Somali American Center opens in former St. John's campus on East 5th Street

On Saturday, July 12, I sat down to talk with Feisal Elmi, a representative of the Darul Uloom Islamic Center, the new owner of the buildings on East 5th Street previously occupied by St. John's Catholic Church and school.

As a former Catholic, I didn't know much about Islam, so Feisal began with the basics. He said that the first principle of his faith is that there is one God, whose messenger is Mohammed; Muslims are required to pray several times a day and are obligated to perform Zakāt, an act of charity, by giving to the poor at least once a year. At least once in their lifetime, they hope to make a pilgrimage, or Haj, to Mecca.

As it happened, our conversation took place during the observance of Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar. During Ramadan, Muslims fast for most of the day, abstaining from food and drink and also from negative thoughts, words and actions. They engage in positive acts such as charity, and refocusing their attention on God. The end of Ramadan is celebrated with the feast of Eid (pronounced “eed”), occurring this year on July 28 or 29; the exact date cannot be determined in advance because it depends on the Islamic lunar calendar and the visibility of the crescent moon.

By the time you are reading this, Eid will have passed, but when we spoke, Feisal was planning a big, inclusive celebratory street fair for neighbors and Dayton's Bluff residents. Feisal told me that the mosque's leaders had learned about the importance of community outreach from the experience of their Minneapolis counterparts, and that the St. Paul center is looking for ways to engage the community, including opening up the school basketball court to neighborhood kids and creating other youth programs.

I also learned that a new name is in the works: the Somali American Center, a reflection of the ethnic origin of the majority of its members. Although Islam is sometimes thought of as an Arab religion, it is practiced by many Africans as well. The Arabic language is generally used only when reciting the Koran and on other religious occasions; Somali is the day-to-day language of the people of Somalia.

The center's goal is to be a catalyst for the growth of small business in the community, and its leaders see East 7th Street as a prime location for Somali stores and restaurants, akin to the Karmel Mall in South Minneapolis.

Somali refugees are still arriving from that war-torn country. Feisal told me that the first wave of Somali immigrants to Minnesota were refugees, but tended to be from the wealthier strata of Somali society, while the most recent ones are in more desperate circumstances. A couple of generations ago, many of them were Ethiopians who fled to Somalia; now, they are seeking to escape the strife in Somalia. The former rectory at St. John's is housing some of these new arrivals, and the center will provide assistance in finding them permanent housing. As with many mass inflows of refugees, they are sponsored by religious agencies (in this case, Lutheran Social Services), and must qualify for refugee status under federal law.

Feisal asked that I be sure to invite our readers to stop in sometime at 977 East 5th Street and meet the new occupants.

An Islamic center is something new in our neighborhood, but it wasn't all that long ago that the St. John's campus was the religious home of newly-arrived Irish immigrants, and Sacred Heart Catholic Church that of the German Catholics. If there's one constant about the East Side, it's that it's always changing.

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    carla riehle's picture
    Carla Riehle