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Minneapolis Minimall Gives Somali Businesses a Place to Start


In business, it often pays to be first. Faduma Farah hopes so.

Months ago, the 46-year-old Somali woman was the first to sign up for a booth at Suuqa Karmel, a new indoor bazaar in Minneapolis targeting the city's burgeoning Somali community.

Farah's is the No. 1 booth facing the green awning-shaded front door at 2944 Pillsbury Ave. S. "I want my own business to develop for my family," Farah said, seated in her 4-foot-by-4-foot stall behind a glass counter crowded with soaps, creams and perfumes. "I don't want to depend on other person or welfare.

I want to stand up myself." Farah isn't so alone. Most of Minnesota's estimated 20,000 to 40,000 Somali refugees still scramble to find jobs to support themselves, but more and more are setting up their own businesses. They come from an entrepreneurial culture.

Poised on the tip of the Horn of Africa, Somalia has centuries of history of trade with India to the east across the Indian Ocean and Egypt to the north through the Red Sea.

But in America, they're often stymied from jumping into the business mainstream. They don't have the credit histories banks demand for business loans, and they are prohibited by their Islamic religious beliefs from accepting or paying interest.

Many raise the money for their own businesses by tapping family and friends, but others cannot afford to rent or buy buildings. Enter Basim Sabri. The Palestinian immigrant and Minneapolis business developer last fall opened a similar concept on East Lake Street at the International Bazaar, a building filled with start-up businesses catering to the neighborhood's fast-growing Latino community.

Last month, he opened Suuqa Karmel, a minimall. Sabri bought the 30,000 square-foot abandoned Midwest Machinery warehouse in the 2900 block of Pillsbury Avenue South in 1997, remodeled it inside and out, and then sought enterprising tenants.

The second floor is filled with professional offices for landscape architects, chiropractors, therapeutic masseuses and lawyers. But the first floor is devoted to small, start-up Somali family stores and services in the "suuqa," or bazaar. Karmel is his daughter's name. "It will allow these individuals who have very little resources in either knowledge or money to open a business in the United States," Sabri said.

"If the individual succeeds, they will outgrow the space and move on to a bigger space elsewhere." Many of the bazaar's 33 tenants, like Farah, sell clothing, especially fabric for making scarves and the long, flowing head covering traditionally worn by many Muslim women.

Their booths are a rainbow of silk fabric, hemmed in by hangers with Western-style children's and men's clothing and shoes and purses. Most of the tenants are women. Many are married and their husbands work regular jobs to support their families until their businesses catch on.

Farah, whose father was a merchant in Somalia, said her store hasn't yet made a profit. "But we will -- maybe three months," she said. Asho Sabrye, 22, owner of the International Clothing Center booth, also owns a cleaning franchise and is thinking big.

"Just our community knows, but we'd like Americans to come," she said. Mohamed Ali, 45, and his wife, Farhiya Ahmed Mohamud, 41, named their home furnishings business -- Leban International Decorations and Jewelry -- after his second son.

If it's successful, said Ali, who works as an employment counselor at the Brian Coyle Community Center, his wife will expand and move the business to St. Paul's East Side, where an East African community is growing. Some of his customers come from as far as Willmar, Minn., he said.

"Word goes out. You don't need advertisement. You just need one person in one town," he said. In many ways, the bazaar resembles an old-fashioned Main Street in miniature, with clothing stores interspersed with a fruit and vegetable stall, a faxing and copying service, a tiny convenience store with new furniture stacked next to boxes of diapers and Tide detergent, a tailor's shop, a video store and a hair salon.

But the bazaar also shows a keen understanding of the needs of its tenants and customers.

In one corner, Sabri sacrificed a potential storefront to install a small prayer room or "masjid" -- a mosque for the Muslim Somalis to take their daily short prayer breaks.

Around the corner sits a coffee shop where men gather to relax and talk.

Above the conversational murmur, an indoor fountain gurgles and white doves in wire cages ruffle their wings.

Osman Sahardeed, executive vice president of Somali Community of Minnesota, said many Somalis already know about the bazaar through word-of-mouth and stories in Somali-language newspapers and on a local Somali cable television show.

"The demand is there among the Somali, and we hope Americans like it, too," he said. His organization estimates Minnesota has nearly 20 Somali-owned restaurants and another 20 grocery and clothing stores, most concentrated in Minneapolis but a few in St. Paul and Rochester.

Saeed Osman Fahia, executive director of the Confederation of Somali Community in Minnesota, an umbrella group for other mutual assistance organizations, said the bazaar is becoming a popular meeting place for people to meet, shop and relax.

"It shows that people are settling in this country and forgetting the civil war back home," he said, "and starting again."


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