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Trudy's Tavern, near the heart of Little Mogadishu. Photo by Alex Stonehill.

Trudy's Tavern, near the heart of Little Mogadishu. Photo by Alex Stonehill.


Little Mogadishu

Staff Reporter

Washington is the 13th most populated state in the country, but the 8th highest receiver of refugees. Refugees come to Washington from all over the world, but the largest groups are from Burma, Iraq, Bhutan and Somalia.

Today we kick off a four–part series called "Refugees In Puget Sound." Our series will explore the lives of local refugees and the challenges that they face as they settle in to their new community.

King County is home to one of the country's largest populations of Somalis. They've been fleeing Somalia since the central government collapsed in 1991. Reporter Jessica Partnow recently visited a Somali community concentrated around the Tukwila light–rail station. It is in a neighborhood known by many as Little Mogadishu.


At the Bakara Mall in SeaTac, Mohamed Ibrahim says he can sell you a cell phone for half the cost of retail.

Ibrahim: "We specialize in fixing phones. We sell used and new phones here."

Ibrahim is 25. He and his brother opened this shop a year and a half ago.

Ibrahim: "We first started off just selling phones out on the streets and stuff like that, and we wanted a place where people can come to us and get a face–to–face reaction and stuff like that."

He's got a full–time job too, working as an instructional assistant for Seattle Public Schools. He tutors immigrant and refugee kids who are learning English. Ibrahim is from Somalia, but he's been in the US since he was 10.

The mall we're in is named Bakara after the biggest market in Mogadishu. And it definitely feels a little more like being in another country than when you're at Northgate or Southcenter.

The shops here are tiny — maybe 5 or 10 feet square. There are 20 or 30 stalls in a space the size of two 7–Elevens.

One side is lined with stores for women: stalls selling fabrics and shawls, lotions and jewelry. There's a tea and coffee stand at the back of the mall, and a window where you can pay your utility bills and, soon, wire money back home to Somalia.

Ibrahim: "It's basically the same as if an average person were to go to Starbucks and get, you know, catch up with a friend over there. Most Somali people come down here, they get a cup of tea and ask what's going on in the world."

This is the heart of King County's Somali community, right where Military Road meets Tukwila International Boulevard, just north of the Tukwila light–rail station. Some estimates say 30,000 Somalis live in the county.

The neighborhood straddles the cities of SeaTac and Tukwila. Some people call it Little Mogadishu.

Many Somalis work in and around the airport; as cabin cleaners, taxi drivers or baggage handlers. And you can't beat the housing prices here. Tukwila is one of the most affordable places in King County. The average rent for an apartment is $500 cheaper than Seattle.

Somalis first started coming here 10 or 15 years ago. At that time, Tukwila was a mostly white working–class city.

Linda Webb: "I went to high school a mile and a half from here — I never went to school with a black person."

Linda Webb owns and manages Trudy's Tavern, a bar that's been here since 1953.

Webb: "My late husband, he'd call it a honky–tonk."

We're sitting in the poker room, off to the side of the bar. Friday night is just getting started.

Webb: "We have all kinds of ethnic groups; we have East Africans, you know we have Somalis, Ethiopians, Kenyans, we have Bosnians, we have Samoans, we have Mexicans, we have, we cover the gamut in here. We call ourselves the United Nations!"

Linda has been working at Trudy's since 1981. She's seen waves of different immigrant groups move in and out of the neighborhood over the years. But Linda thinks the East African population is here to stay. They've put down roots in the community, building up businesses and homes.

Webb: "I guarantee that here in this half mile, that easily half — if not more than half — of the businesses cater to the East African population."

Trudy's might be the United Nations of dive bars, but the neighborhood can be tense. The biggest conflicts have been over parking.

Webb: "They kept filling up my parking lot to go to the restaurant, to go to the places across the street! And so I had to be out here every Friday afternoon, calling a tow truck, having trucks, cars towed away."

Mohammed Hassan: "Because, as you know, in our culture on Fridays we go to the mosque."

Mohammed Hassan is an employment case worker at the Somali Community Services Coalition. He says this kind of parking problem happens all over the neighborhood, especially near the local mosque. He says on a typical Friday afternoon, about 200 people would be headed to prayers. All at exactly the same time.

Hassan: "And they rush to the praying, because the praying time is half an hour and it is a specific time."

So if you're coming from work or from far away, it can be a scramble to get to the mosque just at the right time.

Hassan: "You have to pray with the group."

The other challenge for new refugees is learning where you can and cannot park.

Hassan: "They park everywhere! They don't know if this space belongs to the public parking because we were new to the country. We park everywhere!"

And mosque or no, parking is impossible around here. The number of businesses has grown, and so has the population. But the number of parking spaces just hasn't kept up.

There used to be one business in the building Mohammed works in; now there are six. Linda ended up putting out a row of big cement blocks to separate her lot from the one next door.

But now the lot is always empty. Just a few days after we talked, Linda closed Trudy's Tavern for good. Taco Time bought the land. They'll be putting in a new restaurant — and a little more parking.

Little Mogadishu is full of contrasts: A ramshackle Somali computer repair shop is right next to a Deja Vu strip club. Or take the Abu Bakr Mosque. It's in a building that used to be a casino.

Mohamed Jama: "This was the nightclub section. And this was a bar."

Mohamed Jama is the Mosque's executive director.

Jama: "I've never been inside a casino in my whole life — any casino."

Drinking and gambling are forbidden in Islam. But Mohamed says there's no rule that says you can't have a mosque in a place where forbidden things used to happen. And it turns out that a casino, which is essentially a big open room filled with poker tables, is the perfect space to convert into a mosque. Get rid of the furniture and you've got a big, open prayer room.

Jama: "The day at the mosque starts very early, early in the morning; about 4:30 now."

People come in to pray five times a day. In between prayer times, you can just sit in the prayer hall and chit–chat as much as you want. It's a peaceful refuge from the city streets outside. Most of the people who worship here are from Somalia.

Mohamed first came to Seattle in 1998. He says the neighborhood was different back then.

Jama: "At the beginning, the communication was less between the newcomers and community that was here before."

Mohamed says many Somalis are frustrated by the way they feel they are perceived here. We hear so much about Somali pirates and chaos in Somalia. He says Americans don't always differentiate between that violence and the people who are here.

Jama: "They think if they see two Somalians they must be fighting, and that's not the case."

Like many of the Somalis I spoke with, he was hesitant to talk about problems in the neighborhood.

But relations are far from perfect. For example, in October 2010 two Somali–American women were assaulted at a gas station on Tukwila International Boulevard. Their attacker was a woman from Burien. She allegedly used racial slurs and accused the two American citizens of being terrorists.

Mohamed feels that tension is part of the transition this neighborhood is experiencing. He says it's human nature to be wary of new or different people.

Jama: "I feel it wasn't something that specific to Somali community or this area. It was something that's probably in nature."

He says he saw people open up once they started eating each other's food.

Jama: "We mingle now, much more than before."

Walk along Tukwila International Boulevard and you can find not only East African cuisine, but Indian, Mexican, Chinese or 1950s diner food. The variety of choices reflects the diversity of the neighborhood.

But the locals share more than just a love of good food. Every person I talked to, whether they were Somali or not, talked about wanting the same things: a safe, quiet neighborhood, good jobs, good schools — and a decent place to park.

From Tukwila International Boulevard, I'm Jessica Partnow, for KUOW.

© Copyright 2012, KUOW