With a box of Little Caesar’s pizza and a chai tea, Abdirahman Omar sits down at a long table inside the building at 3055 Old Highway 8 in St. Anthony. He’s meeting with other members from the Abu Huraira Islamic Center, who convene almost every day to discuss current needs and events.
Omar, an imam and spokesman for the group, says they have many hopes for the building, which they’ve owned since August 2012. One is to make a floor dedicated to healthcare for Somali people, who require a different cultural confidence in their medicine. Spaces could be rented to dentists, urgent care and other healthcare providers.
More than that, they want to make this building something that can belong to the Somali people, for the community and beyond. That includes accommodations for weddings, community meetings, a library, a gym for youth. The list goes on. Omar says there are close to 40 mosques in the Twin Cities area, but “this will be the first one that is Somali-owned.”
A community affair
Abu Huraira and the City of St. Anthony entered national news last year. The city denied Abu Huraira a permit to allow them to build a mosque in the building. It was zoned “light industrial” and should stay that way, they reasoned. Then the federal government jumped in, suing the city on grounds of religious freedom.
In December, a settlement was reached between the two parties. Ten percent of the 100,000 square building will be used for religious purposes, including the mosque and classrooms. What remains will be leased out to businesses, and the building will go through a planned unit development application with the city. As part of the settlement, the city also pays $200,000 in legal fees accrued by Abu Huraira, with the city’s insurance covering three-quarters of the bill.
By Feb. 10 this year, Abu Huraira anticipates having a council vote allowing them to build their mosque.
The mosque will only take up one space here. There are many unique spaces and uses in this building. Heavy metal bands rent out a couple rooms in the basement. An Ethiopian community group meets down the hall. A couple rooms here were used for product testing and focus groups, at a time when the building was owned and used by Medtronic.
Upstairs, it becomes more typical of a tenant mix found in suburban office buildings. The renters there, numbering more than 20, include a computer company, a day care, a home health care firm and a transportation company.
The first floor is completely rented out. On the north end of the building, however, there is a three-story tower that was tacked on to the building at around 1970. The second and third floors are empty office space, with patched-together drywall and a bucket of spackle standing still in the middle of the room.
Nikki Carlson, lobbyist for the group, says the building’s systems were all in failure when they bought the building from Jeffrey Wirth, the real estate developer who entered federal prison for tax evasion the same year of this transaction. Abu Huraira still needs certain permits, but they’ve already poured money into repairs and upgrades on the building’s elevator, sprinkler system, security system, roof and HVAC.
They recently discovered the basement, the planned location for their mosque, has no HVAC. For prayer services, which by nature involve a close collection of human bodies, that lack of airflow is daunting.
They’re looking at moving the prayer services to the tower, most likely to the office spaces on the third floor.
There and back again
Omar, married and with three kids, was born and raised in Somalia. He graduated college in Sudan in 1996. He moved to Saudi Arabia, then to Bangladesh to teach Arab language and Islamic studies. Receiving a scholarship from a university in Malaysia, he went on to earn his law degree there. In 2001, he moved to Kenya to be with his wife, then to the United States, to Minneapolis, to start a life.
He says he’s around 50 years old, though most Somalis tend to estimate their age. The Islamic calendar doesn’t match up with the West’s. Nur Ahmed, a businessman and restaurant owner with the group, laughs and says his mother always estimated him to be about two years older than his brother, who was born in the summer weeks of Somali independence in 1960.
On January 24, the group held a open house to let members of Abu Huraira know what’s going on with the building, to “stop the game of telephone” from the media reports, as Carlson said. It gave Omar and the others a chance to show people what this space can be.
Omar’s work as an imam, a leader of worship at a mosque, has him answering questions for just about everybody. In Islam, there is a law for many subjects: civil, criminal, family, just to name a few. That means you need to know the Koran and the hadith — the collected works of the sayings and actions of the prophet Muhammad — backwards and forwards.
“The people have a lot of questions,” Omar says. “You have to have the knowledge to answer all those questions.”
They hope now one question is being answered definitively. Carlson says any time after Feb. 10, when the city council takes another vote on the settlement, Abu Huraira can hold religious services here. They just have to find their desired space in this old Medtronic building and get it up to code.
She knows, however, that these things can take time. “Whatever we say is going to end with, ‘Six months, inshallah.’”
Inshallah is Arabic for “god-willing.” On the way outside, one of the basement-room bands was practicing. The double bass drum and electric guitars’ sound roared through the hallway, quieting just before the Coke machine and the doors to the parking lot.
The parking lot has about 300 spaces. It was one of the main reasons Abu Huraira bought the building. Parking for Friday prayer at a Twin Cities mosque can be quite an ordeal, especially in winter. But at least here, in St. Anthony, parking won’t be a big deal for their mosque and everyone who attends.
Inshallah, of course.
While some of the building at 3055 Old Highway 8 is occupied, spaces like this expanse await. (Matt Grimley)