Somali community finds opportunity in central ohio
Global Mall in Columbus, Ohio, is an unassuming storefront — plain and white with blocky red letters across the front proclaiming the name of the place and not much else. Nearby, there’s a store that sells waterbeds (n’ stuff) and a huge parking lot — the kind common under the bleak winter skies of Ohio around this time of year, reflecting the gray of the sky back in its concrete.
Inside, though, the gray dissipates. The walls are orange and warm and hung with hand-drawn pictures from children. The stalls are filled with fabric, patterned and sequined, lining the walls with a colorful patchwork.
“We kind of help each other, if something happened to somebody — it’s (a) closed community, I mean I’m not here, but I feel like we are a closed community, yeah,” said Amina Hussein, the sister of one of the shopkeepers in the Mall.
Her 3-year-old son, Salman, runs around carrying a snack. She glances at the walls, lined with scarves and dresses, fabric for clothing and hijabs.
“It’s very important, especially for me and my family. Me — I’m tall, and a lot of cultures don’t fit don’t fit me in other stores, so they bring the clothes here and they fit me, so it’s basically our cultural clothes,” Hussein said.
She has lived in Columbus for four years, and said she liked the area — she’s had no problems with discrimination.
“Our business is for everybody, not just the Somali community,” Nuro Wardhere, her sister, said. “It is really important (the business) because we want to loan to other cultures. We live together, we work together, so we need to know each other.”
Columbus, in fact, is home to the second largest Somali community in the United States, with around 55,000 members — second only to Minnesota, with 75,000 — and, according to the Somali Association of Ohio, these immigrants have opened over 600 businesses in the area.
“This culture, we are really ... when I was 5 years old, my father used to have a shop. Also, we used to have a plantation — banana plantation, back in Somalia, and then we were — we know how to make the business. So when we came over here, there were a lot of people who have the skills,” said Hassan Omar, president of the Somali Community Association of Ohio.
Omar first came to America in 1990 and Columbus in 1998.
“So you have people who are Ph.Ds, master's, Bachelor of Arts, all came,” Omar said. “The whole government came, and then the people knew that they have the skills, and then people were starting to put together whether they could get, like, most of the business owned by Somalis.”
According to the Somali Community Association of Ohio, around 70 percent of Somali immigrants speak English well enough to obtain a local job.
“The goal is to help the community become self-sufficient. We open English as a second language first because the communication is key,” Omar said. “So we try to help be able to understand the language, the country they live with. To get a job, to help the kids, to go shopping, to drive, to live with other people.”
Still, the culture in America is much different than Somalia — the civil war in the country has raged on since the late ’90s. Omar said that the culture emphasizes a collective sense of business responsibility.
“It’s not one single person’s business, it’s like a group of people. So they created family businesses. For example, I have six brothers here in town, and two sisters. And we have nephews and nieces. ... Whatever we get we put together. Each person come(s) up with $2,000. And we save. And the next year, we’re going to save. And the next year, we’re going to save. So within four or five years, we’re going to get $50,000, $70,000. Then you can open the business.”
Places like Global Mall are full of these business owners — some who come straight from Somalia, and some who feel more removed from the immediacy of parts of the community — all housed under a collective roof. People converse in native dialects in the halls, and traditional garb brushes the floors.
“I speak the language, but you know, you’re not authentic enough,” said Abdulrahman Abdi, a grocery store shopkeeper. “This is the vibe I get from the majority, because I wasn’t born in Somalia. I mean, I work in a Somalian store, which is like, the majority, it’s like Somalian-Somalian, you know? And I’m like, ‘hey.’”
Still, most members of the community insist there is not great resistance against Somali businesses from Columbus natives — including Omar, who, in the Somali Community Association office, pulls out a great stack of colorful cards and envelopes with notes voicing their support for the community.
“People are talking about (Trump) and there’s fear. But we don’t see any very serious issues ... I get only two or three letters (that) say ‘you are bad guys.’ But these are the support letters I get from Americans, could you imagine,” Omar said. “We get all of these letters saying ‘thank you, you are here, you belong here, nobody can bother you.’ That’s the kind of American that we live with.”
This support, however, does not always spell success for the businesses from outside of the community — as experienced by Habibo Kahdedege, a fabric store owner in the mall who has lived in Ohio for 11 years.
“The Somali shops, they’re selling the community Somali things. Look at the dress. (It’s) Somali dress — or Islamic dress — we’re selling,” Kahdedege said. “But (in) the community, business is slow; not good. This is, you look and no customer come in. Like ... one person, two person, three person, not too much.”
Still, the bond in the community becomes clear the longer one sits near the shops or in the cafe, watching mothers and their children, men with coffee conversing closely, families sitting together at tables.
“We have a lot of elderly people that have trouble when they’re going to the court or doctor, they don’t speak English, so we help them,” said Rooble Melvin. He sits near the barbershop in a sharp blue suit reading through his Twitter feed.
Melvin said he worked for a Democratic State Representative — as well as a liaison for older members of the community, not as immersed in the changing cultural landscape as he.
“These people only show up, the Democrats, when they need Somali votes. And why we lost to the orange faced guy — they were not doing enough outreach, reaching out to people,” Melvin said.
News about Trump blared on the radio overhead.
“They don’t like him (Trump), but they still respect him. In the Somali culture, respect is big. Like if an older person comes when I’m sitting, I have to get up. So they have respect ... no matter what, because they say the office he’s holding deserves respect,” Melvin said.
He said that the cultural barrier is one reason he feels that the population is not as involved.
“There’s a big cultural barrier ... most of the Somali people only vote on presidential. They don’t vote on midterm elections,” Melvin said. “They don’t vote on early elections ... because they don’t know ... and they’re not informed voters.”
Other young men lean against the walls around the barbershop opposite the throngs of older men gathered by the cafe.
“My father came here like 15 years (ago), like late ’90s, so when he came here at that time our country was in war. When he came here, the culture was different, the environment was different, people was different. Everything was different, so he was trying to get used to (the) new environment,” said Haybe Mohammed as he waits for the barber to return after Friday prayers.
His street clothes, basketball pants and a black-and-white American flag shirt, sharply contrast with the traditional garb of passing older men.
“When we came here, our English was good. So this was good for me. Interacting with people was easy for me because I know the English, and I have been to different cultures,” he said.
Mohammed, who said he often visits the barbershop in Global Mall, had lived in Columbus for three years and was working on investments with a friend.
“Usually, Somali community here, they have their own places where they meet up, share ideas, stuff like that. They usually support each other, you know. Those who are in need, they do, you know, donation stuff, collection to help them. So that’s good for the community,” Mohammed said.
The cultural emphasis on community and support persists — but the generational gap is obvious.
“We know that our kids have a different culture than we are — individual. ‘Me, me, me,’ America it’s ‘me.’ But we don’t say ‘me,’ we say ‘we.’ So two different things,” Omar said.
Families often live together, even past adulthood.
“I have a brother ... one of his daughters is a doctor. One is a social worker. One of them’s a midwife ... I think they’re all skilled people. And guess what, they still live together in the same house. Same, you know, under one roof. And whatever they get, they put together,” Omar said. “This is the culture. Collective effort. We don’t believe in individualistic- we believe individual cannot sustain in our culture.”
Mohammed, though, said he wanted to move past Columbus — to expand his opportunities.
“I’m gaining more knowledge in the business world, and also I’m gaining how you can become successful in the world of business,” Mohammed said. “I’m in the early stages of apprenticeship, so I want to first lay my foundation here. Then, when I become successful, I can move out and go to New York ... and other parts of the world.”
The opportunities, Mohammed said, are much greater in America.
Omar agreed and said members of the community want to work with Americans — match them hand-for-hand.
“We have more than that,” Omar said. “That’s what you see. They have real estates, they have insurances, they have tracking businesses ... and transportation businesses, they have their own daycares. They have more than 40, 50 groceries, and I think that gradually they will meld to the community.”
They consider themselves Americans. Omar said he is here now. He doesn’t have plans to go back because the opportunity is greater in Columbus.
“There’s a place I know that’s like paradise ... people are less violent, people are hardworking, they have good hospitality, they will never treat you different ... If you go in Somalia ... I never, ever hear ‘he’s white’ or ‘he’s black’ or ‘He’s a Christian.’ You will never hear that word. People live together, they treat you as a human being. Respect you. That’s all.”