The Mall of Somalia

It's a dismal day in south Minneapolis, one of those cold midwinter afternoons when the sun shines as though its batteries were dying. At times like this, a good portion of Twin Cities natives wishes they lived somewhere else, like Florida. But, what can you do? Move, gripe, or shut up. At a bustling little mall called Karmel Square--where, until fairly recently, practically everyone did live somewhere else--the frigid weather is a favorite topic of conversation. "We are an outdoor people," grumbles mall regular Abdullahi Hassan. But Hassan, along with many of the estimated 25,000 Somalis living in Minnesota, has come to grudgingly accept snowdrifts and windchill as part of the bargain he makes for a better life. Besides, when he wants a taste of home, he can always make the trek to Karmel Square.

In the food court, the mall's social nexus, the tile floor is littered with dirty napkins and snowmelt. Broken Styrofoam cups float in the ornamental fountain. Plastic buckets, which have been scattered about the room, catch drips falling from leaks in the roof. But the building's lackluster upkeep doesn't seem to bother anyone much. The air is filled with conversation. People constantly greet one another in excited voices. There is a virtual epidemic of hugging and touching.

On this midweek afternoon, the food court is inhabited by maybe two dozen people, almost exclusively Somali men speaking Somali. Most are sipping coffee or sweet tea. A few are munching hunger-quenching snack foods like nafaqo--a delectable batter-fried hunk of mashed potato wrapped around a hardboiled egg. As usual, a bunch of guys are clustered near the television. It's tuned to an English soccer match. At Karmel Square, the TV is always tuned to soccer. Unless there's no soccer. Then it's tuned to CNN and everyone looks a little bored.

Traditionally, Somali culture strictly separates the genders--each has its role, however unbalanced by modern standards. An old Somali proverb says, "Your woman should be in the house or in the grave." So while the men populate the chatty social scene out front, the women dominate the warren of little shops that spread throughout the first floor of the building. There, dozens of merchants in tiny little shops sell the types of fabric, jewelry, home decorations, and assorted curiosities that you won't find at Wal-Mart.

There also are no checkout lines or scheduled work breaks. Truth be told, the commerce at this laid-back shopping center feels somewhat like an afterthought. Karmel Square is a mall in concept. But it's fundamentally social by nature: a place to gossip, converse, and trade job tips. Sometimes, it's a place where people reconnect with friends and relations they haven't seen since they left their home country.


At a little after 5:00 p.m., a large, handsome guy hobbles into the food court on a pair of crutches. Accompanied by a friend, he plops down on one of the few vacant seats. He is nattily dressed: turtleneck sweater, wool overcoat, and a Carhart stocking cap. Speaking in halting English, he explains that he lost the lower half of his right leg in 1991, the year Somalia's last functioning government collapsed and the country descended into a nightmare of lawlessness, brutality, and madness. As the fighting overtook the capital city of Mogadishu, the man says he was struck repeatedly in the leg with the butt of a militiaman's rifle. He couldn't find a doctor or hospital, so the leg became badly infected and eventually was amputated.

He explains that he spent more than 10 years marooned in a Kenyan refugee camp, where his wife and kids remain. He's been in Minnesota for one month. This is his first visit to Karmel Square, which might explain why, despite the recounting of these awful stories, he's smiling.

Just as the man's more English-proficient friend jumps in to fill out the details of the story, a loud chanting comes crackling over a loudspeaker. It's the call to evening prayer. The crippled man and his buddy rise from their seats, just as the others do in the coffee shop, one by one. Some make their way to a spartan little prayer room in a distant corner of the building. When that space fills up, the overflow heads to Spectrum Computer, a nearby business that provides internet access, computer repair services, and free floor space where the faithful can spread their prayer mats and bow toward Mecca.


Karmel Square is located in a sprawling, 125,000-square-foot building on the 2900 block of Pillsbury Avenue. It is a little off the beaten path, about a half-block north of Lake Street. For decades, the building served as a repair shop for streetcars. Later, it became a machinery warehouse. Then, a little over four years ago, a Palestinian émigré named Basim Sabri spotted it, and the posted For Sale sign, while driving down Pillsbury. Sabri, who had already built a small empire of residential properties in the Whittier and Uptown neighborhoods, snapped up the dilapidated building for the fire-sale price of $169,000. It was his first venture into commercial property, and he wasn't exactly sure what to do with it. With limited funds, Sabri began rehabbing the heating and plumbing. Around the same time, he noticed the dramatic influx of Somali immigrants in the Twin Cities. It struck him: He would build a souk--the Arabic word for a mall or bazaar--to serve the Somali community. It was a novel idea. At the time, Sabri says, there were no other Somali malls in Minneapolis--or, for that matter, in North America.  

"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."

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.

Once he finishes that film, Liban plans to make another movie starring Hassan, this one called ESL. He shot Flight 13 on a slim $5,000 budget, which meant hardly anyone got paid. For ESL, he hopes to round up enough money to at least put up the actors in a hotel. Liban's vision for his movies is largely educational. He wishes to warn Somalis about common mistakes made when encountering such American booby traps as "cars, parking, and drugs."

Liban, who left Somalia with his family in 1982, has been in this country long enough to know. He has lived in several North American cities--Washington, D.C., Toronto, Atlanta, New York--and for years was "an international DJ" at various dance clubs. Because his family disapproved of his working in alcohol-centric venues, he moved on to filmmaking and other forms of entertainment production. He rents a studio on nearby Lake Street, where Somali TV shows are occasionally shot. He also likes to throw parties and social events for Somali teens. Because he is more acculturated to the ways of the West, Liban figures he has the ability--even the responsibility--to provide useful guidance to his less clued-in compatriots.

As Liban explains all of this, a slick-looking Somali guy--maybe in his mid-20s--stops by the table. The two make small talk in Somali and laugh. After a minute, Liban reaches into his pocket, pulls out a pack of Marlboro Lights and hands over a smoke. The guy saunters off to the pool hall. Liban explains that he "had a meeting" with the guy the night before. He's an unemployed, broke drug user, Liban says, shaking his head.

"Last night, I sat with him for two hours. I told him, 'Stop coming out to Karmel and the other malls if you want to sell drugs. Go to Portland and Franklin. Stay away from my territory," Liban continues. "And then I told him, 'Everybody who loves you knows what you're doing. If you don't want to lose their friendship, you better stop.'" But Liban explains that he didn't want to lean on the guy too hard. He believes people can turn their lives around.

So he doled out the cigarette, despite the fact that his pack has dwindled steadily since arriving at the café and he's only got five dollars in his pocket. At Karmel, it doesn't matter that he's light in the wallet. "You have everything you need here just like Mall of America," he says. "Except it's not expensive. You can come here with nothing and still get a cup of coffee."  

Does he think Karmel will retain its status as a focal point for Minnesota's Somali community? He pauses for a moment, and then answers: "Somalis are nomads. We find something better, we'll move on. We always look for the best. Something comes out better tomorrow, we'll move there."

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