The Safari Bakery and Café is located in a modest Somali shopping strip on McDowell Road and 51st Street. Barlin Mohamud runs the cafe, which has been open for one year. The sign from the previous Bisharo Coffee House still hangs above the café’s outside entrance, she plans to change it soon. This is not Barlin’s first time owning and operating a business. Barlin, who lives in Chandler, owned and operated a grocery store and restaurant in Tempe for seven years until 2013. Barlin and her husband, Omar Ahmed Kelli, have lived in Arizona for nine years.
She has a degree in accounting from Geheer University in Mogadishu, Somalia. Barlin worked in a bank both in Somalia and in Maine, where she and Omar lived for eleven years before moving to metro Phoenix. Barlin and Omar have five children. The youngest is their 18-year-old son who is attending Chandler Community College and is the only child left living at home. Husband Omar Ahmed Kelli earned a Master’s Degree in Leadership while in Maine. Omar currently works as a language translator over the phone with a national company that offers translation in many languages for medical, legal, business and other purposes. He enjoys writing and is the author of a fictional novel about Somali culture, Tears of the Blue Sky, available on Amazon. Omar and Barlin are both well-educated and speak Somali, Italian, English, and a little Arabic.
As I walked through the door of the cafe, my eyes made contact with a sea of kind smiles that spread across the faces of the Somali gentlemen seated in the corner of the café. Filled with Somali tea, paper cups in hand, the customers redirected their gaze at the plasma TV mounted on the wall of the café. The channel was set to CNN news, in which the customers keenly watched to find any information about Somalia and hoped to learn what is going on in the world. Graciously greeted with a warm smile by business owners Barlin and her husband Omar, Dr. K and I were lead to the back of the shop where we were provided chairs and asked to take a seat. Barlin has the unmistakably beautiful skin tone of a Somali. She covered her hair with a bright saffron yellow scarf or hijab which fashionably displayed her lovely features against the bright yellow painted wall which she stood in front of. Omar asked politely about our Visualizing Immigrant Phoenix research project and thanked us for showing interest in his country and his wife’s Café. He apologized for having to leave us, it was time for prayer at the mosque. It was 12:45pm, and the customers of the Safari Bakery and Café were busy leaving to attend prayer at the mosque nearby on McDowell Road.
Somalia is a Muslim country. Food preparations are halal, which is the Islamic equivalent of kosher. Somalia borders the Gulf of Aden and the Arabian Sea, making the country's food a fusion of cultures. The influences from India, and the Middle East can be tasted in Somali food. Barlin cooks the food for her café in the kitchen of Waamo Restaurant Red Sea Mediterranean Cusine, a neighboring restaurant in the shopping strip. The Somali people are family and community focused; their meals are usually served communally. Which is very apparent in the familial feel of the Safari Café. Somali customers treat Barlin’s cafe as if they were visiting an aunt’s house. Their mannerisms of causally stacking their own dishes in the sink behind the restaurant counter and then washing their hands shows the comfort and endearment the customers share for the Safari Café.
Employed at a tech company down the street, a long haired Caucasian customer wearing aviator mirrored sunglasses wondered in during his lunch hour craving a beef sambusa. Everyone at his office raved about the beef sambusa. The army of crispy sambusa were neatly displayed in a glass cabinet on the counter. These sambusa were filled with seasoned chicken or beef. The beef sambusa with a cup of Shaah cadays makes the perfect lunch. Shaah cadays is somali tea with milk, it is made with black tea, cardamom, cinnamon, ginger, clove and sometimes peppercorn. Shaah cadays is even better than Chai tea; yes, I said it and I will say it again
Barlin offers other pastry and food items on her menu. Bur saliid, which is fried dough and similar to sopapillas or donuts, are also a favorite amongst customers. These fried triangle pastries are usually offered with shaah cadays (Somali tea with milk) or buskut-cookies when guests visit a Somali household. Kac kac which are very similar to New Orleans beignets and are usually prepared during the fasting month of Ramadan, Eid festivals and wedding ceremonies. In the café, they are usually served hot for breakfast.
Jabaati or sawayad, is like naan bread, Barlin called it “big bread,” and it is usually eaten accompanying a main dish. She also offers a beef vegetable soup. The meat’s flavor is achieved through low, slow stewing and seasoning. Like a crepe, Malawax can be eaten plain as well as filled with fresh fruit drizzled with honey. Malawax can also be filled with cabbage, eggs, shredded beef and a spicy sauce which is also a favorite street food vendor item in Somalia. Xalwa is the equivalent of sweetened cinnamon and clove jello. Doolsho is a very moist, light sponge cake that is made without cake flour. Bajiya, is also a common street food, they are black eye pea fritters deep fried and served with a spicy green chile sauce. There is a display of fresh fruit for the fruit smoothies and fresh juice selection offered by the café offers as well. Let’s not forget the beautiful and impressive espresso maker, it would not be a café without it.
According to The Arizona Refugee Resettlement Program, 7,097 Somalis have been settled in Arizona by 2016. Somalia is #5 of the top 10 countries refugees came from to Arizona (source). Somalia has been plagued by a series of civil wars since 1980 [read more here]. After December 1998, like many other families, Barlin and Omar fled their homeland to live in Kenya. Barlin and Omar were fortunate enough to live outside of the refugee camps, unlike the many of the Somalis who lived inside the refugee camps in Kenya for decades. The United States decided to accept Somalis for resettlement in the early 2000s and eventually, Barlin and Omar came here as refugees. They lived briefly in Virginia and Atlanta before settling in Maine, which became a key site of “secondary migration” for many Somalis after resettlement in the US. Unfortunately, the number of Somali refugees displaced by ongoing conflict continues to rise. The United Nations estimated that 150,000 Somalis live in the US (280,000 live in Europe; but almost two thirds of the global Somali diaspora live in neighboring African countries like Kenya and Ethiopia). [5 facts about the global Somali diaspora, Pew Research Center, June 1, 2016]
Now the people of Somalia are nomads in a global diaspora that includes just about every continent, with huge populations that have migrated to the United States, United Kingdom, and Sweden. Somalis have brought far more to Phoenix than just sambusa and taxi drivers: they have brought their savvy entrepreneurial spirit, their deeply rooted faith of Islam, love of family and community as their essence. Barlin and Omar’s migration story is very common among Somali people.