Lower Lisbon Street filling with Somali businesses

Somali Street
Amber Waterman/Sun Journal

The classic domed teal awnings previously associated with Dube Travel now grace Hussein Ahmed's Barwaqo Halal Store on the corner of Lisbon and Cedar streets in downtown Lewiston.

LEWISTON — Inside his Somali grocery store, Hussein Ahmed smiles with pride as he talks about becoming a property owner.

Somali Street
Amber Waterman/Sun Journal

Hussein Ahmed rings up a customer paying a phone bill at his Barwaqo Halal Store in the former Dube Travel building on the corner of Lisbon and Cedar streets in downtown Lewiston.

Jose Leiva/Sun Journal

Items for sale at the Barwaqo Halal Market, dry beans from Australia, curry powder, sardines, tuna fish, date cookies, a woman's scarf.

He bought the lower Lisbon Street building with the familiar teal awning from Paul Dube of Dube Travel after the travel agency moved to Auburn.

Ahmed's store, Barwaqo Halal Market, moved in June from 274 Lisbon St. to the corner building at 263 Lisbon St., with its better visibility. “I can attract more customers,” he said. The new building has more parking, more space. He likes paying a mortgage instead of rent.

“Lewiston is becoming home,” Ahmed said. When he made up his mind to be a property owner in the neighborhood, this was the building he wanted. “Trying to become successful means owning your own property.”

Lower Lisbon Street doesn't look, or sound, like it used to.

Franco-American social clubs, businesses, organizations and empty storefronts are being replaced by businesses with African names. Somali women in colorful, flowing skirts and head scarves walk past, often with young children. Somalis converse in their native language. The street is lively.

It's become, as Ahmed called it, “a Somali block.”

Lewiston is changing from a white city to a multicultural city receptive to other cultures and businesses, he said.

“That makes me feel very comfortable here in Lewiston," Ahmed said. "The block is good.”

Barwaqo Halal is one of several Somali stores on the block. It doesn't sell soda, bottled water or juice drinks. There are individual bags of potato chips, but no cigarettes, no lottery tickets, beer or wine. Drinking and gambling are against Muslim beliefs.

The shelves are full of notebooks and other school supplies, dry beans and lentils, date cookies with Arabic writing, infant formula, Lipton tea, 40-pound bags of basmati rice, cumin powder, paper towels, Huggies, microwave popcorn, chicken stock, Ragu sauce, Tide, Joy, pots, pans, sandals, scarves and long skirts.

In the back, a meat counter has Halal meat.

“'Halal' means kosher, acceptable,” Ahmed said. The term usually means a product that contains an animal that was slaughtered in a manner satisfactory with the Muslim faith.

At slaughter, animals have to be treated with respect. “You cannot treat it badly," Ahmed said. "You are in a few minutes ending a life. You have to be clean; the animal has to be clean.”

That prohibits Somalis from buying meat at most grocery stores, and it means they have to pay more for meat, one of the best-selling items in his store, Ahmed said.

Recently, more immigrant stores have opened, creating competition.

“We're not doing as good as we were," Ahmed said. "Price is really important.” So is service and having products his customers want. “It is for me a major priority to see customers coming back. I try to make them satisfied.”

The competition has prompted him to look at additional ways of earning income. From his store, he also runs:

— An interpreter service. “I contract with hospitals and other social service agencies who need interpreters.” When agencies call, he'll schedule an interpreter, which could be himself or one of his employees.

— A tax service. “I do tax returns, simple 1040s.”

— A money transmitter service, used by Somalis to send money to loved ones. Ahmed sends several hundred dollars a month to support his 70-plus-year-old father and siblings in a Kenyan refugee camp. “There's no work in the refugee camp. He depends on what I send him.”

For a $1 fee, he also pays bills electronically for refugees who don't have checking accounts or don't want to pay bills through checks in the mail.

Ahmed, 37, left Somalia as a youth to escape war. He lived in a refugee camp in Kenya for years, separated from his family. He came to the United States in 2001, to Maine in 2002, and opened his store in 2004. He and his wife have five children, ages 2 to 8. Ahmed is also a student at the University of Southern Maine's Lewiston-Auburn College where he is working on a bachelor's degree.

His goals in five to 10 years include having his mortgage debt become “minimal” or gone. He wants to grow his business, expand his customers to include white Lewiston residents. He said he likes being a businessman here.

“Lewiston is a simple, peaceful city with a low crime rate and, most importantly: accepting," Ahmed said. 


Project home: The Changing Face of Lisbon Street

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 's picture

I personally know of

I personally know of Americans who have worked very hard all their life and have been turned down for loans to start their own business! These people have excellent credit, excellent work history, etc. But Somalians can come right in and open up businesses!. Its not even safe to drive down Lewiston streets anymore because I can't tell you how many times I have been cut off by a somalian driver! Too many hard working americans are out there struggling to make ends meet and I see these people with literally, wads of cash in their hands, gold jewelery, brand new vehicles. And some of you say whose business is it where they get their cash? Well excuse me.......but I am a tax paying American and if that money comes from my taxes......it is my damn business!!!

Ron Hubbard's picture

When will they realize????

There are more people who want the Somali's gone then there are one's who want them here....It is clear by the post on here every time there is a Somali article in the paper....The ones that think it is great they are here don't have to live in the same neighborhoods the somali's do....If they did they would feel they same as alot of us do...I lived in a quit neighborhood til Somali's moved in...Now it is dirty their kids are out screaming at all hrs of the night....I feel we should have a rally to let the Somali's know how we really feel....But the city would never let that happen....For any Somali's reading this your not as wanted around here as you think!!!!!

 's picture

Proof? Evidence? Or paranoia?

Do you have any evidence of this or do you make a habit of accusing people of committing crimes when they haven't been charged or suspected of anything? Are you a law enforcement professional? You do realize that Somalis are individuals, right, rather than one block of people who are guilty simply because they belong to an ethnic group?

 's picture

FBI / Dept. of Justice

Let's not forget the raids on Somali LIsbon St. and Barlette St. businesses...

Fraud anyone???

 's picture

wonder too

i also wonder how and where they got the money for this.

 's picture

When it all comes down to it

Generally, when people have such a gigantic problem with another group of people, it is not completely unfounded. But, there are ways to go about addressing an issue in a way that will help get a productive dialogue going and then there are hateful ways of whining about something where nothing being said really means anything. Most of the people responding to these stories fall in the latter category. I really am tired of the underlying hate and just complete ignorance in this city. I wish the city itself or a media outlet like the SJ would actually have a public forum where we could address the issues. A town hall meeting or something. Rumors started as soon as Somalis started coming and rumors have only gotten a lot worse. Let's start talking about it, but in a productive way without the hateful words. Seriously.

 's picture

Oh, please

You know nothing about my life and your little personal attack is the lamest red herring you could have used. I'm willing to discuss the issues with you, but if you're going to pretend your opinions are somehow more legitimate than mine because you're older than me, then maybe there's no point in trying to have an actual discussion. My guess is that I've had a lot more experience with the Somali community than you have and probably have more insightful things to say than you.

 's picture


I hope all this person's comments stay up so other sensible people reading this can see for themselves first hand the types of problems we have in this city. I'm not one to make sweeping statements about an entire group of people, but I find that some of the most bigoted view come from the oldest group of people in the city.

 's picture

Don't Want to Believe What I'm Seeing

To be clear from the start, I am from another state but have lived here in Maine since the age of 7. I am Caucasian (not that that should matter but apparently it does to many here.) I have two college degrees and several certifications and graduated summa cum laude. Right now, although having worked all my adult life and still at an age where most people are working, I am not able to at this time. Thus, I am currently receiving some federal and state assistance. Does that mean that I too should go back to the state I came from or am I somehow exempt because I didn't come to this state bringing large numbers of my peers with me and my skin color is not different? Are we as a people so blind that we cannot see? That we listen to and perpetuate rumors such as" DHS is supporting Somalians and they don't have to work." (How many times have I heard THAT one?) Or "DHS gave them all new cars!" And so what if they did? I do not know personally even one Somalian but what they do or own in their personal life is their business! I feel that God (Allah for Somalians) created us all in His own image. It does not say He created "Americans" or "British" or"Asians" in His own image! God is ALL inclusive--why can't WE be and be proud of that??
Think about it. How well would ANY of us fair if our country was war torn and we were forced to flee to a different country for our safety and that of our families. Would YOU want the animosity you show to others? Would YOU easily adjust to "sticking out like a sore thumb", being gossiped about, learning a new language, seeing things you've never experienced before, learning new currency, adjusting to a new climate, seeing snow if you've never seen it before, living in apartments in an inner city, eating new foods etc etc. And has any one of us EVER gone and befriended a Somalian and ASKED them how they feel about America or how it was to adjust here or how they are faring? Don't get me wrong (I will very likely be bashed for this post but hey, I have strong shoulders) I LOVE MY COUNTRY, I was born here and I will die here one day. I LOVE what it stands for and I LOVE it's people. But I do NOT love ignorance and prejudice and judgement!
Other things I often hear: "Somalians have no respect for Americans or their businesses. They steal, they wont' learn our language." And lately the rumor is "They are responsible for bringing bedbugs here." Also that they are ALL bad because of 9/11. Are WE all bad because some of our people have done atrocious things in the name of freedom, religion or a sick twisted mind? No... In fact, although I've never asked, I am curious as to what a Muslim here might say if asked about 9/11. I'd be quite surprised if they said they approved!
Please think about this. These attitudes are dangerous and serve no one well and they are not representative of MY Maine!!

 's picture

88togus, where do you get your information?

I spent last year as an ed tech working specifically with English Language Learners at Montello and there is no truth to your claim that interpreters treat female teachers differently and give them attitude. That is an ABSOLUTELY outrageous claim. The interpreter I worked with was an incredible guy who was very well liked by all the teachers in the school. I'm really, really curious as to where you heard that fallacious claim. There is indeed an unfortunate attitude many Muslims have towards women, but that is usually kept within the family.

 's picture

I think it is obvious where

I think it is obvious where they get the money to open these businesses......it is like the 1st 2 english words they learn........."State Pay"

 's picture

This WHOLE section

I Can't believe the Sun URINAL would print this RUBBISH !!! This is NO LONGER Lisbon Street Lewiston Maine... it's Lisbon Street Mogadishu Somalia.... This paper has NO BACKBONE but to give in to these people.

 's picture

SO True

this is true. My God, I grew up in Lewiston, and I have to laugh at their story however. Saying how it was so rough because of all of the bars on lower Lisbon Street. Who ever says this...are they actually even old enough to remember how it was, or is it just what they are told? Lord, my parents worked down their, I used to walk down there and never got hurt. To see what it has all become now, is actually a little heart breaking. No I am not saying it should all still be bars, but, what to heck...every thing is Somali owned? I do remember once, talking with a Vet. and he was telling me, "they started to give out small business loans, and I applied, I would just like to have a little store of my own " He said," but within just hours of them opening applications for the loan, they were out of funds." He said, "I fought for my country, and I would just like to get started with a little business of my own, and I can't get it, but, they sure handed out alot of the money to the Somali people who are just coming over here." He said "it just isn't very fair" I had to definitely agree with him.

 's picture

Actually, the Francos were

Actually, the Francos were brought in to displace the large Irish population here.

 's picture

Another perspective

I will agree, the mentality at Bates (and other groups) is very much liberal and they have, with open arms, welcomed the Somali community. Maybe I was a Bates student that deviated from that train of thought after a certain period of time. I think everyone should be given a fair shot at success. I agree with giving people a chance, but once given that chance, any immigrant (or long-time citizen) should take the initiative to put these lessons into practice. They should also realize the importance of work and furthering one's self, regardless of their backstory. This has been the mantra of Mainers for as long as I can remember---work hard and reap the benefits (regardless of how small or big they are).

I think we can use the story of "they came from a war-torn country" for just so long when given the tools here to lead them to success. You can lead a horse to water, but that does not mean they will drink. I feel bad for these people who have had hellish backstories, but this is their chance to become everything they have ever wanted to be, and more! I think this is the reason for the influx of Somali immigrants to Lewiston! Opportunity awaits!! Show the community that this is indeed what you are doing. Several have done so already, and those people bring pride to the community. There needs to be a limit to the financial support rendered to these people (and all others who rely on state support), but there should never be a limit to resources that will help people find jobs and education. I find it difficult to interact with people that want "cheese with their whine", regardless if they originally come from Bartlett street or Mogadishu).

Kudos to the immigrants who have made something of themselves and those who realize their potential. Hopefully the kids born here and the young adults already living here will will take the initiative (such as the beautiful lady in the picture concerning the story about her mom's shop). It will be a challenge (if at all possible) to change the thought process of the older generation of Somali immigrants in L/A, as it would be for any older folks from ethnic group to pick up and move. It is not impossible, though, and most definitely worth a try. I have faith.

I agree with another post. Some other business must come in to make Lisbon street prosper. Small shops come and go like the wind. I hope for the sake of the people featured in this story that their shops thrive. Maybe a pharmacy or something of the like just might be that anchor to bring in other stores. I personally would not shop on Lisbon street because I have no interest in buying ethnic clothing or foodstuffs. This clearly does not mean they should not exist, though----it is unfortunate, because these shop owners are targeting a very narrow segment of the L/A population.

Just out of curiosity, does anyone know why Dube Travel moved? It seems like they had been in that same location on Lisbon street for decades.

 's picture

The community benefits

The community benefits because he is paying his mortgage and taxes on the property. How many vacant buildings are down there? The people of Lewiston abandoned that area years ago. Let this people build it back up, without all the hate.


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