It’s not a Fluke, Meeting Luke! [1] 

By Dr. Michael D. Griffin[2]

The fact that I have such a deep love for Yemen today is indeed a contrast to the way I felt about Arabs in the early part of my life. Growing up in the southern part of the United States, I grew up in a culture that could be described as "anti-Arab."  I did not have outspoken opinions against Arabs, but I am embarrassed to say that I previously concluded that I was supposed to be against the Arab people. Indeed, not everyone from my culture was against Arabs; however in my adolescent years, through the general influence of my community, I developed what might be described as a subconscious prejudice against Arab people. I was not ethnocentric to the extent that I was against all cultures because I was involved in community projects and activities that would be considered cross-cultural. However, it never crossed my mind to be engaged with Arabs or to be open to visiting the Arab world.

Despite my prejudice toward Arabs, I was still intrigued by the Middle East. I was fascinated by the history and the culture of the Arab world.  So, when a group of friends invited me to go with them on tour to the Middle East—I agreed to go. I had no idea that this trip would become life-changing for me. Our journey took us to several countries; Egypt, Palestine, Lebanon, Jordan, and Yemen. During that trip, I had many opportunities to meet Arabs and spend time with Arab families. And, as one might expect, I learned that Arabs were a fantastic group of people!

When the tour brought our group to our final destination, I found myself in Yemen. As a tourist, I learned many things about the country. I learned that the Greeks and Romans chose the name—Arabia Felix—because of Yemen’s pleasant climate and the abundance of agricultural products and spices. Arabia Felix means “Happy” or “Blessed” Arabia. I learned that Yemen is the cradle of civilization and that Sana’a is the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world. I learned that Yemen is an extraordinary land rich in beauty and culture. As a tourist, I saw Yemen’s breathtaking mountains, its spectacular desert, its lush, fertile valleys, its magnificent terraces, and its beautiful beaches. 

However, the breath-taking sights of Yemen did not compare to what I discovered when I met the people of Yemen. The Yemeni people overwhelmed me with their love and kindness. Yemenis are kind, generous, friendly, and without a doubt, the most hospitable people in the world. As I reflected on all that I experienced in Yemen—tears came to my eyes because I was ashamed of uninformed prejudices that guided my thinking for many years. Now, I was transformed into a man with a passion for celebrating the beauty of what I had discovered in Yemen. As a result of that trip, I fell in love with Yemen, and I found the passion and desire to impact my American culture; to change people’s perception of Yemen.

I began to plan trips to Yemen. I started bringing Americans to Yemen so they could see, hear, taste,  smell, and touch the unique beauty of Yemen and its people. I knew that if I could get Americans there—they would never be the same. Over the last 15 years, I’ve taken hundreds of Americans to Yemen. The tours have included visits to every part of Yemen—Sana’a, Hajjah, Sa’dah, al-Mahweet, Manakhah, Hodeidah, Zabid, Aden, Ta'izz, Ibb, Dhamar, Ma'rib, Seiyun, Shibam, Tarim, Mukalla, Al-Gaydah, and the islands of Kamaran and Socotra. Every American I’ve taken to Yemen gained a new perspective. They too, were overwhelmed by the generosity, friendliness,  thoughtfulness, warmth, sincerity, and hospitality of Yemenis. These Americans returned home as new individuals—and most importantly, they now love Yemen too!

•••••••••••••••••••

Several years ago, an event took place on one of the trips which turned my involvement in Yemen to a new direction. I had been bringing tour groups to Yemen for many years, but I never took my son Luke, who has Down Syndrome. For me, Luke is a gift from God (Allah), and I am not ashamed to take him anywhere that I might go. However, I was concerned about taking Luke to Yemen because he has some health issues and because I was not sure how Yemenis would receive him. In all of my trips to Yemen, I had not seen many Yemenis in public with their special needs children. Luke was at an age where he was able to tell when someone was making fun of him or insulting him. Luke had even cried over incidences like that. So, I struggled with the choice of putting Luke in a vulnerable place. 

In July of 2007, when Luke was ten years old, I finally decided to take him to Yemen. After we arrived, we went with two of our dear Yemeni friends—Aisha Jumaan and Jamila Jumaan—to visit Bab Al-Yemen, the market in the old city of Sana’a. It was a hard choice because the market is extremely crowded and Luke would be susceptible. At one point, Luke was tired of walking and wanted me to carry him. I carried him, but after a while, I became tired of holding Luke’s 90-pound body, and I needed to put him down. 

I looked for a solitary place to rest Luke hoping that no one would notice him. So, I found a site which seemed quiet and inconspicuous, and then I sat Luke down on some stone steps in front of a small shop. Immediately after putting Luke down, a Yemeni man came very close to Luke, getting right up in his face, staring at him and touching him. I was upset by this and started to approach the man to ask him to back away. Then this man looked for another man. Now, these two men came very close to Luke, and again, they stared at him and touched him. They stepped back but continued to stare. I was getting more upset because I was not sure what was going on and I wondered if they were making fun of Luke. Then, the two Yemeni men shouted in Arabic to the people nearby, and within a few seconds, a whole crowd of twenty to thirty men had gathered around Luke. The men were straining to get as close as they could to Luke.

My friend, Aisha Jumaan, asked the men why they were doing this. Aisha listened to their story and then explained the story to me in English. I was amazed at what she told me. I learned that all these Yemeni men were from the same extended family. They were cousins, brothers, uncles, etc. and in this family was a boy with Down Syndrome, named Arafat. Arafat had recently died. This Yemeni family deeply loved and cherished Arafat as a gift from Allah to their family. He was an important member of their family, and they were grieving over his death.  

Dr Griffin and his son Luke at Bab al-Yemen in Sana’a

Dr Griffin and his son Luke at Bab al-Yemen in Sana’a

Aisha then told me; “This step, where Luke is sitting, is the exact same step that Arafat would sit on every day!” These Yemeni men were reacting that way because they were stunned when they saw Luke, a boy with Down Syndrome, sitting in the exact spot where Arafat would sit. They wanted to touch Luke because they thought Allah had sent an angel to comfort them. The men were in tears. God arranged for Luke to sit in that same spot to bring healing and comfort to the grieving family. Tears filled my eyes as I saw the tears in their eyes —and we were all amazed and astonished at Allah’s blessing.

The scene ended with all the Yemeni men lifting Luke up in the air and cheering for him and chanting "Arafat, Arafat!" As I watched my son Luke grinning above the crowd and raising his little arms in celebration, I knew it was a sign from God.  At that moment, something was birthed in my heart, and I knew I was supposed to do something for  Yemeni families with special needs children. 

In the months following this incredible experience, I set up the very first trip of American special educators and parents to go to Yemen to help the special needs children there. Based on estimates from health professionals and professional organizations such as the American Academy of Pediatrics, 12 to 16 percent of all children in the world have special needs. In Yemen, these estimates indicate that there are thousands of Yemeni children who have disabilities and other special needs. However, Yemen does not have adequate research, training, education, awareness, equipment, facilities, and support to do what is needed to address the special-needs challenge.

Now, I go to Yemen with a new passion—I go to Yemen with a desire to improve the quality of life for special needs children in Yemen. Working in partnership with non-government organizations in Yemen, Yemeni government agencies, and Yemeni businesses, I seek to provide education, training, awareness, and support among families and those working with special needs children. 

Since then, Over the last six years, our trips have focused on training for teachers and parents of special needs children by providing Special Education Workshops in Yemen. Participants in the Workshops come from places such as the Hadramout, Hodeidah, Ta’izz, Yareem, and Sana'a. The Workshops give the participants practical tools and skills which they can use to help the special children of Yemen and their families. 

The Workshops also include an open meeting for parents of special needs children. These parent meetings provide support and dialogue for these families. As a father of a son with Down Syndrome, I share my journey of struggles and victories as a parent of a special needs child. The parents ask many questions and are encouraged by the information they receive.

As a result of this 15-year journey, I am deeply humbled and honored to be a friend of the people of Yemen. Almost daily, I have the great privilege of telling someone about my love for Yemen. What a thrill it is to be an ambassador for the people I have grown to love so much and who have shown such incredible love toward me. The people of Yemen are simply the most amazing people in all the world.  I love Yemen!


[1] Copyright © 2018, All Rights Reserved to Michael Griffin, PhD. Palm Beach Atlantic University, 901 South Flagler Dr., West Palm Beach, FL 33401. 

[2] Dr. Michael D. Griffin is the Chair of the Intercultural Studies Department at Palm Beach Atlantic University where he is also an Assistant Professor of Intercultural Studies.