After 21 years apart, Israel Fayez approached his 73-year-old grandmother during an emotional reunion in Abu Dhabi to ask if she remembered him.
She said no. Only when he used an old nickname she’d had for him as a child in Yemen did she break down, recognizing the boy who he fled his homeland at just 9 years old.
Israel left Yemen with his brothers and parents more than two decades ago, escaping persecution in their homeland by immigrating to the United Kingdom. His grandparents and uncle remained behind.
In the years since, the elderly members of the family suffered as the Iran-backed Houthi rebels escalated their oppression and maltreatment of the country’s small Jewish population.
Yusef Chabib, Israel’s uncle, survived being shot 30 times at his shop, simply for being identifiably Jewish.
Last week, the United Arab Emirates government reunited Israel, along with 14 other members of the family now in the UK, with his grandparents and uncle.
“It was like happiness with more happiness, but this happiness came with emotion and crying,” Israel says.
Israel, 31, who now lives in London with his wife and children, fled Yemen with his family in 1999.
The Houthi rebels came to power in Saada, where the family lived, in the 1990s and began attempting to drive the remaining Jews in Yemen out of the country.
Of the tens of thousands of Jews who once lived in Yemen, it is thought that only a few dozen remain. The vast majority immigrated to Israel in 1949, immediately following the establishment of the country.
Jewish Yemeni families have been further stripped of many of their rights by the Houthis in recent decades, Israel says, facing often-violent discrimination.
“As a child it wasn’t easy. I was involved in two bombings, I was pulled out from one when I was 5 years old. There was no food, no electricity, no proper education, no water. It wasn’t safe.”
The final straw came when the Houthis murdered his grandmother’s brother. Israel and his family left the country soon after. He doesn’t remember how.
“All we knew was that people were helping us get out," he says.
"My dad was always thinking of how to get us out to a place with proper education where we would be safe, where we wouldn’t be afraid walking in the street, we wouldn’t be afraid going to pray, or going out with a kippah as Jewish people. [Coming to London] was like moving into a different world that was like heaven.”
The separation was hard on the family. Israel’s mother worried and cried constantly about her parents’ plight. They kept in touch as best they could with their relatives in Yemen – through phone lines that worked one day but not the next. In 2001, after Chabib was targeted at his workplace, their concerns intensified.
Chabib, 45, made a living producing traditional Yemeni daggers, known as janbiya. He also made and sold silver jewelry. He was working at his shop the day several Houthis arrived and shot him about 30 times.
Chabib raises his thawb and points to the gnarled muscles in his leg, the gaping holes where flesh used to be. Bones were taken from his side to rebuild one of his legs and his other leg is no longer able to bend. He’s “very different” now, Israel says, and “very disabled.”
“I cannot believe it. He was a smiley person before, he was functional, he was different,” Israel says.
But, despite the attack and Chabib requiring emergency treatment in Jordan and the U.S., no amount of persuasion could convince the remaining family members to leave their homeland.
Yitzhak Fayez, Israel’s brother, says they were reluctant to leave as they had lived their whole lives in Yemen and knew nothing different.
“They had land, they had cars, they had houses there. They couldn’t sell them.”
Yitzhak says in 2006 an order was issued to Jews in Yemen to leave the country within 24 hours or they would be killed. However, then-Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh promised displaced Jews protection in the capital of Sanaa, offering them a gated housing complex to live in and a monthly benefit payment. Yitzhak says helicopters were sent in to “save them.”
The family was relatively safe in Sanaa for a number of years, until Saleh was assassinated in 2017 and their protection disappeared with him. While Yitzhak would not go into specifics about the persecution the elderly family members faced in recent years, he says he became set on helping his family flee the country.
After spending months trying to track down the organization that helped reunite a Yemeni Jewish family in the UAE in August, Yitzhak and Israel flew to the UAE to try to find someone to help them. They were connected with Rabbi Elie Abadie, the UAE’s senior rabbi in residence.
“A month ago or so, a family member called me [and said] his family was trapped in Yemen in danger and he needs to save them. He asked me if I could intervene,” Abadie said.
The rabbi invited Yitzhak to a Hanukkah party to discuss his family’s plight, during which they celebrated the Jewish holiday and Abadie “reassured him that I will intercede.”
“I took all their information – their name, their location and pictures and everything and said, ‘OK, let me see what I can do.’ I contacted the UAE government and in less than two days they got back to me and said, ‘Yes, we’re going to do this.’”
Yitzhak was then instructed to organize passports for the family members in Yemen and to “be ready.”
The brothers had been back in London only days when they were told the rescue operation was imminent.
While he would not go into the details about how the family members were retrieved, Yitzhak likened it to a “CIA mission.”
Within two weeks of Abadie contacting the UAE government, the family was reunited in the arrivals area of Abu Dhabi International Airport.
“I said to my grandmother, ‘Do you know who I am?’ She said no,” Israel recalls.
“So I went to my uncle to ask for his blessing because he knew who I was and then I went back to my grandmother and asked her, ‘Do you know who I am?’ She goes to me, ‘No.’
"I then gave her a nickname that she used to call me in Yemen. She started crying. So many tears. Even my children, who have never met their great-grandparents, started crying. It wasn’t easy. We were all laughing and crying together.”
Yitzhak says he will be involved in future efforts to bring Jewish families out of Yemen. He says he is “so thankful to the UAE government” for reuniting his family.
“I’ve never met people like this, in the UAE. They have open hearts.”
Abadie praised the efforts of the UAE government for “practicing what they’re preaching.”
“They are showing that there is freedom of worship here – that there is tolerance, coexistence and harmony. They have really demonstrated that in action,” he said.
While Yitzhak and Israel have since returned to London, their grandparents and uncle remain in Abu Dhabi. They do not know what the future holds for them just yet but hope to stay in the UAE.
“We don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow,” Israel says. “We’ll see.”
Article written by Ashleigh Stewart. Reprinted with permission from The Media Line