Content Warning: War Violence, PTSD
I f you walked into Al Shukr Mini Market and Bakery in Seatac, you would never know the courageous company you keep. You will know at least you made a good decision in terms of cookie purchases, and be satisfied with some delicious sambusas for lunch and a fruit smoothie to wash it down.
“I really miss everything about home, the air, the land, the soil, the fruits and vegetables. It’s all organic. It’s all so good. So many fruits you can’t even count them,” she tells me as we stand in the café portion of her shop surrounded by colorful posters. They are reminiscent of Somali foods and landscape, and the country where Dahabo Hassan was born and lived the first eleven years of her life. While she remembers Somalia fondly as a child, she knows she would not, nor could not choose to go back. “There’s just no way. It is just so dangerous,” she states.
At 8 years old, her family fled from Mogadishu to a small village, to escape civil unrest and violence. The violence started in the 1980’s, due to resistance to the Siad Barre regime and quickly developed into a civil war. For several years, her family moved from village to village as the violence heightened. Hundreds of thousands of people, including Dahabo and her family, eventually were left with no choice but to flee the country.
A customer walks in and she rings them up for cookies, dates, meats, and spices. No doubt these are preparations for the evening meal to break the daily fast of Ramadan. Ramadan is a month long time of spiritual reflection, devotion and worship for Muslims. Fasting is practiced during the daylight hours, and broken at dusk traditionally with dates to start, and followed by a large feast.
Reaching the title of business owner wasn’t easy. Dahabo is the biological mother of 11, her first born at Benadiri, a refugee camp in Mombasa Kenya. Though, this wasn’t her first experience with motherhood.
Dahabo lived through an experience almost unfathomable, how she became a mother at only 11 years of age. While fleeing from one village to another she describes a scene that her family came upon after a community that had been affected by rebel violence.
“We came to a small village, we got out of the car, and there was a woman on the ground, who had died. She had a baby, maybe six months old still sucking on her breast. I took the baby. I kept him I took care of him until I found his father in the refugee camp in Kenya and gave him back.”
At 15 years old Dahabo married a great love, a Somali nurse hired by the UN, who was working at the Benadiri refugee camp. They had one child a year later, right before their names came up for resettlement in the US. Only 1 % of the nearly 65 million refugees worldwide in camps are offered the opportunity to resettle. These chances are practically equivalent to winning the lottery, and comparatively, the experience far more profound.
Dahabo and her husband immediately sought out several jobs each, in Fargo, North Dakota, where their resettlement was organized. “We made our own money. I worked at a framing company and worked in housekeeping at a hotel.”
In order to get to work and take care of daily tasks, Dahabo was the first female Somali refugee in Fargo to earn a license. This feat did not come without its own push-back. Others in her community did question her need for a license. To this she responded candidly, “ I want to do it, and I must take care of my children. I will get a license.”
The couple had six more children together, and when their youngest was only 13 days old, Dahabo received a visitor at the front door. “The police officer said my husband died in a car crash. I almost dropped the baby on the ground. And I went back to work at the frame shop 18 days after giving birth. My husband and I — we didn’t take one penny of welfare. We worked so hard so many years in the US, until one day, that day my husband died. That is when I applied for Food Stamps for my children and medical care too. That’s it.”
The only way to move forward in the face of this kind of grief for both she and her children was to physically pack their things and move a thousand miles away. With seven children in tow, Dahabo made the trek from Fargo, North Dakota to Burien, Washington to be near her nephew.
It was then when she started baking her cookies, and her entrepreneurial business took off. She bakes Kashaato (coconut cookies), sesame cookies, Moksud (longer shortbread cookies) and Kac kac, my personal favorite, a plain crispy bite size cookie especially good for dipping in coffee or tea. I tried them with a delicious milky Somali coffee, prepared with intention at the Al Shukr mini-market, perfectly spiced with cinnamon and cardamom. Many of these are traditional cookies from different regions of the world including the Middle East, and Africa. Dahabo learned many of the recipes from her mom.
Baking in the mornings after the kids went to school was how she managed to get her time in at a shared kitchen in West Seattle when she first moved to the area. A savvy businesswoman, and a quality baker, her client base grew to over 92 contracts with Middle Eastern, Asian and other African groceries in King County.
With the money from her cookie business Dahabo opened Al Shukr Mini Market and Bakery in Seatac without a loan. The store’s name is derived from the Arabic term which translates to “Thanks to God.” This grocery is a charming shop full of traditional Somali foods and kitchen items; halal meats, baked cookies, prepared lunches and snacks, and hair products, a line developed by Dahabo with all natural ingredients.
Al Shukr is a family run business. Her children and second husband help with deliveries, shop upkeep and maintenance. Dahabo’s oldest two children have their own goals in mind, inspired by their mother’s perseverance and strength. She speaks with beaming pride as she explains that her oldest son attends University of Washington (UW) studying mechanical engineering. And, her daughter will be attending UW in the fall after graduating from high school and Highline College, with an Associates Degree, in the same year on the track to pharmacy school.
When Al Shukr, like many other Somali grocers lost their ability to accept Food Stamps and WIC due to wrongful charges or challenging requirements, Dahabo joined the Somali American Grocery Association. It was through this association she became acquainted with OneAmerica who supported with Dahabo’s exploration and greater understanding how these programs work. While it’s quite common for a local person nearby the market to shop more than once in the same day, the government sponsored programs flagged Al Shukr, because of repeat customers, for fraudulent activity. Dahabo went with South King County Organizers Mergitu Argo and Abdullahi Jama of OneAmerica to speak with the congressman of her district and to the Department of Health in the state capital. She advocated on behalf of her own shop and others to gain back their legal right to be vendors of these programs.
Business was booming at the bakery, and Dahabo admitted, if this were last year during Ramadan she wouldn’t have the time for this kind of interview. Over the past eight months however, Dahabo says that her business was greatly affected due to construction on the Angle Lake light rail. The bakery and the neighboring businesses lost their parking lot during the extensive months of construction. She believes that she lost her two ovens, a walk in cooler, a walk in freezer, as well as thousands of dollars worth in spoiled meat when the appliances broke due to severe ground shaking in mid-summer of last year. She is still uncertain as to whether she’ll receive any compensation for these losses.
Not one to give up hope, she scrounged enough money to fix the two ovens and the walk in freezer. She still hasn’t had enough money however to buy the specialty halal meat her customers are looking for. “Most days, not even one customer comes through the door because they know I don’t have the products they are looking for.”
It is uncertain as to what will happen to Al Shukr Mini Market and Bakery. Dahabo speaks with absolute clarity when she tells me “ I only want to be self-sufficient. I want to provide for myself and my family.” Given Dahabo’s history, one can only assume she will find a way.
To learn more about Al Shukr Mini Market and Bakery and to order catering visit alshukrcaterers.com.
Thank you to OneAmerica, and Rich Stolz, Executive Director, for connecting me with Dahabo Hassan and Al Shukr Mini Market and Bakery.