Somali businesses growing locally

However, immigrants are having to learn U.S. business practices.

by Betsy Graca

The Twin Cities have one of the highest African immigrant populations in the nation and their businesses are developing a role in Minnesota’s economy.

However, a thorough business education and understanding of the American system is essential to the success of such businesses.

Omar Jamal, executive director for the Somali Justice Advocacy Center, said the community is working to provide classes for immigrants in the near future.

“There’s no such education process that would help immigrants understand how business is conducted in this country,” he said.

The majority of the business owners are women and single mothers who fled the civil war in Somalia.

There are five African malls within a two-mile radius in the Uptown area of Minneapolis, each supporting 300 to 500 businesses. There are also a few malls in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood near the West Bank campus.

The malls appear to be small buildings from the outside, but contain hidden markets selling jewelry, scarves, hair products and offering other services including legal advice, mosques, banks and restaurants.

Many of the businesses are within other businesses – for example, a clothing store owner who also tutors English or a jewelry store owner who braids hair.

Jamal said the immigrants are struggling without any assistance or initiative to ask for help.

“What you see is basic human survival at work,” he said.

African Chamber of Commerce president Martin Mohammad said half the businesses will die in the next five years unless owners are educated about the American business system – especially about sales competition, income taxes and insurance.

An estimated 3,000 students of African descent and more than 300 Somali students are enrolled at the University, many of whom are taking classes through the Carlson School of Management.

Abdulahi Hussein, business junior and member of the Somali Student Association, said education is the key for the Somali people to prosper in the United States.

He said the malls are growing and more Americans can be found shopping there.

Mohammad said the community is working to integrate its businesses into mainstream Minnesota.

He said many business owners are hoping to introduce shops in the Mall of America and Eden Prairie Center.

Misbal Ahmed, a Somali business owner, said the fact that she’s Muslim shouldn’t be looked down upon by other Americans in the business world, but that is changing and the community is becoming more accepting.

The international affairs chapter of the University Women’s Club on Friday visited the Somali Mall to further its members’ understanding of Somali businesses.

Susan Fuller, UWC member, said the visit was a real awakening and she didn’t know such a strong Somali community existed.

Cherie Hamilton, chairwoman of the International Affairs chapter of the UWC, said since her visit to the Karmel Mall the previous year a lot has changed.

She said the mall is much larger and the education the women need to receive is imperative and proving successful.

Jamal said the Somali people have to learn how to adjust from a different cultural point of view in order to be successful in this country.

Immigrants face many challenges when adapting to a new country and lifestyle.

Mohammad said language barriers, unpaid bills and legal immigration issues are dealt with on an everyday basis.

“In Africa, you’re afraid of lions,” he said. “But in America, one of the scariest things immigrants face is opening the mailbox.”

Salma Hussein, first-year psychology student and frequenter of the Somali malls, said even though markets are small now, the population is still only a few years old and there’s a lot of growth.

She said immigrants have the American dream too, and aspire to achieve success in much the same way as U.S. natives.