LEWISTON — Three One Cafe, a popular Lisbon Street restaurant, is closing March 31 because owner Mahamed Mahamud faces deportation, he said.
Mahamud said he was never granted asylum, and closing the business he opened in 2008 at 259 Lisbon St. will allow him time to make plans to take his family back to Somalia.
He and his wife, Shukri Ali, have three children, ages 14, 8 and 4. The two younger children were born here and are U.S. citizens. The oldest child and the parents are not.
Mahamud and his family came to Lewiston in 2002. In 2003, a judge denied them asylum, he said, which meant he could not get a green card to work toward citizenship. The judge did grant a temporary work permit or visa, Mahamud said. He has renewed the work permit a number of times, but he is now being told he must leave, he said.
“I'm not complaining about his decision; he's a judge,” Mahamud said.
He is not a refugee, which is a legally protected status, said Arian Giantris, director of Catholic Charities of Maine Refugee and Immigration Services.
"Asylum-seekers are different from refugees," Giantris said. "They, too, might be fleeing persecution or war," but they came here undocumented or illegally. Once they are here, many ask for protection to stay.
Mahamud said he doesn't know when he'll leave for Somalia; first, he must close the cafe. Friends have urged him to seek help.
“I don't want to do that,” he said. “Everyone has problems. It's my problem; I'm going to solve it myself.”
He said he feels shame when he tells people he's going to close the cafe, and is telling customers when they come in. He has to close, Mahamud said, because he doesn't want to serve customers while distracted. “It takes time to think, to plan,” he said. Closing would be better to “respect my customers. I'll be free on the inside.”
Michelle Vazquez Jacobus, a professor at the University of Southern Maine's Lewiston-Auburn College who has eaten at Three One Cafe, said she was sad to hear of the closing, "especially one that contributes to increasing diversity,” Jacobus said.
Lewiston Mayor Bob Macdonald said he's "very sorry to hear he's closing. I really like the guy. I like the food."
The cafe is popular at City Hall. "People love it," MacDonald said.
The cafe serves Somali food, including muufa, a kind of flat bread, and the popular dish sambusa. Somali food is meat-based, avoids pork and often offers rice instead of potatoes. The cafe serves breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Mahamud said it is more like a meeting place than a restaurant. In his heart he doesn't consider himself the owner; it belongs to the community, he said.
The cafe isn't profitable. His wife works there and as an interpreter. Things like profits, a 401(k) pension fund or Social Security are “not my dream,” he said. “My dream is what I have today.”
Mahamud said he has served a lot of people, and he doesn't care what color their skin is. Patrons include many Somali immigrants and longtime natives, “lawyers, police officers, both mayors,” he said.
Asked about taking his family to Somalia, a war-torn country in eastern Africa that last year suffered a severe famine, Mahamud said he's not afraid.
“Life is not scary,” he said. In Somali, “we lost everything we had, land, mother, sister, brother, uncle, aunts.” Some regions of the country have improved, he said. “I can try my best.”
Mahamud said he doesn't want to be deported from this country only to become a refugee somewhere else, starting over again. “I don't want to go to another people, another language, another culture,” he said.
His wife said she supports the decision to go to Somalia. “I am not afraid,” she said. “I try to focus, to stay positive.”
When they came to Lewiston 10 years ago, “I didn't know what was going to happen," she said. "We made it.”
The couple said they're thankful to have lived in Lewiston where they survived, were safe and their children went to school. “The time has come to share what they have and to understand,” Mahamud said.
A cook since he was young, Mahamud has worked at the Harraseeket Inn in Freeport, St. Mary's Regional Medical Center in Lewiston and for Marois in Lewiston before that restaurant closed, he said.
Many pictures and sayings adorn the walls of Three One Cafe. One saying reads, “Life brings us down, but we choose whether or not to get back up.”