New York-based activist Summer Nasser has coaxed bodega owners into sending aid to Yemen. She’s helped organize rallies against US immigration policies, even flown to Geneva to testify before the UN Human Rights Council about Yemen’s humanitarian crisis.
It’s hard to believe she’s just 23 and still a student.
Yemen, the country where her parents were born and where she spent most of her school vacations, is in turmoil. But when Summer returned there in February 2015 for her wedding, she never could have imagined the nation’s political crisis escalating into a deadly regional war, practically overnight.
Three years later, with the war still raging, I ask her about the spring of 2015 when the fighting overtook Yemen, just as she was to be married.
'I had flowers shipped in from Ethiopia, and I had to cancel that'
I’ve spoken with Summer about Yemen many times, but this is the first time we have met in person. She and her husband, Muntaser Yaghnam, sit in the living room of their apartment in Mount Vernon, New York, just north of the Bronx, where Summer was born.
Muntaser remembers meeting Summer online in 2011.
“She was in New York City, and we were chatting on Facebook. And I was posting pictures of projects,” he says.
It was the Arab Spring, and Muntaser was an activist in Yemen helping to feed, clothe and house Yemenis escaping from the southern province of Abyan, which was being overrun by al-Qaeda.
“I was explaining how dire the need is of people in Yemen, and she was really interested,” Muntaser recalls
Summer smiles. “He was actively following my publications. He enjoyed it,” she says of her frequent blog posts on Yemen, then pauses, and turns to her husband. “Did you enjoy it?”
I am struck by how eager they are to talk. Knowing they had to escape a war, I am impressed by how at ease they are.
In 2013, Summer was visiting her family in southern Yemen when she and Muntaser first met face-to-face. “After that, I mean, we clicked,” he says. “We liked each other.”
The next year they became engaged.
Muntaser studied English literature at Sanaa University, in Yemen's capital. He peppers his speech with casual English phrases such as “like,” “I mean” and “really.” For our interview, he's wearing jeans, a sweater and a leather jacket, short hair and a neatly trimmed beard. He drives for Uber in New York City.
In February 2015, Summer and Muntaser were set to rendezvous in southern Yemen — to be married. They’d booked a venue in Aden, made all the arrangements. This would be Summer’s dream wedding, with family and friends coming from America and all around Yemen.
But as the wedding day grew near, the rebel group Ansar Allah, better known as the Houthis, swept south from their ancestral base in northern Yemen. The green area of the map marks the territory controlled by the Houths in early March 2015.
Following a coup, Yemen's president and his cabinet fled to Aden with the Houthi army at their heels. The war had come to Summer's doorstep.
She remembers the night when the Saudi-led coalition began to bomb Houthi fighters in Aden. “The street wars broke out, and the first bomb fell from a Saudi jet that night, and there was just me and my mom and my siblings.”
Muntaser was still 200 miles north in Sanaa, the capital, texting and calling.
“I mean, people ... shooting and bombardment and everything. I was so worried about her and her family,” he says.
The wedding was off.
“Nobody would attend the wedding, anyway,” Summer says, a little ruefully. “I had flowers shipped in from Ethiopia, and I had to cancel that. I was really bummed out.”
“I really felt devastated because we had been waiting for this for too long,” Muntaser says.
As they recall that time three years ago, it's clear that this remains a difficult subject for them. Seeing them together this day, hanging on each other's words, it's easy to imagine the pain and anxiety they must have felt, stuck hundreds of miles apart in a shooting war that showed no signs of ending.
“I used to wake up at night,” Summer says, “and my sister — we would take shifts of when to sleep. She would do morning; I would do night. And each of us would hold a weapon."
'My mom sees the planes and she freaks out'
Life became untenable in Aden. People who could leave, did. Summer’s mom brought the family north, through Houthi territory, to try to find safe passage out of Yemen.
But Summer and Muntaser were determined to marry. The families hastily arranged a wedding on April 30 in Sanaa at Muntaser’s family home. Even though it is controlled by the Houthi rebels, Sanaa is not troubled by ground fighting. In Sanaa, the threat comes from fighter jets flown by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The militaries of both countries receive considerable support from the United States and Britain.
Summer knew it wouldn't be her dream wedding.
Her dad, who lives in the US, wouldn’t be there. Nobody from the US could fly in, because the runway at Sanaa International Airport was cratered, and all of Yemeni airspace was closed. For similar reasons, Summer's relatives from the South wouldn't be there.
“I know she was really devastated about the wedding,” Muntaser says. “It's the first and the only wedding for a man or a woman, so she was really sad. But we were going through very tough circumstances. We had to do it that way.” There were dozens of wedding guests, but they were mostly Muntaser's family and friends.
Summer still thinks about her wedding day.
“I was with the ladies on the second floor, the men were on the first. And all I hear is the women, you know, shouting and doing all these happy sounds. And then I hear gunshots. It's a very traditional thing here, if there's a marriage ceremony. Once the sheik or the imam says OK [and] blesses your marriage, [the men] start shooting in the air.” Then the groom is brought to the bride.
Summer and Muntaser have few photos from Yemen in 2015. This one, taken the day they were married, shows Muntaser in a traditional Yemeni wedding outfit.
Courtesy of Summer Nasser
“At first he comes in, and everybody starts clapping,” she recalls.
“And dancing — like, playing some music, you know,” Muntaser adds.
Summer and Muntaser now seem to be remembering the wedding minute-by-minute.
“Yeah,” Summer continues, “and he kissed my forehead, and we went into the the Arabian room — a setting that they have in every traditional home — and the family was there. A woman came up congratulating, and his brothers and his father, all of them. And then, they all they all stepped out. We got to have our time.”
But not a lot of time.
The building where they married is right next to a military base, held by the Houthis and frequently targeted by coalition jets. Muntaser seems almost blasé talking about the air strikes, which occurred nightly, as if they were just an inconvenience, something to put up with. Summer also takes the war in stride.
“We left early, because everybody leaves early due to the [airstrikes],” she recalls. “We were leaving the house, and all we hear is the planes. And you see them flashing, right? And I said, 'oh my God,' like, holy crap.”
Summer and Muntaser were about to drive off together, their first moments truly alone as a married couple. But even that would be denied them.
“My mom sees the planes and she freaks out,” Summer says. “She jumped in the car and all the siblings, we all got squished in one car. Because the first airstrike hit. And it was very close.”
In Yemen, the war touches everything.
Summer and Muntaser spent their wedding night at a downtown hotel, accompanied by the sound of soaring jets and explosions. “I could not sleep because of the airstrikes. Yeah, it was really bad,” she recalls.
“I remember the doors really shaking because of how strong the earth was shaking, because of the rockets hitting,” Muntaser says.
“My mom would call every 10 minutes,” Summer adds. “'Are you OK.' 'No, mom — are you OK?' You know?”
They started early today. Airstrike just hit Faj Attan with a big one. Sana'a #Yemen— Hisham Al-Omeisy (@omeisy) April 29, 2015
Boooom #sanaa— Summer Nasser سمر ناصر اليافعي (@ToEducate) April 29, 2015
“We have to sleep, every night, checking our phones."
Throughout the spring of 2015, Summer became a go-to American in Yemen for foreign news outlets including the New York Times, Voice of America, Al-Jazeera, the BBC, Britain’s Daily Mail, Fox News and us here at PRI’s The World. This, Summer says, was part of why she stayed: to be able to help tell Yemen's story to the world.
But when weeks had become months, and the war still showed no signs of ending, she and Muntaser chose to leave Yemen to start their life together in America.
They first tried, and failed, to cross by land into Saudi Arabia. At the end of June they boarded a flight from Sanaa to Amman, Jordan. It was the first time Muntaser had been outside Yemen. But without a US visa, he could go no further.
The couple tells me they were frustrated by how little help they could get from the US embassy in Amman.
In November 2015, Summer went back to New York, alone. Muntaser would remain in the Jordanian capital while Summer resumed her classes at Concordia College and worked through her local congressional representative to expedite a visa for him.
It took nine months for the paperwork to clear. Then Muntaser boarded a plane to New York City.
Courtesy of Summer Nasser
“It was August 28, and I was tracking him on his plane, where he was," Summer remembers with a broad smile. "And when I picked him up at the airport he was so excited. And I gave him a hug and I said, ‘Welcome to your new home. And this is it.’ I took him to the car, and we drove around. We drove everywhere. We drove over the bridges. And he couldn't believe it, he was so excited. I said ‘You're going to have to let me focus on driving, because I can't drive when you're so excited.’”
“To be together, it was truly a blessing after all of that. To be honest now, thinking about it, I'm like, ‘Wow, this is really what we went through?”
Summer and Muntaser escaped the war. But they haven't left it behind.
“We have to wake up every morning and we have to sleep, every night, checking our phones. That last 10 minutes before 10:00, we have to check our social networks. We have to check our family,” Summer says.
The couple keep busy schedules, Muntaser driving for Uber, and Summer completing her undergraduate degree and working as a paralegal. But they make time to help the people of Yemen.
“Being Yemeni in America,” Muntaser says, “we are, like, we are blessed here, we are safe, we have a good income. So we end up joining [the] Yemen Aid [charity] organization, where we are talking about the Yemen situation and how we can send help and implement projects."
Yemen Aid is a non-profit charity founded in 2016 by Summer and a group of Yemeni American professionals determined to inform the public about the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, and to do something about it. Summer is its executive director. Muntaser is its chief operating officer. They run a speaker’s bureau. They do fundraising and find ways to relieve some of the widespread suffering in Yemen.
When we spoke at the end of February, their group had just sent a 40-foot shipping container filled with medical equipment and supplies to hospitals in Yemen. A second container is in transit. Summer and Muntaser expect it to arrive in Aden on April 10, near the anniverary of their wedding.