Few Americans travel to Africa and even fewer have been to Somalia. But you can get a taste of African and international culture and goods right here in Louisville at the International Mall at Eighth and York streets.
A large warehouse-type building is separated into small rooms housing several businesses, including shops, tailors, groceries and even a barber, all owned by independent business owners who come together to support each other. If you’ve ever traveled to a country with a market area or medina, you’ll recognize the small stalls that use every inch of space to store and display wares. Brightly colored rugs, dresses and curtains line the walls and hang from the ceilings. There are beautiful golden tea sets, plates and stackable cookware, alongside faux flower arrangements and beautiful headscarves.
Most of the shop owners in the building are Somali, as the mall was started by some Somali friends who saw a need for people to be able to support themselves. “But there are American, Bangladeshi, Ugandan, Congolese and many other cultures in the building,” says Ismail Ali, whose wife, Farhiyo Mohamud, owns Farhiyo’s Fashions in the building. Ismail and Farhiyo are from Kismayo, a port town in Southern Somalia.
Ismail and Farhiyo fled Somalia and lived in South Africa for many years where they owned businesses. But the crime and chaos in the country made things difficult for business. “The business was good in South Africa, but there was looting, vandalizing, killing … every single minute you would have arrests,” says Ismail. “You see a person put an item in his pocket now, is he going to pull out his gun or his money? You will be in battle all day. In the nighttime, they come over the roof. While you are sleeping, you have done everything for safety in your house, but they cut a hole in the roof and they come in and demand all your money. Sometimes they take the money and kill you and set fire to the house.”
Farhiyo, who was also a business owner back in Somalia, got to Louisville with their daughter first, but it took longer for Ismail to join her because of extensive immigration paperwork. After four years apart, he finally reunited with them in Louisville. They both initially worked in warehouse jobs, but Farhiyo, who is still suffering the effects of beatings she endured in South Africa, struggled with her health, and standing at the warehouse all day was too difficult for her. So Ismail, who is also part-owner of Safari International Grocery Store, used his entrepreneurial know-how to help her set up Fahriyo’s Fashions in the International Mall, where she sells clothing, scarves, perfumes and more.