First Somali Shopping Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota

Since 1991, thousands of people have fled war and anarchy in the East African country of Somalia, and many have settled in the United States. The largest group is in the Midwest state of Minnesota.  Most live in the state's largest city, Minneapolis, where several Somali shopping centers have sprung up in recent years. VOA's Deborah Block visited one of them.

Karmel Center is the first Somali shopping mall in the United States. Six years ago the mall opened in a sprawling, two-story building in a Somali neighborhood in Minneapolis.  Dozens of merchants in small shops sell everything from home decorations to beauty products to clothing from Somalia and goods from other countries.  Many were merchants back home and started their own business here because they could not find work. 

Businesswoman Busad Kheyre talks about female Somali clothing. "This one is [worn] underneath this one.  We don't want to be naked," she explains.

Busad Kheyre sells traditional Somali clothing along with the latest American styles. She and her business partner Asha Habad only opened their shop six months ago. They say local Somalians are slowly hearing about their store.

"But we have our own friends and relatives and family - both sides - that is where we are getting all our customers."

Customer Deka Abdi, 22, came to the United States when she was seven years old.   Although she considers herself a typical American, she values Somali culture and says she occasionally wears a traditional headscarf.

"Mostly when I'm having a bad hair day to be honest," she laughs, but adds, "I [also] wear it when I'm going to the mosque to make my prayers and when I'm going to visit my family members who like me to have my hair covered for respect."

The mall is also a place to relax, gossip and trade job tips. Some people reconnect with family and friends they may not have seen since they left Somalia. Others make their way to a Muslim prayer room. Nearby is a computer business that teaches computer skills and provides internet access.  

Owner Mohamood Isse says many Somalis want to know what is happening in Somalia. "They check all the Somali websites on the news from back home, and with e-mail they stay in touch with families and friends."

Local Somali groups estimate that at least 25,000 Somalis live in Minnesota.  At this shop they can find Somali music and movies. 

Customer Ahmed Khadiye says one DVD is a mystery thriller made in the United States has a deeper meaning about the changing role of many Somali women. "They are showing that they have power in the United States of America and that they can go ahead and boss around the men," he says.

People also come to Karmel Mall to find items like handcrafted traditional Somali furniture. Zeki Ismail says his benches are also popular with people who are not Somali, because they are beautiful and practical. "They're easy to move from house to house and easy to carry," he notes.

He says he has found a home in Minneapolis among members of the Somali community, a place where he feels comfortable and can make a modest living.


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