From Fulbright to the Foreign Service

Nov 26, 2018

By: Keisha Toms, Foreign Service Officer and an alumna of the Fulbright U.S. Student Program.

Keisha Toms poses for a photo with her host family in Yemen while in the country on a Fulbright U.S. Student award.

My time in Yemen as a Fulbright researcher turned out to be one of the most profound experiences of my life. Ostensibly, I was in Yemen for ten months as a researcher to explore identity and culture as a contrast point to my experience in Egypt the previous year. But I really came to Yemen for an adventure and to be free and unknown.

I wandered villages and talked to people. I learned how to swim in Socotra, a small island nestled between Somalia and Yemen. I remember sitting on the beach with my European friends when a man on a boat approached us and demanded food from us- to this day I’m not sure if I get to call him a pirate or not. I traveled to a friend’s wedding in Sadaa, the heart of the Houthi stronghold, long before the Houthis became international news. It was a beautiful wedding but also quite sad because my friend was an American teenager from Los Angeles who had been pulled from the States to have an honorable tribal wedding. I suppose the $85,000 dowry to her father may have also been an incentive for her marriage. I went because she begged me to go with her and to photograph the whole trip. It was really taboo to photograph women, even in the mid-2000s.

I remember crowds of people silently watching me read Arabic lessons on my laptop- a skill they did not have. I learned the differences between single and married girl abayas. And when people started offering me their guns to shoot I knew it was about the cut of the abaya, and not me!

But it was Moshe, a Yemeni Jew, who embodied everything about Yemen and taught me so much about being a Foreign Service Officer.

I first learned about the small population of Yemeni Jews while walking to my Arabic class in downtown Sanaa. I noticed an old Yemeni man walking in the souq, the market, wearing a Yarmulke and traditional Hasidic payot sidelocks, just like so many of my fellow New Yorkers that I knew in Brooklyn from college. Immediately, I had questions and called my Yemeni friends to understand more about the Yemeni Jews.

Turns out the souq I walked through every day, Souq al Milh, the salt market, was traditionally a place where local Jewish people sold their goods, including salt. Jewish Yemeni were also famous for their magnificent Jewish wedding jewelry. I frequented the souq and bought several pieces, but the Arab Spring would soon halt my visits there.

My friends knew I was researching identity and culture as a Fulbrighter, so they offered to introduce me to a Jewish family to learn more about their lives and experiences. Moshe’s family lived in Raydah, a small town with a few hundred Jewish families. He allowed me to tour the community: I remember seeing the Torah pedestaled in a small synagogue and an older man reciting the text near a tree.

Moshe and his family, like every other Yemeni, fed me the best of their food and told me about their 300-strong Jewish community just north of Sanaa. He identified as a proud Yemeni and he had no intention of moving to another country despite sporadic threats to him and his family.

As an African American, I felt a strong connection to this 30 year-old butcher with nine children. I admired his decision to share with me his family and his culture rather than discuss the threats that swirled around him. Mostly, I admired Moshe because he refused to let anyone tell him he wasn’t Yemeni enough just because he was a minority.

The last time I heard from Moshe was after I had returned to New York to begin graduate studies at Columbia University’s School of International Affairs. He had left a hurried message asking me to call him back because he needed help.

Moshe was dead by the next time I asked about him. On his way from the souq, perhaps after buying groceries for another curious student, a gunman murdered him in the street because he was Jewish. December 2018 will mark ten years since his death and I still remember my friend.

I have always carried a guilt about Moshe. I’ll always wonder if there was something I could have done to help when he called. Moshe believed that I could help him because I came from the great City on a Hill. He didn’t care about my background or my personal baggage. To him I was an American who had the potential to help him and his community.

Moshe’s death — and my desire to prevent this from happening again — is what inspired me to become a Foreign Service Officer and promote human rights and democracy in the lives of people just like Moshe all around the world.


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