Archival History Project
June 1, 2012
King County's Little Mogadishu
The history of Somalis in King County is an extraordinary one, embellished with stories of extreme hardship and relief. Despite being a historically marginalized group, Somalis have emerged as a significant sector of King County and its diversity.
The history of Somalis in King County begins in the early 1970s, when a few dozen engineers came for graduate studies at the University of Washington. During this time, Somalia was ruled by military dictator Siad Barre. Barre fostered professional development in poverty struck Somalia by issuing grants for Somali students to study abroad.
America's Somali population remained minute, making Somalia a distant and obscure country. The horrifying domestic conditions under Somalia's military junta, were largely neglected by the international community, and particularly the U.S., the main benefactor of the Barre regime. Somalia may have gotten only one expose by world media, during the Lufthansa Flight 181 incident in which Palestinian radicals landed a highjacked plane in Mogadishu.
King County's Somali community remained marginal until 1991, when numerous clan based militias overthrew Siad Barre's regime. Somalia subsequently fell into a deep and bloody civil war involving over 30 militias vying for power. Somalia's massive conflict drew in the military involvement of the United Nations, Eritrea, Yemen, Ethiopia and the United States over a continuing period of 20 years. Famine, lack of potable water and numerous armed clans competing for control over the Horn of Africa state caused one of the largest emigrations of people in modern history.
Somalia's civil war has so far claimed over 400,000 lives and has displaced a massive 2,000,000 people. 1,000,000 of those displaced fled to refugee camps in Ethiopia, Kenya and Yemen. The other 1,000,000 refugees emigrated mainly to Western Europe and North America. The largest population of Somalis outside of Somalia resides in Minneapolis. Seattle accommodates the second largest group.
The vast majority of Somalis came to the United States as refugees as opposed to immigrants. They were granted asylum by the U.S. Department of Immigration and are normally exempt from repatriation due to Somalia's instability. Refugees are granted special legal privileges guaranteed under the 1951 Refugee Convention, an internationally recognized protocol respecting the status of the refugee.
Seattle's humble Somali community grew exponentially in the early 1990s. Between the years 1991 and 1995, Somali numbers grew from a few dozen to a massive 20,000. This immense influx is explained by Somalis's extensive clan system which mandates that family units, made up of as many as 1,000 members, stay proximate. Most of the first Somalis to arrive in King County after 1991 were members of the Hawiye clan, to which belong the locally prominent Ahmed and Nuur families.
Upon their arrival in King County, Somalis mainly congregated in the 98118 zip code, comprising Rainier Valley. The first Somali establishments served their specific Islamic needs. Halal meat stores, interest free banks (or money marts as their are colloquially referred to) and money wiring centers sprung up along Rainier Avenue South and Martin Luther King Way. Entire blocks became dominated by Somali establishments to the extent that large scale housing projects were required for the ever growing and concentrating population of King County Somalis.
Since 1995, King County's Somali population has exceeded 40,000 in numbers. Somalis flocked to the once Caucasian dominated Section 8 complex known as New Holly and by 2000, became the ethnic majority. New Holly began immense expansion and construction in 2004 in order to accommodate Somali growth in particular. New Holly deservedly earned the nickname "Little Mogadishu", a take on Miami's Little Havana.
Due to their strong community ties, various charity networks and intracommunity employment have practically eliminated the necessity of federal welfare in the Somali community. But despite a strong sense of self reliance, Somalis have quite effectively assimilate into Seattlite society, forging strong ties with local government and the school system. Somali children have emerged as the highest testing ethnic group in the county and have the highest rate of high school attendance and graduation. Somalis also have one of the highest rates of attending higher education.
Prior to 2001, Somalis enjoyed the Seattle's vast respect and admiration. September 11 and the subsequent War on Terror, however, have precipitated animosity and misunderstanding, as it had with other Muslim communities. As terrorism, with its broad, ambiguous definition, became America's primary enemy, Muslims became targets of discrimination.
In order to capture an accurate image of how Seattle's Somali community has been affected, I asked Sheikh Ahmed Nuur for an interview. Sheikh Nuur is a prominent Somali activist and local advocate for restoring the shattered relationship between the Muslim and Christian communities. I asked Sheikh Nuur what problems the Somali community is facing. He said "there is a lot of mistrust between Seattle's Somalis and the government. Somalis live by tribal code, each Somali belongs to a clan. When one clan dishonors another, it must take revenge. This gets complicated in America. We came from a country without a government, we ruled our selves, the clans were our government"1.
I then asked the Sheikh how these problems manifest, especially during this era of the War on Terror. "We have been targeted by the FBI", claimed Sheikh Nur, "Many members of our community have been arrested, accused of supporting terror. A lot of our youth are vulnerable, so they get set up by the FBI". His statements were reminiscent of the so called Christmas Tree Bomber of Portland, who attempted to detonate a suicide vest midst a Christmas celebration. When asked about the incident, Sheikh Nuur explained "Children of that age can be told anything and they'll do it"1.
While the potential result of Christmas tree bomber, Portland Somali Mohamed Osman Mohamed's attempted attack may have been isolate, his experience with counter terrorism agencies was not. The FBI's "bait and switch" tactic, in which undercover agents provoke radical behavior and then detain the attemptee, is commonly employed in the Somali community.
The War on Terror has quietly ravaged many Somali families in King County. Somalia's complicated clan system involves loyalty to numerous militias. Many Somalis identify with the Al-Shabaab militia which has gained recent notoriety for its refusal to accept Western aide in the face of national famine. Al-Shabaab, despite its large popularity, is classified as a terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department; thus all transactions and cooperations with the group are criminal offenses.
The Patriot Act has brought hardship for many Seattle Somalis, for whom the threat of indefinite detention and deportation is very real. In 2008, three money wiring agencies were closed and their operators arrested in an FBI operation targeting "supporters" of Al-Shabaab. Relatives of the defendants maintained, however, that they were simply wiring money to relatives patrons's relatives.
Local Islamic banks (money marts) have also been targeted by the IRS and FBI due to accusations of money laundering for terrorist organizations. The FBI began investigation of two unnamed Seattle mosques in 2007 because they received funding from an international Islamic charity with supposed links to Hamas. Even a barbershop was shut down in 2006 after an employee was accused by the FBI of fostering Jihadist ideas in Somali youth.
Despite an ocean of feeble allegations against the Somali community, some events have reasonably caused civilian tensions and mistrust. When naturalized U.S. citizen and 27 year old Shirwa Ahmed traveled to Somali and blew himself up midst a U.N. Peacekeeping mission, some Seattle residents responded with violent acts including two assaults and the vandalization of a mosque. Most residents, however, were shocked that such a law abiding and respectful community could produce terrorists.
Tensions between Seattle and its Somali residents further deteriorated when Roosevelt High School graduate Abdifatah Isse was indicted for recruiting teenagers for terror operations in Somalia. As the political and social conditions in Somalia deteriorate, one can only predict that more acts of desperation will, unfortunately, proceed.
After 20 years of conflict, Somalia remains in desperate condition. The recent 2011 famine and its political implications have placed the country in very negative light. Due to the rampant instability, there is little chance that Somali refugees will be forcibly repatriated in the near future. This is one fortunate aspect of the Somali reality plagued with grief. With all of the evident progress a community of refugees have made, one can only look upon them with commendation. Somalis, from their humble beginnings, have become one of King County's largest features of diversity and coexistence.