Shocking truth about that is going on behind closed doors in Michigan. Yemeni children, as young as eleven, suddenly absent from school due to their new lives as wives.
When Amal was 15 years old, her best friend Jasmin stopped coming to school.
They were both freshmen at Fordson High School, in Dearborn, Michigan, home to America’s largest and most diverse Arab community. When Jasmin didn’t show up to their English-language learners (ELL) class that Wednesday, Amal assumed she was sick. But a day soon became a week, which quickly turned into a month. Amal tells me she suspected early on that Jasmin was not coming back.
“Her parents wanted her married,” Amal, who is Lebanese, says. “She was Yemeni—they always do that very young.” (Some names have been changed to protect privacy.)
Dearborn’s Yemeni population has grown significantly over the past five years, largely due to an influx of refugees fleeing the ongoing war in Yemen, according to a spokesperson for the City of Dearborn. More than one-third of Dearborn’s approximately 100,000 residents identify as Arab, and of those approximately 8 percent are Yemeni, which includes immigrants and Americans of Yemeni descent. Like most immigrant groups, the Yemeni bring their social customs with them.
Child marriage is one such norm, and its practice has affected Dearborn’s Yemeni girls for decades. On the south side of the city, where many Yemeni immigrants have settled, it’s impossible to know just how many girls like Jasmin drop out of school every year. As Danielle White, a teacher in an English as a second language (ESL) program told me, many of them “just go off the grid.” “They drop out of school. It’s like they’re under the radar here—nobody knows they exist. Sometimes they go to Yemen for the summer, get married over there, and when they come back, nobody knows they’re here,” she says.
Rola Bazzi-Gates, special education coordinator for Dearborn Public Schools, knows the Yemeni community well from her 14 years as a social worker, and says she often heard of girls between the ages of 15 and 17 marrying their first cousins, another Yemeni norm.
Liberal state laws in Michigan make such child marriages relatively easy to obtain. Michigan is one of 26 states that doesn’t have an age floor, meaning children can get married at any age if certain conditions are met. The state will legally recognize the marriage of a 16- or 17-year-old if the parents consent. If the child is 15 years old or younger, approval of the Wayne County probate court must be granted as well.
The need for court approval hasn’t slowed the rate of such child marriages. According to a 2017 Frontline report on child marriages in America, Michigan’s child marriage rate in 2010 was 20 per 10,000 marriages, higher than its neighboring state of Ohio, which had a rate of 12 per 10,000, but lower than rates in Kentucky (73) and West Virginia (63). Although child marriage rates have been steadily decreasing nationwide, Fraidy Reiss, founder of Unchained At Last, an advocacy group working to outlaw marriage before the age of 18, told Frontline it’s still staggering. “The number was so much higher than I had thought it would be,” she said.
As for the schools’ understanding of the practice of child marriage among the Yemeni, Dearborn’s superintendent Glenn Maleyko told me he isn’t “aware of it being a problem” and said he hasn’t seen statistical evidence proving it’s common. “I’ve heard of people telling me, ‘She should be in school, but she dropped out,’ and this and that. But I don’t have any data on that. It’s mostly just hearsay,” he says. “If someone were to drop out, we have intervention specialists who track them down. They’ll go to the homes and find them.”
But there are still exceptions. Amal says it took a week for her teacher to ask the class whether they’d seen Jasmin. It’s unlikely her teacher attributed Jasmin’s absence to an early marriage because, as Danielle White notes, “These things are kept pretty quiet.”
Child marriage in the Yemeni community will never disappear entirely. When I spoke to Yemeni women in the ESL class, Faizan, 53, told me all three of her daughters were married in Dearborn before they turned 13 years old; her youngest was 11 years old when Faizan and her husband arranged her marriage. Faizan tells me she would not do anything differently because that is what she did and that is what her granddaughters will do. “She is a girl, so she is a wife,” she says.