new “normal”. Many have created a more physically present support system through their friends, families, and communities. Others have begun using new online tools such as Zoom to stay connected with friends all around the world, and those who chose to stay in the states for their studies took to  cooking more cultural dishes in attempts to remain connected to their home countries. During these difficult times, international students are trying  to appreciate each moment as they get through their adversities.

If you are struggling with mental help, don’t be afraid to reach out. Here are some places you can seek help.

  1. School counselors
  2. Therapists
  3. Psychologists and psychiatrists
  4. Here is a site with more information about seeking help: 

“Idealism” and “Practicality”: The Generational Gap in Political Beliefs

In Hasan Minhaj’s Homecoming King, there’s one scene that always strikes me. It’s a dialogue between Hasan and his father, Najme Minhaj, that takes place after their family is targeted after 9/11 by a group of people that called their house, left a death threat, and soon after smashed in the windows of their Camry. To his surprise, Hasan’s father does not react to the incident, instead he calmly sweeps the glass off the driveway. Hasan, shellshocked and frustrated, demands, “Why aren’t you saying something? Say something!” His father coolly responds, “Hasan, these things happen, and these things will continue to happen, and that’s the price we pay for being here.” 

In the show, Hasan acknowledges that his dad has a mindset like many other immigrants– facing racism is a given. Many come to America with the expectation of an “American Dream Tax,” meaning that immigrants internalize the mentality that they are bound to face some racism. This is their price for living in the U.S. As long as it’s not fatal, it’s fine.  He contrasts this mindset with his own, as a person born and raised in the US. Learning about the history of “equality for all” in his honors government class, he has this “audacity of equality,” going through a system of education that repeatedly taught him he’s entitled to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” and that all men are created equal. Yet in reality, these are not rights, but privileges that minorities are not always granted.

This scene echoes heated conversations I have had with my own dad about how to deal with racism. My dad grew up in Bangladesh and Malaysia, and immigrated to the United States for school when he was 26. I, on the other hand, have spent the vast majority of my 21 years in Northern California. My family has had their fair share of racism. One time, my mom and aunt, who wears a hijab, were crossing the street when a car stopped for them. They thanked the driver, to which he responded, “Yeah, just don’t bomb us.” My family was a little shocked at first, but then continued as if nothing happened. My cousin and I did not feel the same way. We were furious and annoyed. I thought to myself, “Who was this man with the audacity to treat us like we don’t belong here? As though we’re terrorists solely based on our appearance?” My dad eventually put his foot down and told us that it’s just not practical to get so worked up over something so small. 

A difference in opinion over what is “practical” and what is “idealistic” is where many of my disagreements with my family stem from. During the Democratic primary election, I voted for Senator Bernie Sanders because I felt that his progressive values would actually lead to change. My dad, on the other hand, supported Vice President Biden or former Mayor Bloomberg–not because he didn’t like Senator Sanders, but because he felt Sanders was too “idealistic.” He held the belief, like many Americans, that it’s naive to vote for Senator Sanders, and assumed that he would not be able to win the general election because of how consevative America really is.

To me, these experiences were examples of how factors like age and location impact political socialization and ideology. In a conversation with Vina Sidhu, a third year undergraduate student at UC Davis, she discussed how factors like religion, personal experience, and a feeling of home impacted her and her parents’ views on politics and society. Vina was born in India, but moved to the United States with her parents when she was one years old. She immigrated in a very tumultuous time, as it was soon after 9/11.  She explains that because of the environment at the time, “there was a fear instilled in [her] dad, because though [they are] not Muslim, he had features that were being stigmatized like those of the Muslim faith.” Fortunately, her dad’s worries about racism did not match what she experienced. She shares that there were “people spewing racist ideologies, [but they] were nice to him…and, because he had such a good experience, it tainted his lens–like, “Oh, it’s not as racist as people make it out to be.’” Vina’s father’s experience shows that immigrants often have to tolerate racism under the belief that it will always be a part of American society. It parallels the “American Dream Tax” that Hasan Minhaj mentioned in his Netflix special, when immigrants take racism as a given, a price to pay for living in America.

“Vina shares that her parents ‘were ten when the Sikh genocide occurred in 1984…It was a political genocide that raised a lot of religious tensions.’ During that time, ‘survival was being obedient, listening, following curfew, and altering their appearance to not get targeted by hate. Because that worked for them, that’s why they adopted the ‘don’t say anything, nothing will happen to your kind of mentality here’.”

As minorities in India, Vina’s parents had to deal with racism and trauma in a very specific way. Vina shares that her parents “were ten when the Sikh genocide occured in 1984… It was a political genocide that raised a lot of religious tensions.” During that time “survival was being obedient, listening, following curfew, and altering their appearance to not get targeted by hate. Because that worked for them, that’s why they adopted the ‘don’t say anything, nothing will happen to you’ kind of mentality here. Even when they do face discrimination they kind of filter it as, ‘Oh, that’s nothing; they’re just having a bad day’– and are very dismissive about it. Because that’s how they survived, and that’s how they were able to avoid conflict.”

Vina further explains that the Sikh teachings impacted their views of politics and Black Lives Matter. “Our religion teaches us to be tolerant of others in the way they practice and to fight for those who don’t have a voice.” Her parents are supportive of the Black Lives Matter movement and are anti-colorism. Much of her and her father’s similar views stem from religious teachings. Though they are quite divided on their political views, open dialogue has been fruitful in convincing her dad in some of her values. Growing up, rReligious teachings shave he has grown up with has also provided a baseline of common ground off of which to speak.

Adopting a passive view on politics is common among immigrant parents. Saket Malhotra, a sophomore at Yale University and the co-communications director of Students Against Hindutva Ideology (SAHI), involved himself with student activism at his campus. “I feel like, because I have this privileged background, I have more of a responsibility to use my voice and my privilege to support those without those same privileges, in whatever way I can.” He explains that privilege allows us to have tools that others don’t, and with those tools we have to help out whichever way we can rather than ignore its existence. He states, “The ways that my family tries to stray away from caste is by ignoring our own caste privilege…which doesn’t work. It’s like white people saying ‘I don’t see color.’” There are many reasons why immigrants don’t feel comfortable engaging in politics; this includes fear of backlash and internalized racism, but also feeling as though there is not much of a need to change the status quo. For many privileged individuals, this can translate into apathy, whereas Saket strives to overturn structural oppression. 

When asked how to enact change in small ways, Saket replied that, because South Asians as a community tend to have more class privilege, “one avenue is boycotting brands and corporations that engage in anti-Blackness, because we have that economic power.” For example “donating to workers in India. Muslims and Dalit people are disproportionately impacted [by COVID 19], so just giving money to the people that need it the most.”

Our response to issues of politics and equality reflect our lived experiences. Feelings of trauma, acceptance of racism, and privilege are connected to older immigrants feeling the need to abstain from politics. But as children of immigrants, we are aware of the sacrifices our parents made to live in this country and experience equality. That knowledge, in combination with the tools we have in the United States, push us to be much more active in the American political sphere. Thus, in contrast to our parents, we’re embedded with this “audacity of equality” that encourages us to use our privilege to push for our ideals.

Sexual Violence in Bollywood: Stalking the Tight-trope

Bollywood, a global industry with far-reaching influence, produces a culmination of films that cover a variety of genres. From the famous rom-coms to the action-packed thrillers as well as the iconic songs that are the staples of these films, this industry holds an enormous amount of power in displaying the culture of India. Iconic films Diwale Dulhania Le Jayenge and Badrinath Ki Dulhania are known for their passionate love stories and memorable scenes; however, these films perpetuate a dangerous notion within Indian culture’s conception of romance. 

The romanticization and subsequent normalization of stalking is heavily embedded in many of the narratives that are commercialized throughout India. The narratives of films such as Kabir Singh, Pyaar Impossible, Raanjhana, Toilet Ek Prem Katha, Darr, Tere Naam, Badrinath Ki Dulhania, and the famous Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge center stalking and, in doing so, feed into the pervasive rape culture in India. As an industry, Bollywood has been romanticizing stalking in their screenplays over the past 40 years and continues to do so. This has a direct link to the way men act towards women in Indian society.

Both DDLJ and Badrinath Ki Dulhania normalize stalking, granting this trope permission to run its course. In DDLJ, the main character, Raj’s following Simran is played off as romantic and sweet to the audience. The same can be said for the film Badrinath Ki Dulhania, in which the male protagonist Badrinath Bansal has his friend follow the main love interest around and take pictures of her without her permission. The behavior is played off as romantic in the film, whereas in reality, it is alarming and correlates directly with the culture of sexual violence in India. 

“In a weird way, I romanticized stalking,” said Kshma Dharampal, an avid Bollywood fan and fourth year student at UC Davis. “I remember when I was a sophomore in high school, I had the fattest crush on this guy and…in my head I was like ‘Oh, what if he’s watching me right now?’ [while] I was…literally just at my house…and it’s just so crazy that those were the beliefs that were instilled in me.”

“The consumption of such films can affect one on a subconscious level, with many buying into the romanticization of these tropes and aspiring for their own romantic experiences to be similar. The stalking is translated as an intimate moment, making the viewer normalize the abuse they are seeing on the screen.”

The consumption of such films can affect one on a subconscious level, with many buying into the romanticization of these tropes and aspiring for their own romantic experiences to be similar. The stalking is translated as an intimate moment, making the viewer normalize the abuse they are seeing on the screen. “I remember I was watching Kabir Singh with my roommates, and they watched the movie for the first time and were like ‘Oh my god, this is such a toxic relationship; why are you showing us this movie?’” said Diya Shenoy, an international student at UC Davis who grew up in India. “And until they said it, I didn’t even realize how bad the whole situation with that movie was…when they said it, I was like ‘Oh, wait, this is so problematic.’”

The film Kabir Singh has a narrative that cements this misogynistic portrayal of women losing their sense of agency to the man. The story follows the main character Kabir Singh, who asserts his dominance over the main female love interest Preeti, who tolerates the abuse that she is experiencing. The narrative continues with the two characters falling in love and eventually ending up together. The film glorifies stalking and justifies Kabir’s abusive actions toward Preeti, feeding into the harmful narrative of stalking being a romantic display of affection.  Furthermore, Preeti’s one-dimensional character contributes to Bollywood’s degrading portrayal of women, who are always displayed as an object to be won rather than a human being. 

The prevalence and encouragement of such stalkerish behaviors in Bollywood films make an impression on the impressionable youth, and this romanticization creates a discrepancy with the way men approach women in India. Women are shown to enjoy the stalking, and thus the narrative is seen as safe and alluring:  “They picturize it to make it seem like she liked it. I think that’s why a lot of people think that it’s okay when in reality it’s just creepy and weird,” said Vaibhav, a fourth-year student at UC Davis. “They shouldn’t romanticize it so much; they shouldn’t deem it to be okay because then if you see your heroes doing it…you think that it’s okay.” 

With these tropes being so prominent, there is a lack of awareness and understanding that there may be a connection between the romanticization of stalking and the discrimination women in India face on a daily basis. This constant exposure to the normalization of sexual assault and harassment is translated to and embedded in Indian society. According to the National Crime Records Bureau, in 2018, 9438 cases of stalking were reported in India–one occurring every 55 minutes, on average. The infamous Priya Mattoo Case of 1996 is a tragic example, in which a young law student was a victim of rape and murder in her own home in Delhi after being stalked by Santosh Singh, the son of an IPS officer. The court reduced the culprit’s death sentence by giving him life imprisonment instead. Such cases in India have only risen: in 2016, a 15-year-old was allegedly raped and burned on the terrace of her house by her 20-year-old stalker in Gautam Buddh Nagar, Uttar Pradesh. 

  The way Bollywood has capitalized on these tropes and made these films staples in the multi-million dollar industry is increasingly harmful and detrimental to Indian society. The underlying abuse shown on the screen is normalized, and, within a culture that is so heavily embedded with sexual violence, it further contributes as a catalyst to the constant tragedies that plague the Indian news. These films are seen as iconic love stories that many try to shape their own romantic lives around, and that ideology needs to be dismantled. Bollywood as an industry should become more conscious of the media they are producing as these stories that glorify stalking only encourages the normalization of sexual violence in India.

COVID-19: Are We All Niqabis Now?

Face masks, the new accessory to our everyday outfit in the time of COVID-19, has led to the rise of clothing stores manufacturing new masks for both style and protection. However, there seems to be a type of mask that may always be seen as controversial, even during COVID-19: the burqa and niqab. Worn as fuller face and body coverings to establish modesty by Muslim women, the burqa and niqab are more so viewed as an element of Islamic extremism. At the end of the day, though, whichever form of mask an individual wears, whether a regular cloth face mask, a surgical mask, or Islamic full-face veils, they all seem to serve the same purpose—to protect oneself in public. The only unique aspect about burqas and niqabs is that they are worn by those Muslim women who choose to do so for their own religious expression. 

Especially during COVID-19, it is interesting to see how face coverings are required in countries such as France which have still upheld the national legislative ban on the burqa and niqab. Zozoliina, a French Muslim influencer, and blogger, states in an email interview, “The burqa and niqab are forbidden in France under penalty of fines up to 150€, and this legislation entered into force on the 11th of October, 2010.” Enforced by the French government, this ban does not directly target burqas or niqabs but instead focuses on total facial concealment in public, as masks need to be removed for identification checks as expressed in a statement by the French minister’s office to CBS News. This wasn’t the first time that France enforced legislation targeting individuals’ religious freedom.; In 2004, Islamic headscarves, as well as Christian crosses and Jewish yarmulkes, were banned in public schools to supposedly keep state institutions religiously neutral. Even the Muslim head covering, the hijab, “… is not allowed…at work, and I believe that it is a real discrimination!” Zozoliina said. The unnecessity of the ban on Islamic face coverings is further exemplified by the few numbers of women who actually observe this practice; as the Muslim community in France grows, the population of Muslim women who observe the niqab has remained constant or relatively decreased. While some women who choose to firmly stick to their beliefs have been repeated offenders of this law despite knowing the consequences, others may now be confined to their homes as a result of not being able to feel comfortable enough to go out. In this way, instead of integrating Muslims into French society, this law has marginalized a part of the Muslim community.

Worn as fuller face and body coverings to establish modesty by Muslim women, the burqa and niqab are more so viewed as an element of Islamic extremism… Especially during COVID-19, it is interesting to see how face coverings are required in countries such as France which have still upheld the national legislative ban on the burqa and niqab.

The ban on the niqab and burqa is just one of the aspects that has heightened Islamophobic sentiments, leading to the current situation in France wherein the president refuses to condemn the caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad, causing clashes between France and the Muslim world. In October 2020, two veiled Muslim women were stabbed at the Champ de Mars park near the Eiffel Tower by two women who also yelled racial slurs at them. Two Jordanian siblings were also beaten by a man and a woman after they heard them speak in Arabic at a bus stop. Stereotypes about Muslims in the media have culminated into this injustice, and it is important that these injustices are recognized and that we educate ourselves to take actions against them. 

There has long since been many stereotypes about minorities in the media, and Muslims are no exception. A common recurring theme in the entertainment industry is showing Muslim women from conservative family backgrounds and cultures as being forced to wear the hijab. The only way to be free of this strict atmosphere is to remove their hijab and find their true identity in the Western world, leaving behind their own traditions and values. Such movies and shows include Hala (2019 movie), Elite (Spanish thriller TV series from 2018-present), and Cuties (2020 French drama film). Elite, a highly popular show on Netflix, is the story of a typical rebellious teen. However, the overall storyline revolves around the stereotypical conservative family background where the only way out is to escape and rebel. “Elite portrays and vehicles a stereotype that I personally find crude,” Zozoliina states. “I think that the author didn’t put enough work on his script and vision….Lots of women are taking off their veil/hijab for personal reasons just like women that decide to wear it. Muslim women are free with or without a hijab… Freedom is ours since we are born–God created us with free will, and we should all live on this basis.” 

Samina Ali, the curator for Muslima: Muslim Women’s Art and Voices and the co-founder of the American Muslim feminist organization Daughters of Hajar, expresses a similar opinion. “What a woman wears on her body has nothing to do with the fact of whether she’s liberated or not liberated,” Ali conveys. She also explicates that it is important for Muslim women to have a diverse representation in the media, beyond the stories of those who wear the hijab. Kelly Crosby, a Muslim artist based in Atlanta, Georgia and whose work focuses on representing the diversity of Muslim women through her artwork, attests to this fact: “Just representing a community that is not heavily represented in the art world, was another important thing for me too. I also want to change the perceptions of Muslim men too and kind of expand the idea of what Muslim women look like in the general public…[there are] women who don’t wear hijab, [or those who wear a different hijab style] like a turban and a bun. This is to show people that we express Islam in so many different ways.” 

The hijab has long since been viewed as a symbol of oppression for women in Islam. Moreover, face coverings such as the burqa and niqab are even more so viewed as an element of extremism. People with such beliefs often attest to the fact that women should wear these clothes in religious settings, such as at the mosque, and not in public. In fact, the idea of the hijab has been so misconstrued that even members of the Muslim community debate it. The reality of the situation, however, is that the hijab has to do more with one’s character and modesty as a whole; wearing a headscarf, face coverings, or other traditional clothing is simply a manner in which to practice the hijab. Amal Fawzy Abdelhafez, a lecturer of Arabic at UC Davis and a journalist, strongly believes in her motto, hijab al-qalb or hijab of the heart or soul, as a way to further her faith in Islam. In this way, Abdelhafez strongly believes that the hijab means, for both the Muslim and non-Muslims, “to work on themselves and be clean from the inside–to make their heart free of anger or ill feelings.” 

At the end of the day, it is important to note “just how much the Abrahamic religions have in common,” Ali expresses. “When you look at the faiths, there are so many similarities. And what has happened over the years is we’ve all gotten lost and distracted from our commonalities and focused more on our divisions.” Both incorrect media representations and countries with overly strict religious practices such as Saudi Arabia have led to this, as can be seen in France’s controversial and nonsensical national ban on the niqab and burqa as well as current diplomatic policies regarding caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad. It is important, now more than ever before, for all Muslims and non-Muslims to observe their own behaviors and attitudes that have gradually lead to the formation of these stereotypes and develop an understanding of the real, authentic Islam. 

Why is Yemen At The Brink of a Famine?

Image Credits to Mohammed Awadh

Almost two years after the signing of a voluntary accord to achieve peace in Yemen, the Independent reported an airstrike in the Hajjah governorate killed at least seven children and two women on July 12, 2020. Despite the Saudi-led coalition’s announcement of a temporary ceasefire in light of the pandemic, the coalition and the Houthis have continued to engage in attacks. 

While arms sales have not been affected by the pandemic, Oxfam International reported that hunger-linked deaths due to COVID-19 border and supply route closures have only increased in Yemen. Now, in a nation dependent on commercial food imports and international humanitarian aid amidst a long-drawn conflict, the World Food Program (WFP) records that over 20 million Yemenis find themselves food insecure. 

In the June 2020 edition of their emergency dashboard, WFP announced that they need $2.5 billion to prevent a famine–characterized by starvation, death, and extreme malnutrition levels. However, this politicization of aid could worsen the situation, even if the international donor community raises the required amount by the end of 2020. 

Since 2015, Al Jazeera disclosed that the war between the coalition and the Houthis has internally displaced nearly 3 million Yemenis via port closures, air raids, and cluster bombings. Ansar Allah is a rebel group known as the “Houthis” that seized the capital city, Sana’a, in 2015, following a military coup against the then president, Adbrabbuh Hadi. Today, the group is operational along the northwest border: Sa’ dah, Ibb, Taizz, and Al-Bayda, which are home to Yemenis who suffer from acute malnutrition and excess mortality, as identified by Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWSNET). 

The overlap between the regions reporting the highest conflict activity and food insecurity reaffirm that the risk of famine is man-made. 

Twenty-five percent of Yemenis reside in the severely food insecure regions of Sa’ dah, Al-Bayda, and Hajjah. These are also the most targeted locations, with over 5000 total airstrikes having occurred in Sa’dah alone. The Yemen Data Project, an independent effort aimed at maintaining accountability in this war, reported that despite the heightened vulnerability of civilians due to the pandemic, attacks on both military and non-military sites grew this year.

Even prior to this conflict, Yemen was the poorest country in the Arabian Peninsula. “We’ve been there since the late 1960s, feeding around a million people and running nutrition programs to combat childhood malnutrition and stunting,” Annabel Symington, Head of Communications, WFP, Yemen, said.  

Local organizations also struggle to receive monetary and food donations for their aid programs.

“Today, we are feeding 13 million people. It is WFP’s largest operation in the world. Childhood malnutrition has soared–stunting has increased exponentially every year. The war is the main driver of food insecurity in Yemen,” Symington said. Stunting, characterized by low height-for-age, affects the mental, physical, and cognitive development of a child and is mainly caused by poor nutrition intake. 

In June 2018, the coalition launched its most massive attack in the port city of Hodeidah. Home to over 600,000 people, it has been used extensively for maritime aid imports. The United Nations (UN) had warned that attacking the port city would push more Yemenis into mass starvation. 

The coalition sought to recapture this critical port, claiming that the attack on Hodeidah would dislodge the Houthis and their supply of funds and ammunition from Iran. However, threatening starvation and aid supply to vulnerable populations amidst conflict is a violation of international humanitarian law. Following the attack in June, the coalition and the Houthis signed the Stockholm Agreement, as detailed by the American Society of International Law, in December 2018. The pact would lead to a ceasefire in the port cities of Hodeidah, Salif, and Ras Issa, allowing open humanitarian corridors to ensure the country’s supply of humanitarian relief. 

Local organizations also struggle to receive monetary and food donations for their aid programs. Fatik al-Rodaini, the founder of Mona Relief, recounts that when he started his food distribution program for internally displaced people in 2015, Western Union blocked him. He was unable to receive any donations until he set up an official organization to receive international funding. 

Dr. Aisha Jumaan, the founder of the Yemen Relief and Reconstruction Foundation, also commented that blockades have made it increasingly difficult to reach vulnerable populations. “We had medicine donated to YRRF, which took over six months to get to Yemen, followed by a two-month delay at the port. By the time we were able to deliver to the cancer centers, some of the medicines had only one month before the expiry date,” Dr. Jumaan said via email.   

Yemenis protest the continued blockade in the city and criticize the UN for its silence over Saudi’s aggression in cutting off supplies of aid and carrying out nearly 1800 airstrikes, as recorded by the Yemen Data Project. The U.S., U.K., and France are equally responsible for thousands of civilian deaths that could not have occurred without their military support to the coalition. In May 2017, CNBC also revealed that the US-Saudi Arabia weapon deal will contribute $350 billion by 2027.

The Houthis are also complicit in committing human rights violations, especially to non-military zones, including food stocks. Amidst crippling food shortages, the National also reported that the Houthis bombed a silo that was home to 51,000 tons of wheat in May 2019. Later, in June, David Beasley, executive director of the WFP, also told The Guardian that 66% of staff monitoring visits were blocked, perhaps to conceal the diversion of food aid.

It is easy to assume that Yemen’s weakening agricultural sector and depreciation of the Yemeni Rial (1 USD = 250.35 YR) are dwindling efforts to restore acceptable levels of food security amongst civilians. Before the war, “Yemen was importing 70-80% of its commercial food, sold in the markets. With the war, the inability to import agricultural inputs at an affordable rate and the lack of other employment opportunities have led to a total economic collapse,” Symington said.

Consistent attacks on farms and water resources and land-mined plantations also limit annual water sources to 86 cubic meters per person and a decreased cropland productivity of 76% between 2014-17, as noted by the World Bank. In 2017, The Guardian also recorded that coalition warships also destroyed more than 250 fishing boats in the Red Sea. 

Since clean water has been so hard to access, Mona Relief started a project in March 2020 that delivers 30,000 liters of water daily. “I don’t think the government can provide people with even basic amenities or pay them monthly salaries. After more than five years of the ongoing war, the government is unable to do anything for their people,” al-Rodaini said via an email interview. 

YRRF’s course of work, however, has been altered by the pandemic and increased fuel prices. “The mountainous regions, home to tens of thousands of settlements, are particularly hard to reach. Here, we deliver supplies to homes or invite people to a central location where we distribute food while wearing masks and social distancing,” Dr. Jumaan said.

WFP, with its local partners and other UN agencies, map vulnerability by conducting door-to-door surveys on nutrition indicators and talking to families. A similar, monthly, over-the-phone monitoring system also exists. “We also work at the front lines; every time there is a new displacement, we also dispatch a physical team that conducts needs assessments and provides culturally appropriate, non-perishable food items to the IDP, until they are relocated to the settlement. Here, we require that all parties under conflict respect their obligations under humanitarian law and facilitate our access to those areas. In this way, we ensure that food assistance is based on need and need alone,” Symington said.   

While on-site relief efforts are striving to reach displaced people with the humanitarian aid they need, the global community must strengthen protections against the politicization of food and medical aid. On humanitarian grounds, the UN and other parties in the conflict must revisit the Stockholm Agreement to prioritize Yemeni lives and pull the country out of an impending danger of a famine before it is too late.

A Taste of Home

How does food connect us to home? Food can provide us with memorable experiences that can connect us back to a certain place, time, person, or memory. Our sensory memory gives us the ability to feel connected to our culture, family, and home. We can experience this through cooking and learning about the significance these recipes have to our homeland. Many students at UC Davis share this experience of feeling connected to our families by cooking while we are away from home. 

Gharam Alsaedi is a third-year UC Davis student of Jordanian and Saudi descent. Gharam’s dad is from Medina, and her mom is from Mecca. Both moved to Riyadh, where Gharam grew up. She moved to the US three years ago when she started university. Now in the U.S., cooking is a way for Gharam to connect with her home and family. Gharam didn’t cook Arab food very often back in Saudi Arabia. However, once she moved away from home, she started experimenting with cooking primarily by taste, trying to replicate the exact taste of her mom’s home-cooked meals. 

Her mom usually cooks Jordanian dishes such as Mulukhiyah; Bamya, an okra stew; Moussaka, an eggplant dish; and Maqluba, an upside-down rice and eggplant dish. These dishes incorporate ingredients such as potatoes, chicken, sauces made with pomegranate molasses, lemon, Maggi chicken spices cubes, Arabic spice mixes, and kabsa spices and are usually served with rice and yogurt. Gharam usually cooks pasta imitating the preparation or ingredients that her mom uses, smelling each spice before adding and tasting it. Gharam also has her mom’s cookbook which includes all kinds of recipes for desserts, soups, stews, and sauces. The main motive for cooking these foods is the sentimental affiliation with these dishes. Being more familiar with Arabic food, it’s comforting to be able to cook dishes that remind her of her family and childhood. 

Our sensory memory gives us the ability to feel connected to our culture, family, and home.

For Gharam, the main difference of being in the US compared to Saudi is the quality of food; she states, “Everything there is better…any type of food is better, even the fast-food restaurants; for example, McDonald’s and KFC are better.” Food is a central part of the culture, and not having access to authentic foods can make one feel disconnected from their homelands. There are very few Arab restaurants around the Davis area, so it’s rare to experience the quality of authentic foods. On special occasions, Gharam’s extended family gets together to eat. “We have these places called estraha, a place for people to gather with families to eat…it usually has one room and a sitting area…my dad always reserves it with his friends every weekend”. Estrahas provide a place where people can connect with their loved ones and enjoy each other’s company while eating good food. Cooking allows Gharam to bring back the taste of the food in Saudi, where she states, “the best thing there is the food.” 

Lea Serrar is a fourth-year student at UC Davis of Morrocan and Canadian descent. Lea’s dad is from Oujda, Morocco and her mom is from Quebec, Canada. She grew up in Oakland, CA, and lived with her mom for most of her life. Lea’s dad taught her mom a lot of Morrocan recipes. So growing up, Lea learned to cook–partially from her mom, but mostly using a Morrocan recipe book called Morrocan Cooking by Latifa Bennani-Smires. In Davis, when Lea prepares to cook, she translates the name of the specific Morrocan recipe from English to French and searches it up because she finds recipes written in the native language more authentic. Some popular recipes Lea likes to cook include Tajine, a slow-cooked savory stew; couscous; vegetable salads; and kefta, ground beef mixed with cumin, paprika, parsley, coriander, and onions. Some typical ingredients in these recipes include lamb, mint, cumin, saffron, and couscous. Lea also states that there is “always a basket of bread in the kitchen”. which was interesting to learn that their Morrocan dishes rarely use rice, as rice is essential in many North African cuisines. 

Lea stated that when she cooks these foods at home she feels content. “…[I feel] so happy. I think of my dad and how happy my mom would feel because it’s healthy…and I think of the last time I was in Morocco..and all of the good memories…” Lea joined the Empowered Arab Sisterhood (EAS), a cultural sorority, her first year at Davis, immersing herself in a community of Southwest Asian and North African women. Finding a community like this in Davis was comforting, and Lea met a lot of her friends through this sorority–friends who have similar backgrounds and interests. Her next few years at Davis were filled with potlucks with all types of Arab food that she had never tried like the popular sweet dish Knafeh: “I didn’t know about Arab food before I joined EAS. I only knew about Morrocan food.” EAS gave Lea the ability to connect with so many other Southwest Asian and North African women and be involved in something that supports other women of Southwest Asian and North African descent. 

There is a lot of emotion residing in these dishes and the process of cooking them. They help people stay connected with their culture, which could be a big aspect of someone’s life or an aspect they want to know more about.

 Food brings people together, like the Estraha’s in Saudi, where people can gather with their loved ones and connect over good food. It is something we can create, transport, and share. It’s the most accessible part of a culture that we can all connect to. It’s important to place significance on food and cooking because it is a big part of everyone’s culture, and the more we learn about each other’s food and culture, the more we can connect with everyone.

The Olive Harvest: A Symbol of Palestinian Resistance and Heritage

“If the olive trees knew the hands that planted them, their oil would become tears.” – Mahmoud Darwish

For Palestinians, geographical ties to the land are not only woven deeply into every aspect of their identity, but depended on for survival. One defining element of Palestinian identity that remains threatened by Israeli forces is the generational farming practice of planting and harvesting olive trees. The prominence of olive trees in Palestine is one that extends deeply into every aspect of society and contributes to the overall livelihood and sustenance of the Palestinian population.

Often regarded as a symbol of vitality and peace, olive trees are known for their ability to thrive in harsh conditions. These drought-resistant trees can grow and produce fruit for thousands of years and are a staple in Palestinian households. They represent a resilient and unwavering attachment to the land that parallels that of the Palestinian people. 

This symbolism dates back to one of the oldest trees in the world, Bethlehem’s Al-Badawi, which stands at 4000 years old and is named after Ahmad Al-Badawi, a villager in the town of Al-Walaja who was often found reflecting under the tree over two centuries ago. This olive tree was reported to be the meeting place of villagers who gathered to distribute food to the poor and is a staple piece of local heritage. Like all agriculture in the region, Al-Badawi remains vulnerable to confiscation and is carefully guarded by the community, representing yet another manifestation of Palestinian resistance.

The olive harvest also has economic significance as a source of income for over 100,000 Palestinians. In the West Bank and Gaza Strip, approximately 45% of agricultural land is made up of olive trees, and the olive oil industry makes up a quarter of the region’s gross agricultural income. The harvest season also creates ample job opportunities for Palestinians, with an approximated 1,353 people employed to work across the 265 operating olive presses in the West Bank. Without the maintenance of these century-old agricultural practices, the remaining economic agency in the region would diminish, causing already high unemployment levels to increase exponentially. 

Despite their evident importance to Palestinian livelihood, the full potential of the olive sector remains thwarted by the occupation. Israeli settlers utilize the destruction of olive trees as yet another means to forcibly exile Palestinians from their own land. Olive trees are often maintained within Palestinian territories that should be free of militarized presence, yet Israeli forces politically weaponize the harvest season by invading even the last morsels of land belonging to Palestinians. Farmers are vulnerable to random attacks, loss of crops to illegal settlers, and even the contamination of their already scarce water supply. More than 1 million olive trees have been uprooted since 1967.

Aside from the destruction of trees, water theft continues to be an alarming issue for these farmers. 85% of water resources in Palestine go directly to illegal settlers. With Israel seizing complete control over all water-related infrastructures in the Palestinian territories since 1967, Palestinian access to water is restricted on an inhumane level. Palestinians cannot undergo any sort of water installation without being granted a permit from the Israeli army, which is nearly impossible for Palestinians to obtain. Parts of the West Bank that neighbor Israeli settlements are labeled as closed military areas, barring Palestinians from entering and thus restricting their water access. Meanwhile, Israeli settlers that live among Palestinians in the West Bank face no restrictions and remain unaffected by licensing requirements. This contributes to the economic decline of agricultural efforts in Palestine and ensures that Palestinians are held economically captive.

 According to the Applied Research Institue – Jerusalem, an estimated 50.9% of Palestinian families in the West Bank have daily access to water while only 30% have access in Gaza. With a reported 72 liters per capita per day in the West Bank and 96 liters per day in Gaza, the occupied Palestinian territories rank in as having some of the lowest per capita water accessibility worldwide. In addition, the water that is available faces extreme contamination, specifically in Gaza where this issue makes 90-95% of water unsuitable for irrigation or drinking. Despite Israel’s legal obligation to make sure that the needs of the occupied territories are met in regards to access to natural resources, water continues to be inhumanely weaponized against the Palestinian people. In fact, the United Nations Development Programme affirms that “the Israeli disruption and destruction of Palestinian water and agricultural infrastructure (e.g. prevention of the development of water infrastructure, destruction of olive groves) is prima facie breaches of international humanitarian law.”

Israel systematically causes the erasure of Palestinian culture, heritage, and livelihood–all elements that arise from the physical geography of the land. Palestinian history and culture are deeply connected to the land and its bounty. The olive harvest is not only an important means of economic gain, but one that fosters a sense of community and retains heritage. Thousands of Palestinian families unite annually to gather olives from trees before they are taken to olive oil mills. Soon after, the olives turn into elements of traditional dishes at celebration and gatherings that fuel Palestinian culture and life. 

Palestinians celebrate the olive season by taking the whole family out to the groves, teaching children how to make olive pickles in the classroom, and even singing traditional songs about the prized trees. Most importantly, the harvest season brings Palestinians together to tend to the same trees for which their ancestors fought and protected for generations. Due to their long life span, many of these trees have survived generations, and their maintenance directly contributes to the retention of Palestinian history which constantly faces the threat of erasure. The olive harvest in Palestine is an act of resistance to Israel’s occupation, and the removal of these trees is yet another tactic to forcibly exile an indigenous population from a land that is deeply embedded into every aspect of their existence.

The Arab World and Poetry: A Sophisticated Partnership

“If your existence feels like resistance, then your joy is revolutionary”–Keke Salem

The portrayal of the Arab world in Western media often entails depictions of widespread chaos, a general propensity for barbarism, and a widespread lack of civility and class. Poetry lends itself a useful rebuttal to this claim. Poets like Mohammad Darwish, Abu Al-Qasim Al-Shabi, and Tamim Al-Barghouthi cemented themselves in history as some of the most significant poets of this era. Nothing demonstrates this fact as much as the large-scale circulation of their poetry in the 2010-11 Arab Spring, which rallied the masses to push for democratic reform.

Poetry spread like wildfire during the Arab Spring because of changes in the poets’ writing methodology. Specifically, the use of Fus-ha (standardized Arabic) rather than a dialect, and significant structural changes to the nature of how poetry was written made it more accessible for all Arab speaking audiences. Furthermore, the use of Fus-ha instilled in the Arab people the sense of love and dedication to one’s land and freedom that is vital in revolutionary times.

By writing in Fus-ha, poets were able to deconstruct the language barrier that existed and cause the widespread unification of the ideologies in the different Arab States. The Arab people were pushing for similar reform, chanting the same exact words, and aiming for the same changes– peace and democracy in the Arab World. In many ways, Arab poetry, by its own elegance, swayed the minds of many Arabs and fastened their commitment to fighting for democracy.

The second notable difference was the change in structure–specifically the abandonment of past structural models that poets followed and the emergence of the free verse. In the past, poetic structure was important. Your poetry could touch on any topic so long as it fit into the mainstream poetic structure. However, when free verse emerged and began to take over in Southwest Asia, the common people were taken aback. Very similar to the freeing of oneself from the old and oppressive political regimes, people were freeing their poetry from the former structures in place that bound it.

The poetry was new and refreshing, a much-needed sign of encouragement with regard to the revolutions of the Arab Spring. Shayma Hassouna, a professor of Arabic Literature at UC Davis commented that “much like how people were pushing for their liberation, poetry at the same time was being liberated.” Hassouna discussed how the new poetry emerging from the common people in Egypt was a sign of the shifting of power from the government to the people. “Those who could present their views in the most sophisticated and elegant manner could win the hearts and minds of the people,” Hassouna said. During the Arab Spring, it was the people, not the government, that had the poets on their side.

A verse from The Will to Live, a poem written by Aboul-Qaccem Echebbi, became the most commonly heard chant of the Arab Spring demonstrations: “If, one day, a people desired to live, then fate will answer their call.” The people resonated strongly with these words. The people of the Arab States were at first disjointed, unaware of the change that needed to come and ignorant of their capacity to use their means to achieve their goals. However, poems like these bridged the gap between people in different states , allowing them to redefine their goals and forge unity. The only commonality between them was the poetry by which they were influenced. In this sense, poetry was very much a unifying voice in the Arab World.

Mahmoud Darwish, with his poem Identity Card, vividly pieced together the Palestinian identity in his eyes. In the 1960s, he was arrested after the poem gained notoriety and became a widely used poem in protests. Following his death in 2008, this poem and many others were at the forefront of the Arab minds engaged in the revolution. This poem helped many Arabs shape and find their identity when all else was in question. 

Mahmoud Al-Barghouthi, the last of these poets but certainly not the least, had a strong influence on the revolutionary spirit of the people. He was banished from Egypt for the influence of his poetry. He argued that any human can write poetry. He is famously known for saying, “Some people write poetry with their feet,” which he said in reference to a Palestinian child who threw rocks at a tank. The act was so courageous and symbolic that Barghouthi said he could “read the poetry off of the boy’s feet,” meaning that he saw the act as poetic. Barghouthi played a large part in encouraging action to be taken during the Arab Revolt.

Leen, a Bay Area organizer, recalled similar memories when describing the poetry that informed her work. She spoke at length about the nuances of Arab poetry and how it eclipsed its Western counterpart in elegance and meaning. “Arab poetry can capture emotions, paint pictures, and it provokes deep thought on different subjects. It’s something that can be passed on from generation to generation without loss of significance,” Leen said.

Arab poetry, in all its elegance and grace, stands to challenge statements like, “Israelis like to build. Arabs like to bomb crap and live-in open sewage. This is not a difficult issue. #settlementsrock.” Ben Shapiro tweeted this in 2010, and, to the surprise of many, it is not the only statement of its kind. “Islam is a religion in crisis around the world”–a statement addressed to France and the rest of the world by the French President, Emmanuel Macron. These statements and those who stated them are not condemned and disavowed as xenophobic in nature. In fact, they are often supported and validated by those who share similar views. The Western world believes the societies of South-West Asian, North African and South Asian (SWANSA) communities to be archaic and barbaric, lacking the sophistication of the rest of the world. Poetry, art, music, and many other forms of expression exist in the SWANASA region, and, in their existence, they challenge these claims, ultimately nullifying them.