The Mall of Somalia

Minneapolis's own slice of Mogadishu

"The word travels very quickly in the Somali community. Very rapidly," Sabri recalls. "I met with the coffee shop guys. Before you know it, I had a whole tribe of Somalis wanting to rent. I'm filled in no time." One draw was the relatively inexpensive rent: about $375 a month. And once foot traffic was established, other Somali entrepreneurs--many of whom had been merchants in the old country--were clamoring for spaces of their own. As a result, according to Sabri, Karmel Square has been fully occupied since it opened. When one tenant leaves, another quickly snaps up the vacant space.

Karmel Square's success has led to the establishment of other Somali malls around the city. One--larger and fancier than Karmel (and, interestingly, developed by Sabri's older brother, Azzam)--opened a little over a year ago at 24th and Elliot in the old Excelsior Baking Company building. And last August, Sabri put the finishing touches on an enormous African- Mexican bazaar at the former locale of the Reach Out Thrift Store on East Lake. Now, he's pushing to develop a $6 million condo-retail complex, called Karmel Plaza, on a vacant block across the street from Karmel Square. Like Karmel, Sabri says, the complex would be targeted exclusively at Somalis.

If Minneapolis's original Somali souk is frayed at the edges, its status as the first of its kind keeps people coming back. For evidence, look no further than the routine traffic snarls on this once moribund stretch of Pillsbury Avenue, a phenomenon that has caused a bit of neighborhood aggravation and led some pizza delivery drivers to dub the street "Little Mogadishu." The accumulation of double-parked cars is an overt testament to the enduring social needs of displaced people.

Just ask Abdul Mohammed.

Mohammed is a big, strapping guy. Thirty-seven years old and mild-mannered, he wears a ready smile and a cell phone that rings approximately every three minutes. The son of a minister in the last Somali government, he came to the U.S. on a visa before the war. In 1991, after the government collapsed, Mohammed realized he couldn't return home. So in keeping with his nomadic origins, he spent years moving around the U.S., from Washington, D.C., to New York to southern California. Finally, he settled in Los Angeles with his wife and kids. He liked L.A., but there was something missing.

In the summer of 2000, Mohammed paid a visit to the Twin Cities, which was already home to the largest population of Somalis in North America. "My friend picked me up at the airport. We went to his home, and then about six o'clock he told me, let's go outside. I said, 'Lets go to Mall of America.'" Mohammed recalls his friend saying, "'No, we're going to Mall of Somalia.' I told him stop bullshitting and take me to Mall of America. Then he brings me here. It was summer. I saw 120 guys standing outside smoking cigarettes, talking to each other. It was like Mogadishu. I thought, 'Am I dreaming or what?' Within 10 minutes, I knew that this was the place for me."

Mohammed spent most of his weeklong vacation hanging around Karmel. He never did make it to the Mall of America. Like a lot of visitors, Mohammed ran into friends he had not seen for 15 or 20 years. So, upon his return to L.A., Mohammed told his wife and kids, "Guys, pack up. We're moving." He worked for a few years in a downtown Minneapolis law office, then, while attending a Friday service at a mosque, he ran into Basim Sabri. Mohammed introduced himself and asked for a job. A week later, Sabri hired him to manage Karmel Square and to serve as Sabri's unofficial liaison to the Somali community. Mohammed views his role in strategic terms: "When these people become a success, I become a success. They make more money, and I get a raise. My success is my boss's success. Everything is connected."

 

If you enter Karmel Square from the north side door, you walk into a small, narrow hallway with flickering overhead fluorescent lights. Most evenings, there is a clutch of adults standing in line outside. They are waiting to enter the tiny, one-room headquarters of the Somali Community Development Corporation, a nonprofit organization that helps immigrants with housing and business development issues.

The organization's director is an urbane 42-year-old émigré, Abdullahi Hassan. A careful reader of the international press (preferred papers include the Guardian and the Telegraph), Hassan pays close attention to current events. On the subject of U.S. policy in Iraq, he offers a pithy summary: "We were either dumb and arrogant, or lying to start with. Pick your choice." Based largely on his own observation of chronic lawlessness in Somalia, he worries about Iraq descending into anarchy. But, he postulates, there is a fundamental difference between Somalia and Iraq: "Iraq is going be worse than in Somalia because Somalia doesn't have a lot of resources to fight with. The warlords in Somalia don't have much. They can only fight for a day or two. But the warlords in Basra and Kirkuk can fight for the next hundred years. They have oil."

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