The International Mall in downtown Louisville | Photo by James Natsis

The International Mall, located at the corner of South Eighth and York streets, has been the premier international gathering hub downtown since its opening in July 2008. Established and run primarily by Somalis, the mall is a regular stop for community members from countries such as South Sudan, Sudan, Ethiopia, Burundi, Uganda and other parts of the world.

Abdifatah Aftin, a native of Somalia, arrived in the United States in 2005 and took up residence in Minneapolis, where the largest U.S. Somali community lives. In July 2007, he received a call from a friend of his father to discuss an opportunity in Louisville.

Abdi Omar was residing in Faribault, Minn., when he contacted Aftin to talk about transforming an abandoned warehouse into a small shopping mall for the then-modest Somali community in Louisville. The two men envisioned a space similar to one they were familiar with in Minneapolis.

Abdifatah Aftin | Photo by James Natsis

So they took a trip to Louisville and liked what they saw.

They acquired the abandoned warehouse and spent about a year converting it into the International Mall. It opened in July 2008 and features a grocery, a restaurant, a cafe, a day care, a prayer room and a number of shops and salons that sell goods and services.

Aftin has managed the mall from early on and operated the original grocery until July 2013. Omar is the mall president.

The mall brought “everything under one roof,” said Aftin. It has served as a focal point for the Somali community and has also met the needs of many others who were looking for products not easily found in the big box stores. “Things we use back home you can’t find here,” he said.

Aftin recognizes the important role the mall plays in providing goods and services, and maintaining the community’s language, culture and religious practices. But perhaps more important for him, he says, is the welfare of the youth.

“It helps the young ones. They come here, talk to their people — they don’t indulge in bad stuff,” he added.

Aftin referred to this subject several times as he emphasized the importance of young people getting advice from those who are genuinely concerned with their lives, rather than from outside sources who may not be looking out for their best interests.

Employment and educational opportunities

Ahmed Salat prepares coffee at the International Mall cafe. | Photo by James Natsis

According to a 2016 report published by the Center for American Progress on refugee integration in the United States, Minneapolis-St. Paul has the largest Somali community in the U.S., followed by Columbus, Ohio, and Seattle. Louisville was ranked as having the 14th largest Somali population.

This Somali population is growing rapidly in Louisville, according to Aftin, because of job opportunities in the area. He said people call each other on the phone and say, “Hey, Louisville is a good place to live.”

He cited Tyson Foods, Amazon, UPS, Mesa Foods and Kellogg as places where Somalis have found employment in the area.

The International Mall cafe is a favorite gathering place for those who enjoy watching soccer matches, playing cards or soccer video games and enjoying conversation.

Ahmed Salat has found regular employment at the cafe, where he has been serving coffee, fruit smoothies and samosas seven days a week for the past three months.

Kahin Madar, Abdi Yousouf and Hamze Madar grab some refreshments before soccer. | Photo by James Natsis

Kahin Madar, his brother, Hamze, and their friend, Abdi Youssouf, stopped by the cafe to grab several coffees and a fruit smoothie to go as they made their way toward River Road, where they practice soccer for their Somali team in Louisville that competes with other Somali teams from around the region.

The three young men are all students at the Jefferson Community and Technical College. Kahin is majoring in information technology, Hamze is studying business, and Abdi is in the nursing program.

The role of women at the International Mall is not to be underestimated. They own and run more than half the shops. The mall restaurant is run by a family of brothers and sisters overseen by the family matriarch. Women are also active in the day care and in other facets of the community.

A family affair

Mohamed Abbi sported a Louisville cap and dressed in typical casual attire under his restaurant apron. He switched from his American-accented English to Somali to bark off food orders from behind the counter to a family member in the kitchen.

Mohamed, his twin brother, Maimuna, and his older sister, Ruweida, were all born in Kenya, while his other siblings were born in the U.S. Mohamed worked at Safier Mediterranean Deli in downtown for six years before deciding to open Imanka, a family-run restaurant at the International Mall in June 2017.

Mohamed Abbi, Sumeya Abbi and Omar Abbi | Photo by James Natsis

This is the first time the family has worked together, and although he acknowledged the challenges of working with family and making everyone happy, he said he was grateful for the opportunity to improve his restaurant skills and to better connect with his Somali roots.

Mohamed said he was “so Westernized” before opening Imanka. Running a business at the International Mall has expanded his awareness of his native culture, the language and the background of the religion of Islam, he said.

Being around so many Somalis and other internationals on a daily basis has made him more at ease using the Somali language and more intrigued with his dual identity, Mohamed said, adding that this is an advantage, but one that carries responsibilities as well.

The International Mall is open every day and is especially lively during the weekends and during important soccer matches. There is tasty, freshly prepared Somali/East African food at the Imanka restaurant, the grocery has a wide variety of fresh, frozen and packaged food and staple items, the coffee and samosas are delicious and inexpensive, and there is a bit of something for everyone there, especially if one is looking for colorful clothing, or a nice carpet or blanket.

It is a true international gathering place, and you can even practice your Somali, Arabic, Swahili, French or Spanish.