From his home in Beersheba, Yahya Marhabi still misses his hometown of Sana'a, Yemen. He left it nine years ago, but it is not the neighbors he misses, nor is it the air of constant fear.
Marhabi misses his sister, Lea (18), who disappeared several months ago.
Marhabi claims she was abducted, forced to convert to Islam and marry a Muslim. Some six weeks ago, he returned to Yemen to look for Lea, and saw firsthand how Jews were living in a country where al-Qaeda cells roam free.
Marhabi's concern for the Jewish community in Yemen, including his parents and brother who still live in Sana'a, does not give him a moment's rest. Lea, he said, was abducted from the Jewish quarter by Muslims, probably members of al-Qaeda.
"She was abducted just two weeks after marrying one of the Jewish men of the congregation. She was forced to convert to Islam and marry one of her abductors," he said.
Lea's Jewish husband, he continued, has since remarried, realizing chances of her return were slim. Marhabi, however, has vowed to find his sister.
"This was a hard blow for us. Not a day goes by that I don't think of her, try to figure out a way to help her, to bring her home," he said. "If I were there at the time of her abduction I would have done everything to bring her back, but it's not that simple now. There is little we can do – but we are doing it."
Did she or didn’t she?
Arab media paint a different picture: According to reports in the Palestinian News Agency, Lea eloped with a young Muslim man by the name of Aaron Salam, converted of her own free will and kept in touch with her family – at least long enough to make it clear she had no desire to come home.
The reports claim that the wedding was celebrated by the local elite, with dignitaries such as the president of Yemen, the deputy prime minister and other high ranking officials attending the ceremony. The report further alleged that the young couple eloped after the Marhabi family rejected the young man's offer of marriage.
"They made it look like she went willingly rather then she was abducted," Marhabi said, "But we know she was kidnapped and we pray that she comes back to us, by some miracle."
New reality in Sana'a
After four weeks of searching to no avail Marhabi returned to Israel. The Sana'a he left nine years ago, he said, is not the one he found, or even the one he remembered from his previous visit.
Today, he said, the story of the Jewish community in Yemen is one of a few hundred Jews, trying to survive amid a Muslim majority. The Jews currently living in the Yemenite capital essentially live in a ghetto; and in constant fear of violence, abduction and murder.
Al-Qaeda's grip on Yemen has grown considerably over the past few years. "The real change began a year ago, when the brother of the head of the Jewish community was murdered," said Marhabi.
The act prompted the president to order a well defined, closed off area be set for Jews in Sana'a.
"Life there is very hard. They barely leave the area. They have no freedom, they don't work and they are afraid of coming into contact with the Arab population. Only the men leave the area, and only in broad daylight, and usually only to go to the market. They also make sure to disguise all their Jewish markings, like skullcaps. If they are recognized as Jews, they are spat and cursed at."
The volatile situation, he added, even had Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh order armed troops to guard the Jewish quarter of Sana'a. "He made a personal trip to the area to reassure them, that they would be protected.
"He really doesn’t want any harm to come to any of them. He even gives them money, since they don't work," he said.
Jewish life in Sana'a is clouded by fear and uncertainty, said Marhabi. "There is no joy there. People there have no light in their eyes. They are very lonely – 185 Jews amid a huge Arab nation. There used to be such joy there. Contentment, despite the hardship. Now there is just fear. Al-Qaeda wants to eradicate the Jews."
To be or not to be
Some 18 families came to Israel from Yemen in recent months. Jews find it hard to leave despite the hardships, and Israel is currently trying to convince the remaining Jews to leave.
"There are several issues with coming to Israel," said Marhabi. "First, it's not easy to leave one's homeland. It's also a different world there, altogether.
"They are also afraid to leave, because they are afraid they will be left with nothing. The Arabs won't buy their property because they know it's only a matter of time before they leave Yemen anyway, leaving it behind for the taking."
The Jewish Agency is doing everything it can to bring Jews residing in Yemen to Israel, said Eli Cohen of the JA. "The connections we've made there and the support we give them will enable us to bring them here.
"We are trying to afford them the same way of life in Israel. They have been given (acclimation) grants and we're taking care of them. Israel is their natural home," he said. "We have been getting reports that al-Qaeda is targeting Jews and we advise them to leave. Jews no longer have anything in Yemen. The situation there will only get worse."
And what of Marhabi? For now he is using his Yemenite citizenship to visit the country every six months and assist in bringing the Jews still living there to Israel.
"I fear for my family and friends. We must bring them to Israel. Living by fear is no way to live. But we can't talk about it too much – it would put them in danger."
Danny Adino Ababa contributed to the story
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