It was 2015. Civil war had been raging in Yemen for about one year. Abeer and her family knew that they could no longer stay in the place they had called home for their entire lives. What was once a beautiful country filled with “generous and loving” neighbors had become bitterly divided and devoid of basic necessities for the Yemeni people such as healthcare, education, and safety, Abeer said.
The family boarded a plane for Djibouti. Abeer and her husband Samer recall hearing bombs as the plane lifted off from the tarmac. Once there, they planned to flee to Madagascar, where they had been told there was less conflict and more safety. Samer and his two brothers left first, traveling in early 2016 discreetly by boat through extraordinarily rough seas. For sustenance, they were given only an apple, a couple cans of tuna, and hard-boiled eggs to last the entire 30-plus hour journey.
Abeer recalls thinking the men had died while making the trip. Without cellphones, there was no way for them to know whether or not they had made it safely. Nevertheless, she boarded a boat to Madagascar along with her sister-in-law and the children, a 35-hour journey of their own ahead of them.
The large extended family – three brothers and two wives and kids – would live in Madagascar for the next five years. But they wouldn’t really call it home.
Saher, the youngest of the three brothers, recalls strict curfews and describes how difficult it was to access medication or education. Abeer says she would never wear any jewelry because she feared it would be stolen.
“A house is a place I go to sleep. Home is where I feel safe, where I can ensure physical wellbeing, where I can find work, and where I can support myself and have my rights without constraint,” Samer said.
Abeer described home as “the people that live around you,” and the place that “connects you.”
It wasn’t until they arrived in Missoula that Abeer says she and her family felt like they had come home for the first time since leaving Yemen. The family had been forced to split up, with two of the brothers coming to the United States in November 2022 and Saher and Abeer following in February 2023.
During that time, Abeer and Samer said they were “worried and feeling very anxious.” “We are three brothers and two wives and kids, and everyone supports the other. We have one another’s back during whatever crisis. Through all the steps, no one left the others alone,” Abeer said.
They describe their reunion in Missoula as “hard to put into words.” But when she tries, Abeer says seeing her family for the first time in Montana “was like being born again. I love them all.”
Since moving to Missoula, Abeer and her family have felt welcomed and embraced by the community. Abeer says everywhere she goes people are smiling and asking how she’s doing. After years spent in two countries where they felt like they couldn’t express themselves or live their daily lives safely, Samer says “I feel like I am alive again, like I can breathe again.”
But even here, a place where the family feels like they can indeed call home, there are struggles.
Housing is expensive, they say, and they all aspire to hold jobs that they feel allow them to give back to their community and make Missoula a better place. “We are very peaceful people. We don’t want to make anyone feel bad or hurt anyone. On the contrary, we want to make this place like home and we want to pay back the generosity and goodness we have received here,” says Abeer, who would like to be a teacher. Saher would like to resume his academic studies, which were interrupted when the war started in Yemen, leaving him to feel like he “didn’t learn anything new and doesn’t know other skills” that would help him here in Missoula.
And while Abeer, Saher, Samer, and the rest of the extended family are excited to put down roots in Missoula, they will also never forget Yemen. “I wish for the Yemeni people to have their freedom back, to believe in whatever they want and voice their opinions as loud as they can,” Samer said.
As they navigate the transition to their new home, Abeer, Saher, Samer, and the others are reminded of the importance of keeping loved ones close. Even in Missoula, where they finally feel safe after so many years, they know that family is the most important thing.
“Keep your family together and keep each other safe. Wherever we are, as long as we are together, anywhere can be our family, anywhere can be home,” Samer said.
Story and photos by Carly Graf