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Somali Refugees Help Revitalize North Linden Area

Somali refugees in Columbus are spending millions purchasing commercial real estate. Attracted by jobs and cheap rents, Somalis have flocked to Columbus, creating the second largest Somali concentration in the country. With the purchase of 9000 square feet of property along Cleveland Avenue, they're transforming blighted corridors into economic wonders.

Any given evening, the parking lot at the International Mall is packed with tidy, used cars vying for a parking spot. Abdi Aziz is on his way home after making a few purchases. They have different stuff, they have different clothes for the men, jeans, different shirts, the women, same, different clothes, lot of women clothes they sell right here. Says Aziz.

The International Mall, or Banadir as Somalis call it, is special for a couple different reasons: it was the first mall Somalis set up shops in in 2000. It's also recently been purchased by a trio of partners. One of them is Abdullahi Warsame. "this type of business which we call kiosk you know the Somalis like it, Somali women, Somali business people. We have almost similar of this in Somalia. Says Abdullahi.

The building, located close to the old Northern Lights shopping mall off Cleveland Avenue, used to be an empty warehouse. Abdullahi rented the building, created partitions to rent to Somalis, and started collecting his own rents. He did very well, well enough to buy the building. But the landlord doubled the asking price, and Abdullahi turned to another Somali, Mohammed Dallin, and an American, Neil Barkan. Without Neil, both say they wouldn't have been able to buy the property. That's because as Muslims Abdullahi and Mohammed were prohibited from paying interest on a loan. Barkan is modest about his role, but says there were other obstacles to Somalis who wanted to buy commercial real estate. "They didn't have a credit history per say, they didn't have a resume if you will on what their experiences were in this country. Says Barkan.

Barkan says he's witnessed an economic revitalization along this stretch of Cleveland Avenue, an economic turnaround he says was possible because of the large numbers of Somalis in the neighborhood. "For a lot of years it was an area that was more, I don't know about forgotten, but the need wasn't pertinent, but it was getting by. People drove from here to there and just drove through it. With the influx of residents, Somali community residents, it became apparent that services were needed, and certainly making the area better solved goes a great deal towards solves certain problems within the community. Says Barkan.

Better services meant expanding the road on Cleveland, and improving the lighting for safety. A few years after Somalis transformed an empty warehouse into a busy strip mall, the city took notice and made the improvements.

There are about 50 kiosks for rent at the International Mall. With the purchase, the new owners have refurbished the second floor of the building, and quickly filled up the spaces. Maaki Osman is one of the new tenants. A master tailor, Maaki is cutting fabric to match a head scarf with a skirt for one of his customers. "This is hijab. I used to do before this one. This is hijab before. This is skirt. They call umbrella skirt. Says Maaki.

It's culturally specific services like these that keep Somalis coming back to the International Mall, and keep Somali businesses in the black. Maaki has another space at a Somali mall on Morse Road.

The competition for retail space at the International Mall is good news for the new landlords. They paid a premium on the property, one point three million dollars, but they see the purchase as a long term investment - one that will pay off in several years, and benefit the city as much as it benefits the Somalis who live and work in Columbus.