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Portland woman prompts Somali grocer to share lessons on food of her homeland

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A neighbor appeals to the owner of a local market, asking whether she’d teach a class about regional cuisine.

Kari Suva lives within walking distance of several of Portland’s halal markets, including the Somali market Jazeera. But until one was vandalized on Christmas Eve, the shops felt as distant as Africa itself.

Then she became one of the 1,200 people who pledged to shop in Muslim-owned businesses, including halal markets that sell meat slaughtered according to Islamic law, over a weekend in January organized by Progressive Portland.

“I walk by this little halal market every day, and I never thought about going in because I don’t know how to cook Somali food and don’t really know what they have inside,” Suva said. “So I stopped by to find out more about them, to introduce myself and say I’m a neighbor.”

That’s how she got to know Halima Abu, the owner of Jazeera Market at 625 Forest Ave., and an idea was born. She suggested to Abu that maybe more people like her would shop in Abu’s store if they knew what the ingredients were and how to use them in their own kitchens.

On her first visit to the store, Suva bought sesame candy because it was one of the few items she recognized. She wanted to learn more. “I like to eat goat,” she said, “but I don’t know how to cook it.”

So she asked Abu if she’d be willing to teach an informal class to introduce a handful of Suva’s friends to Somali food, a collection of regional cuisines that carries influences from many other countries.

“I said, ‘Why don’t we do it in my kitchen?’ ” Suva recalled. “You invite a few friends, and I’ll invite a few friends.”

Fast forward to a weekend in May, and eight people have gathered at Suva’s house either to learn about Somali cooking – or help explain it.

In addition to Suva, me and Halima Abu, the group includes Antoinette Kabongo and her daughter Daniella; Halima’s sisters, Samira and Marian; and Ben Keller, a friend of Samira’s.

“I’ve always loved Somali food,” said Antoinette Kabongo, a Congolese immigrant, “so I’m kind of curious to see how they make it.”

A sign in Suva’s yard welcomed the group. In English, Spanish and Arabic, it said: “No matter where you are from, we’re glad you’re our neighbor.”

Suva is sensitive to cultural differences. Her daughter Phoebe was adopted from China. She has worked with refugees through Catholic Charities, and she now does international development work.

But sometimes misunderstandings happen, and even the best of intentions go awry: Halima Abu arrived at Suva’s house with large pans of food that she’d already cooked.

She brought braised goat meat with onion and green pepper; her “everyday rice” flavored with onion, garlic, cumin and cilantro; sambusas, triangular pastries stuffed with ground beef, onion, garlic and spices that Abu’s family eats every day during the month of Ramadan to break their daily fast (the religious observance starts this year on May 26); and jalebi, a bread-based dessert that’s left to rise and then is fried in pretzel-like shapes in a cast iron pan. Once it’s crunchy, it’s soaked in a simple sugar syrup.

So the cooking lesson was scrapped. What unfolded instead was an afternoon of conversation that touched on Somali cooking, surprising influences on Somali cuisine and the Abu family’s life in the United States.

FAMILY’S GOATS KEPT OFF MENU

Hamila Abu, who has a 3-year-old daughter, grew up with seven brothers and three sisters, and the entire family of 13 escaped Somalia’s civil war when she was too small to remember. She says she has no memories of Somalia at all, although later in the afternoon, when the group was eating her food around Suva’s dining room table, she suddenly remembered that her family had lots of goats but when it came time to cook one for a feast, her mother had to buy one because the children were too attached to the family goats.

Abu said her mother started teaching her to cook when she was 10. The family lived in a refugee camp in Mombasa, Kenya until 1997, when they were able to come to the United States; they landed directly in Maine. Halima was 17 years old at the time. They started a wholesale business, selling both food and clothes, then opened the first Jazeera Market on Congress Street in 2013.

Sauces made with lemon, jalapeno, mango, tumeric and lime juice accompany the dinner prepared by Hamila Abu. Staff photo by Jill Brady

The market is now located on Forest Avenue, and Hamila Abu travels frequently to places like China and Dubai to buy items for her store. (She sells food, but also clothes, curtains and other household goods, and offers money transfers for paying bills.)

Hamila Abu says her father impressed upon her and her siblings the importance of going to school. Hamila graduated from the Job Corps program in Bangor, a residential education and vocational training program. Two of her brothers have master’s degrees, three siblings work with computers, and two are social workers. Her sister Zahra Abu last year became the state’s first Somali police officer.

Because so many Somalis now live elsewhere in Maine, most of Abu’s customers are from other African nations, mostly Rwanda, Congo and Burundi. Their cuisines may be similar to Somali food, “but we have a different way of cooking it,” Kabongo said. “Let’s say you want to make chicken pot pie. You have your recipe, and I have my recipe. It’s the same style, but we’re cooking it differently.”

ADAPTABLE MEAT

Suva finally got her lesson in preparing goat. The goat dish Hamila Abu brought to her house contained chunks of goat meat – about two pounds’ worth – some of it still on the bone. When Suva asked what cut of meat it was, the family explained that the market buys whole goats and has a machine for processing the meat, so it could contain leg, rib or thigh meat.

Preparation starts by putting the meat in a pan with a cup or two of water. Boil the meat – how long “depends on how tender you want the meat to be,” Samira Abu said – until the water dissipates. Then add a little bit of oil to the pot along with chopped onion, green bell pepper, cumin, garlic, cilantro and salt. “You can use curry powder,” Samira Abu said, “or whatever you have in your cabinet.”

Halima Abu likes garlic, so she throws a whole bulb of garlic into a blender along with an entire bunch of cilantro to make a paste that she keeps in a bowl in her refrigerator. She uses it by the tablespoonful, or two tablespoons for the goat.

On the dinner menu, clockwise from top, jalebi, sambusas, rice and goat meat. Staff photo by Jill Brady

Then she slides the meat into the oven for a few minutes, until she’s ready to serve it.

No matter what’s on the table, Somali families typically enjoy eating a whole banana with their meals. This tradition arose, according to Samira Abu, because nearby South Sudan is home to many banana farms. Our meal was served with a fruit salad that included sliced bananas.

As the group dug into the meal, the Abu family described a typical breakfast of Somali pancakes. “It’s like a crepe, but a little thicker,” Samira Abu said. “You make a bean sauce to go with it. You have tea with everything, especially at breakfast.”

Ben Keller, who has been dating Samira for a couple of years, has come to love Somali food. He eats dinner at her parents’ house several times a week.

“Her mom’s cooking all day long, and every night there’s 12 people having dinner there,” he said. “And she always has different foods, so I’ve pretty much had everything in their store.”

Keller thinks Jazeera should put all the ingredients for a single dish into a basket and tuck in a recipe for preparing the food. Sell the whole basket to people who are unfamiliar with Somali cuisine, he suggests, and they’ll learn to appreciate the food.

One of his favorite dishes is fresh pasta with red sauce. Somali pasta, which is a lot thicker than Italian pasta, came as a surprise to him.

Somali food has been influenced by many other parts of the world, including India, the Middle East and, yes, Italy. Somalis eat a paratha-like bread called sabaayad that came from Indian traders. The jalebi is similar to a popular Indian dessert, and the sambusas resemble Indian samosas.

Traders from the Middle East brought spices such as coriander, cumin, chili and cloves to Somalia. Italian colonists introduced pasta, and those banana farms in South Sudan still conduct a lot of trade with Italy.

Asked if they’d like to visit their native countries some day, Kabongo, who came to the states around the same time as Abu, replied with an emphatic yes. “My entire family is there,” she said. “My parents, my siblings.”

Halima Abu had the opposite reaction.

“This is home now,” she said.

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Diaspora

The Democratic Party candidates for Senate : ‘Landlord legislator’ faces 2 challenges – Kayse Jama and Shemia Fagan

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The Democratic Party candidates for Senate District 24 visited Rockwood to discuss the issues facing their constituents and answer audience questions ahead of the May 15 primary.

Incumbent Sen. Rod Monroe was joined by his two primary challengers Kayse Jama and Shemia Fagan. The event was hosted by the Multnomah County Democrats on Wednesday night, Jan. 17, at the Rosewood Initiative, 16126 S.E. Stark St. The candidates spoke before an engaged crowd of about 60 voters, who clapped and cheered throughout the evening.

District 24 encompasses east Portland, including parts of the Centennial neighborhood, and north Clackamas County.

Monroe is a retired teacher and co-chairman of the Ways and Means Education subcommittee. His top priority is to stop teacher layoffs, reduce class sizes and improve nutrition options for students. He also is working to improve transportation safety and efficiency, and keep drivers under the influence off the roads. Monroe, who first claimed a seat in the Legislature more than 40 years ago, has championed health and safety regulations.

Jama is a community-based leader who was born in Somalia. As an immigrant to the United States, he wants to support those in achieving the “American Dream.” He is an advocate for those experiencing poverty, displaced workers, women, people of color, native people, immigrants and refugees, the LGBTQ community and those with disabilities. One of his main focuses is bringing more diversity into positions of power within the community.

Fagan is a former representative who served two terms in the Oregon House before stepping down last year to focus on her family and career as an employment lawyer. She also has served on the David Douglas School Board. Fagan has worked on sidewalk and safety improvements for East Portland streets and tenant protection legislation. Her two main goals are securing more affordable housing and protecting people’s access to healthcare.

Audience questions

The main portion of the debate consisted of the candidates addressing questions from the people who came to hear them:

How does taking financial support affect campaigns?

Jama: We need to remove money from our politics if we want a true democracy.

Monroe: I have voted for every attempt at campaign reform. I have never traded my vote for anything — ever. There are no strings attached to any dollars given to my campaign.

Fagan: Democracies function on principals of accountability. Working people and parents can’t spend half their time raising money.

What are your plans for public transit?

Monroe: We need North-South bus routes in the outer Portland area. TriMet has assured me they will put those routes in place with the funding they have received.

Fagan: Public transit is an incredible opportunity. Bigger freeways don’t solve traffic problems, so being smart and not passing the cost along to the people we are trying to help is critical.”

Jama: Transit has to be accessible and affordable for all people. It’s time for corporations to pay their fair share. One thing proposed is tolls, but that means someone displaced from Portland will now have to pay to use the roads to get to work.

How do you plan to support kids in poverty?

Jama: 60,000 kids are homeless in this state. We have to work hard to support the families struggling to pay their services and find housing.

Monroe: I have been responsible for childhood and women’s rights programs. I was the author of three major nutrition programs, because these kids get their nutrition from our schools.

Fagan: Small class sizes and after-school programs are when teachers can see when kids need more support. We also have to better fund summer programs, because that is when children in poverty fall further behind.

How would you deal with addiction treatment?

Fagan: This is a crisis in our state, and when I was in the legislature we passed the good Samaritan law so someone can stay and help a person going through an overdoes without facing charges.

Jama: We need to treat addiction as a public health issue. It’s not a criminal charge, and we need to stop treating it as one.

Monroe: Mental health addiction on opioids is a national problem, not just an Oregon one. We need more mental health facilities.

How will you engage with diversity?

Jama: This is an easy one for me. I have brought diverse communities of immigrants and people of color together to build a strong movement.

Monroe: Our neighborhoods are becoming more diverse, which I think is a great thing.

Fagan: Even the strongest among us is no replacement for proportional representation for people of color.

Why are you running?

Monroe: I am running because of experience, which makes a difference. I have a history of working across the aisle to get things done.

Fagan: Too many of us are fighting for the stability of a normal life, and the senate has become a place where progressive ideas go to die. As a mother of two kids, I cannot wait another day for the senate to do better.

Jama: I remember trying to advocate in Salem and seeing how it is broken. I am mad as hell and want to make sure we build people’s power in this community.

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Diaspora

White men in bomb plot won’t get more Trump voters on jury, after judge denies request

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A judge on Wednesday said no to three Kansas residents who requested to have Trump voters on their jury as they’re tried for attempting to bomb a mosque and a Somali refugee community.

Gavin Wright, Patrick Stein and Curtis Allen were denied their request to include voters from a Trump-voting region in Kansas in their jury pool. The three men will be tried in the city of Wichita for plotting to use truck bombs in an apartment complex with a Somali refugee population and a mosque on the day after the 2016 presidential election, in Garden City, Kansas.

The jury pool will draw from Wichita and Hutchinson, more urban areas than Garden City, but Wright, Stein and Allen wanted people who “live in rural areas and are more politically conservative,” according to High Plains Public Radio.
They asked to draw from 28 counties in Dodge City, located in western Kansas. District Judge Eric Melgren said that their request did not have a legal basis, and they did not show that the current jury pool areas would discriminate against Republicans.

The men are charged with conspiracy against civil rights and conspiracy to use a weapon of mass destruction, and they have pleaded not guilty. Their defense lawyers allege the men were exercising their free speech rights and right to bear arms.

The thinking behind the request, according to the lawyer, was that one area’s residents have different beliefs and would be able to understand the men’s motives. In one area, two-thirds of residents voted for Trump, and in the other area the men wanted to pool from, three-fourths of residents voted for the Republican, according to Mercury News.

The men were part of a group connected to the “Kansas Security Force,” a local militia group, prosecutors said. According to prosecutors and a wiretap transcript they obtained, Wright said he wanted the attack on Somalis in Kansas to “wake people up,” the publication added.

At the time, the government said that setting that precedent for the jury pool would “wreak havoc” and open a “dangerous door” to similar jury pool requests. The trial, which was scheduled to start in February, is set to begin on March 19 in Wichita, according to the Associated Press

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Columbus, Ohio

Judge set to sentence Ohio man who plotted US attacks

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COLUMBUS — A federal judge on Friday is scheduled to sentence an Ohio man who plotted to kill military members in the U.S. following a delay in the case when a previous judge withdrew.

Abdirahman Sheik Mohamud, who was born in Somalia but came to the U.S. as a child, was arrested in 2015 and pleaded guilty to plotting those attacks after becoming radicalized in Syria. The attacks were never carried out.

The government said Mohamud became a citizen to obtain a U.S. passport. He bought a ticket to Greece with a stop in Turkey, where he disembarked before going to Syria, prosecutors said in court documents. They said he never intended to go to Greece.

Prosecutors, who are seeking a 23-year sentence, said Mohamud wanted to travel to Texas and capture three or four soldiers and execute them. They said Mohamud, now 26, was trained in Syria and tried to cover up dangerous terrorist activity.

Mohamud and his lawyer, in asking for leniency, have said Mohamud had realized “the immoral and illegal nature of terrorist ideology” and abandoned any plans to engage in terrorism.

Mohamud’s attorney, Sam Shamansky, is asking Judge Michael Watson to consider the light sentence a federal judge in Minnesota handed down in 2016 to a Minnesota man.

In that case, Abdullahi Yusuf, just 20 at the time of sentencing, was convicted of conspiring to join the Islamic State in Syria. Yusuf, who cooperated with prosecutors and testified against others, was sentenced to time served in jail of 21 months, plus two decades of supervised release.

Mohamud was originally scheduled to be sentenced in August. Judge James Graham started that hearing, but in a surprise move, he announced he was delaying it to gather more information, including Mohamud’s current state of mind.

Graham also said he wanted information about possible treatment programs for Mohamud during and after prison.

Graham ordered a psychological evaluation of Mohamud and set a new sentencing date. But in December, Graham abruptly withdrew from the case without explanation.

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