(In)justice Center: The Destruction of a Somali Business Community

Student Hamda Yusuf traveled to Seattle, Washington from March 14-26th to facilitate the completion of her thesis film, Bakaro Mall. The documentary focuses on a small Somali commercial center near Seattle that is being displaced on August 31st to make space for a new housing complex and police headquarters.

I still remember the first time I ever went to Bakaro Mall in SeaTac, Washington. I was running errands with my mom, who despite telling me we’d only be going to one shop had really tricked me into going to five. I walked in and was immediately overwhelmed. There were dresses and abayas covering the walls. Stacks of scarves and prayer rugs sat in the corner. It smelled like my house on a Sunday morning, like frankincense, perfume, and just a hint of pasta sauce. Somali women were milling about, chatting with the shopkeepers and negotiation prices. I was 14 then and wanted to be home watching tv. I’m 25 now and would love more than anything to go back to that simplicity.

Bakaro Mall, an indoor market inside of a strip mall, is among a number of Somali businesses near Seattle that are being forced to close. Most of these businesses have been open for over 10 years, a few even longer than 20. This area sits on the border of the two Seattle suburbs, making it so you only have to cross the street to go from SeaTac to Tukwila. Though I was too young to remember, many of the community members that I spoke to told me of how dangerous this neighborhood used to be. Omar Mohamed, the owner of Xalwo Kismaayo Restaurant, told me of the drug dealers and criminals that used to rule over this corner of Tukwila. You rarely saw anyone walking around, and infrastructure was crumbling. “You got the feeling that no one cared”, said Mohamed. Yet Somali business owners invested in this area anyway and it began to flourish. Many believe that these businesses helped make the neighborhood safer and now that the area has been beautified, they are being forcibly removed. “It was a gut punch,” said Mohamed, “We did all the work, and now that the city can finally profit from the land they make us leave.”

While the closures are happening in the same year, there are two different motivations at work. SeaTac Center, the building that houses Bakaro Mall, was sold to out of state private developers. Despite emotional testimony by the largely Somali immigrant community, on September 25th, 2018 SeaTac city council voted 5-1 to sell the city-owned building. Inland Developers plan on building new apartments on the land, pledging that some of those apartments will be designated affordable housing. Community members are skeptical about their affordability, pointing out that most immigrant families make less than the average income in the city of SeaTac. Though the sale has officially gone through, Bakaro Mall will remain open until its lease is up in August 2019.

The 16 businesses in Tukwila have already been closed, after being given a March 31st move out date. These closures have happened for slightly more questionable reasons: a $68.5 million Justice center. The Justice Center, a longtime dream of the Tukwila city government, intends to house a municipal court, police station, and an emergency operations center. The cold irony of this Justice Center displacing Somali businesses is that the Somali community has historically been the most surveilled in the city. Two weeks after 9/11 two Somali businesses were raided for unfounded connections to terrorism. In 2015, all Seattle Somali remittance companies were targeted and forced to close by the US government for fears that they were funding terrorist groups abroad. The twitter hashtag, #IFundFoodNotTerror was created in response to these closures. Additionally, the Tukwila police department has a reputation of police brutality, having paid over $1.5 million in settlements in a department with only 79 officers. Community members fear that the construction of this new police station will only lead to further over-policing of their neighborhood.

Despite the differing timelines, what the two closures have in common is the lack of proper communication from the local governments. Nearly every business owner that I spoke to told me the same story. That they received postcards in the mail telling them about community meetings. That the postcards didn’t quite make it clear that the center would displace their businesses. That there was no Somali translation of the postcards, nor were there interpreters at the meetings. That childcare was not provided, and the meeting times happened at the most profitable time of the day. All of these things made it so few community members were actually able to attend. Once news spread of the proposed closures, it was too late, and their fate was sealed.

I had heard whispers about the potential closures back in October 2018, but like many others I thought they were only rumors. It wasn’t until I saw protests being organized on Twitter that the reality of it all hit me. I was shocked and confused at how quickly all of the decisions had been made and how little power the community members seemed to have. Once I realized that the neighborhood that had defined my childhood was not being documented, I decided to focus my thesis film on it. Primarily, I wanted to show and preserve the beauty of the space while it still existed. I applied for the student travel award in order to fund my trip to Seattle and to help with other expenses. Once there, I immediately began filming and talking to business owners and customers about the closures. Many felt hopeless at losing a business center that had taken 20 years to build. Yet people spoke about the resilience that has always been a part of the Somali spirit. There was still a feeling of optimism towards the future. I often heard the phrase, allahu a’lam, meaning only God knows.  When I talked to my mom about her thoughts she articulated a feeling that so many others had shared with me, “we’ve survived a civil war, we’ll survive this too”.

Returning to Bakaro Mall as an adult isn’t too different. The walls are still covered with dresses and abayas. It still smells like my house on a Sunday morning. Only now Somali aunties lovingly badger me about when I’ll get married and there’s a distinct feeling of uncertainty in the air. But it’s like my mom said, we’ve survived a civil war, surely, we’ll survive this too.