The Mall of Somalia

Minneapolis's own slice of Mogadishu

Like many people at Karmel Square, Hassan has little faith in the latest good news from Somalia, an announcement in late January that warring factions had agreed to establish a new government. "The warlords have no experience to build a government. Each has 500 people, guns, and a clan behind them," he says. "But they don't have the technocrats, people who know what government looks like."

This time of year is especially hectic for Hassan. After putting in a day at his accounting job, he comes to Karmel Square, mostly to help people prepare their income taxes. The work affords Hassan perspective on the economic fortunes of his fellow Somalis. Handfuls of tax forms reveal the struggles of new arrivals. "When they are new to the country, they often come to my office with seven W-2s. That tells me they really want to work, but can't fit into the workplace because they don't have the skills," he observes. "After a few years, you see they come in with one or two W-2s, just like the regular American worker."

Hassan came to the U.S. on a student visa in 1980, part of the first wave of Somali immigrants. By Somali standards, he hailed from a relatively privileged background. He was educated and spoke English. The more recent immigrants, he notes, are greeted by a better support network, but typically have much less education and know little or no English. Lately, Hassan has noticed that his clients are earning less money, a trend he attributes to the decline in American manufacturing jobs. The ripple effect of the country's weak economy is felt at Karmel Square. Despite big crowds, a drop in sales is a common complaint among merchants.

"We are surviving, but it's not the same as it was in 2000 and 2001," observes Farhya Mohamed, one of the mall's original tenants and one of its most prominent female business owners. "There is a lot of unemployment." Mohamed spends most of her time in a small gift and jewelry shop, often with a group of female friends, all of whom dress in traditional Muslim garb. Sometimes, Mohamed says, an entire day will pass without a sale. But perhaps because she works such long hours and seven days a week, Mohamed has managed to stay afloat and even diversify. A few months back, she bought three second-hand pool tables and now operates Karmel's small pool hall, which has become a popular gathering spot for young men and teens. She also runs a third business in the mall, a dingy little salon called the Fame Barbershop.

That's where 28-year-old Abdul Ibrahim ekes out his living. "I used to do barbering back home. That was traditional in my family," Ibrahim says as he gives a customer an eight-dollar cut. Most Somalis prefer the same close-cropped style, he says; no lines, no fades, no shaved heads. Despite his fluency in the Somali language and culture, Ibrahim considers himself thoroughly American. The shop is decorated with bumper stickers that could hang in any U.S. barbershop: "I love my country, it's my government I fear" and "IN GOD WE TRUST." Ibrahim is also a big fan of American football. In the recent Super Bowl, he says, he rooted for the Carolina Panthers because they were the underdogs.

Given his life trajectory, that's not a surprising bias. Ibrahim, who arrived in North America as a lone teenager, has not seen his family since 1988 and is not even sure where they are. "Last I knew, my family was living in one of the camps. Before I left, my father was murdered by one of the militias," he says flatly. "We didn't have much money, and we were from a tribe that didn't have any power." He then allows that he is a member of the Midgan, one of Somalia's lower castes.

Tribe affiliation is an important and sensitive subject. Somali society is stratified by a series of clans and sub-clans. The divisions and inequities have been at the heart of much of the fighting in the country. Among immigrants, clan affiliations play a crucial role in the support network that connects émigrés both to each other and to those who remain in Somalia. But these associations are seldom spoken of openly to outsiders. The business people at Karmel Square like to say simply, "We are all one Somali community."


There is little that Liban DJ balks at. Gregarious and open-minded, Liban--whose formal name is Yusef Yusef--is killing a few hours in the food court with an older friend named Ali Hassan. Liban explains enthusiastically that he is in the midst of making a series of movies about the Minnesota Somali experience, and that Hassan--an actor, musician, comedian, and artist--is a regular cast member. Currently, they are trying to wrap up a film called Flight 13.

"I'm still hustling," 37-year-old Liban says. "There are things that I really wanted to do, but I couldn't because I didn't have the money." By example, he lists a crucial aspect of shooting any airplane movie: filming scenes in an actual airplane. The title, Flight 13, refers to a famous flight that carried a planeload of Somali refugees from Kenya to the U.S. in the early '90s. As Liban tells it, the flight was a comedy of errors. The plane got lost for a spell, so that the trip lasted an excruciating 18 hours. At one point the bathrooms flooded because some of the passengers were unfamiliar with the protocols of modern toilets. The movie is not simply about Flight 13, Liban explains, but rather serves as a comic examination of the cultural barriers facing Somalis living in the U.S.

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