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