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Safe haven and a market niche

Ten years ago, a businessman and a high school teacher gathered their families and fled their country, Somalia, to escape civil war. Today, they are embarking on a joint venture, trying to make a go of a small grocery store for other Somali exile...

Halal Meats
Store manager Ahmed Mohamud fills a bag with chunks of meat Wednesday afternoon at Halal Meats. The store opened two months ago. Halal Meats has a fresh supply of traditionally prepared meats, a variety of imported and domestic foods. Herald photo by Sarah Kolberg.

Ten years ago, a businessman and a high school teacher gathered their families and fled their country, Somalia, to escape civil war. Today, they are embarking on a joint venture, trying to make a go of a small grocery store for other Somali exiles in Grand Forks.

"We are looking for here to be a safe haven," said Mohamed Ismail, the former teacher. "That's why we came here, just to find a good life for me and my children."

The Somali civil war began in 1991, pitting regional warlords against a transitional federal government. It remains a bloody war, claiming an estimated 1 million lives to date. The country, which makes up the horn of Africa on the continent's western edge, now is divided into three major regions. The warlords control the southern region, the federal government and the center. Ethiopia, which invaded Somalia with U.S. backing in 2006 to prop up the federal government, controls the northern region. Hopes for peace are slim.

Ismail was fairly well off in his country. He was an educated man and taught high school physics. His English is thickly accented but excellent.

"I was better off back home. I had my own house, and I was teaching," he said. "But unfortunately, civil war broke out."


Cooperative ownership

In Grand Forks, Ismail is taking a shot at the American dream, hoping to be a successful businessman who might one day be able to buy a home again. With him is Ahmed Mohamed, the store manager. He tends to the customers and sees to the day-to-day operations of the little store. His English also is good, though not as strong as the teacher's. Both are friendly and like to laugh. They share ownership of the store.

"It's kind of a cooperation owned by several people, so some of them are in Minnesota, some of them are here," Ismail said. "It's doing good. More people are coming."

They hope that Halal Meat will help them make a decent living in the United States. The store provides domestic and imported foods for other Somalis in the Grand Forks area and keeps a fresh supply of traditionally prepared meats for them. They opened their doors two months ago.

Halal and Sharia

One of the main draws of the store is its supply of halal meat, which is important in the predominant religion of Somalis: Islam.

"It's the way they slaughter," Ismail said. "It's a kind of Muslim ritual where they turn the animal toward (the city of) Mecca -- that's the holiest place in Islam -- and then they drain the animal."

This draining of blood is achieved by cutting the animal's throat.


"Like Kosher foods in the Jewish culture," Ismail said. "It is similar to that idea."

In the Muslim faith, the Sharia provides the code of religious laws by which Muslims should live. The Sharia disapproves of Muslims eating pork, blood and carnivorous animals, unless it is necessary to save a life and no other food is available.

When an animal is slaughtered to be halal meat, someone must proclaim Allah's name over it. This is the primary difference between kosher and halal meat.

"Other than that, no alcoholic contents whatsoever," Mohamed said.

Not every Muslim lives their life to the letter of Sharia. Ismail likens it to Christians going to church every Sunday.

"It depends upon the person," he said. "It's about the same thing. We cannot say all Muslims eat halal, but usually, they do."

"I can go to McDonald's and eat beef that has not been prepared this way," Mohamed said. "But you know, if it's home cooking, we would be fed this kind of meat."

Fortunately for them, enough of the Muslims in Grand Forks prefer to buy halal meat.


"Before we opened this store here two months ago, the Muslim community that lives here in this city used to travel down to Fargo and buy their halal there," Ismail said.

Worldwide variety

They import much of their meat from halal slaughterhouses in Australia. They also occasionally buy livestock from local ranchers and then manage the halal slaughter themselves.

"Do it yourself, you know?" Ismail said.

Otherwise, they buy from wholesalers in the Twin Cities area, which helps keeps costs down. The cuts they buy are not uncommon. They sell chicken, thick lamb chops, goat meat and ground beef, as well as beef kidneys and stomachs. They chop some of their meat into large and small cubes, which are popular with their customers.

Their shelves are packed with a wide variety of imported and domestic foods. They sell a variety of grains, including bulgur wheat, barley, rice and oats. Sacks of Gold Medal flour and American Crystal sugar are on hand, too. They sell dates from Saudi Arabia, raisins from California and they sell couscous and fufu flour, which makes a kind of dumpling. They sell palm oil, sesame oil and extra virgin olive oil, and they offer a wide variety of imported spices.

Market niche

Grand Forks is home to Somalis, Iraqis and Liberians, all Muslim peoples to whom Halal Meat caters.

"Each ethnic group has its own special dish," Ismail said. "We usually get input from them. What do they want us to bring here?" the manager asks. "So, we bring their stuff, their local ethnic foods. Sometimes, it is hard to find them, but mostly we find them."

"So we are expanding, but Somali is the backbone for this store," Ismail said. "Of the Muslim community that lives here, we are expecting a lot of Somalis to come. In Grand Forks, I think we have almost 40 families."

They also want to attract non-Muslims in the city. They recently aired a TV commercial in which they invited everyone -- Christian, Jewish and otherwise -- to the store.

"We are willing to work with anybody, regardless of race or religion," he said.

Muslim Lent

Right now, they are preparing for the 30 days of Ramadan, which requires Muslims to fast from sunrise to sunset each day for a month.

"We don't eat; we don't drink," Ismail said. "So, we eat probably before morning prayer."

He points out a wheat product on one of their shelves.

"We boil it, and then, we add butter and add spices. It will sit in your stomach for a long time," he said.

At the end of the 30 days, his customers will be shopping for another occasion.

"When we break the fast, we get together the family and we make a big feast," he said.

Goat meat and rice usually will make up the main courses.

If they continue to be successful at Halal Meat, they plan to expand the dining opportunities for Muslims in Grand Forks.

"We are trying to open a small restaurant in the near future," Ismail said.

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