Although the first Somalis in the US arrived as sailors on British vessels in the 19th century, the vast majority of Somali Americans arrived as refugees from the Somali Civil War, which broke out in the late 1980s and resulted in the collapse of the Somali government in 1991. The largest community of Somali Americans is in Minnesota‘s Twin Cities but Southern California has a large Somali community too — although the Los Angeles Somali community is dwarfed by the community in San Diego.
In 2010, Somalis comprised the third largest population of African American immigrants, refugees, and their descendants behind Ethiopians and Nigerians. The US, as a whole, has a fairly large Somali population. Outside the Horn of Africa (significant populations of Somalis also live in Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Somaliland), only its cross-gulf neighbor, Yemen, has a larger one than does the US. In 2018, 170,192 Somalis were estimated to live here. Roughly half were born in Somalia with the other half born in the US.
By some estimates, the San Diego metropolitan area has the second largest population of Somali Americans — most estimates are in the neighborhood of 10,000. Many live and work in the City Heights neighborhood, which is home to the Little Mogadishu enclave. After a refugee is approved for residency in the US, private resettlement agencies sponsor them and most refugees live in the vicinity of those resettlement agencies. The International Rescue Committee (IRC), in 1933 as the International Relief Association, has operations in 26 American cities, including San Diego, where it was established in 1975 to respond to the influx of Vietnamese and other Southeast Asian refugees.
In the early 1980s, many ethnic Somalis arrived as refugees from the disputed territory of Ogaden in Ethiopia. There were also Somali military personnel traning at Camp Pendleton when the Somali government fell in 1991. Many of San Diego’s Somalis found work as cabdrivers and settled in the City Heights neighborhood. Many others later resettled in the Twin Cities and Kansas City, where many originally found work in slaughterhouses and more affordable housing. The highest-profile Somali American, without a doubt, is progressive politician Ilhan Abdullahi Omar, representing Minnesota’s 5th district in the US House of Representatives. A much smaller number moved over to Los Angeles, where the rent of an average two-bedroom apartment is about $500 more. Los Angeles’s Somali population is estimated to be only about 200 or 300.
The first Somalis in Los Angeles came here to attend university in the late 1960s or early ’70s, mostly at the University of California, Los Angeles. Most lived in Westwood or nearby in Santa Monica. In the 1980s, a handful of Somalis occupied a cluster of apartments near the intersection of National and Sepulveda boulevards in the Westdale area (usually considered to be part of Palms). In the 1990s, there were small populations of Somalis in Crenshaw, Fairfax, and Mid-Wilshire.
In 1990, the now-defunct Somali Relief and Rehabilitation Association (SORRA) opened a small office at 3434 West 6th Street under the direction of Ahmed A. Dahir. It was co-founded by activist Saeed Megag Samater (also spelled Samatar). After Somaliland (re)declared independence from Somalia in 1991, Samater founded Somaliland Policy and Reconstruction Institute (SOPRI) in 1992, which is still active. He died in 2008.
With so few Somali Angelenos, it seems likely that more Angelenos ideas of Somalia have been formed by representations in Hollywood films than from firsthand interaction or exposure to actual Somali culture. Hollywood has given us Black Hawk Down, Captain Philips, and The Expendables 3 — none of which I’ve seen nor any of which have I any interest in seeing. Not that Somalia has ever itself been a hotbed of film production. There have been Somali films produced over the years, though, including Dan Iyo Xarrago (1973), The Somali Dervish (1985), Ciyaar Mood (1986), Geedka nolosha (1987), La Conchiglia (1992), Fire Eyes (1994), Rajo (2003), Shalaay (2005), Ali Iyo Awrala (2006), Warmooge (2006), Xaaskayga Araweelo (2006), Charcoal Traffic (2008), Carara (2009), Ambad (2011), Dhig ama Dhaqo (2011), Ha Eersan Dubai (2012), and Judaan (2016). In recent years, a handful of Somali American filmmakers have taken to promoting their fledgling diasporic scene, based in Columbus, Ohio, as “Somaliwood.” In Los Angeles, the most likely place to see a Somali film is probably the Pan-African Film Festival (PAFF), which takes place every February. In the past, PAFF has screened Ziad H. Hamzeh‘s The Letter: An American Town and the ‘Somali Invasion’ (2003) Ayan Yusuf‘s Bittersweet (2018) and possibly other Somali films.
The Somali Canadian acts K’naan (né Keynaan Cabdi Warsame) and Faarrow (Siham and Iman Hashi), have both recorded music in Los Angeles but the city is hardly a hotbed of Somali music production or performance. I know of no local, public performances of traditional Somali or popular music aside from rapper K’naan, who has performed at various local venues in the past. In 2017, New York City‘s Ostinato Records released Sweet As Broken Dates: Lost Somali Tapes From The Horn Of Africa, a well-received compiliation of tracks from Somalia recorded in the music industry’s 1970s heyday.
At its peak, Los Angeles’s Somali restaurant scene consisted of just two Somali restaurants, Banadir and Madinah. Madinah opened around 2015 in Inglewood — which has for years hosted the greatest variety of African restaurants of any Los Angeles community. Madinah, sadly, closed around 2016 after a brief existence. Banadir has proven more resilient and is currently available for take-out only, although rules affecting restaurants are changing during this pandemic and it’s probably a good idea to call ahead ((310) 419-9900) with any questions before visiting.
In Los Angeles, the cuisines of Somalia’s neighbors, Ethiopia and Eritrea, are among the best represented African Cuisines. There have been far fewer Somali restaurants, the cuisine of which is fairly distinct, resembling somewhat more the cuisines of Djibouti and Yemen, albeit with an Italian influence — the latter the result of the country’s colonial legacy. Somali cuisine also shares some similarity with more distant countries, including India, Iran, and Turkey.
The Somali breakfast (quraac) usually features a small injera-like flatbread called canjeero (or canjeelo) which is consumed with a marage (a sort of stew) — or broken into smaller pieces and eaten with ghee and sugar. Occasionally canjeero is served with meat — usually the flesh of the chicken, cow, goat, or camel. The most commonly consumed beverages are coffee and tea — especially haleeb shai (Yemeni milk tea — seasoned with cinnamon and cardamon). Tea is popular throughout the day.
For lunch, a pancake-like bread called lahoh is often eaten with honey and ghee or, alternately, with a curry, soup, or marage. There are many types of breads in Somali cuisine. Sabayad or kibis — a flatbread somewhat similar to Indian paratha. Rooti is popular in the north whereas rooti abuukey is popular in the south. Muufo is a thicker flatbread. Malawax (or malawah) is a sweeter variety of canjeero. In and around Mogadishu, it’s common to eat mishaari (polenta) or boorash (a porridge) with butter and sugar.
Bananas, too, are popular for lunch or supper. Usually served whole, the diner is excepted to slice them up and eat them with the main meal whether it’s rice, stew, meat, or pasta. Pasta (or baasta) was introduced to the Somalian table by the Italians, who colonized Somalia from 1889 until 1942. The sauce, suugo, resembles ragù alla napoletana except that it is often drizzled with lime juice and usually seasoned with xawaash — a spice blend that nearly always incorporates black pepper, cinnamon, cloves, coriander, cumin, turmeric as well, sometimes, as other spices. Oh, and its doubtful that any non-Somali Italian ever took bites from a banana between forkfuls of spaghetti.
Inglewood and Los Angeles’s only Somali restaurant, Banadir, opened in or before 2010. More than 99% of Somalis are Sunni and therefore everything served at Banadir is halal. It is owned by Hussein Abdulle Mohamed and managed by his brother, Abdirahim Ali Ahmed. Whereas periodic vegetarianism is common with Somalia’s Orthodox Christian neighbors in Ethiopia, it is much less common in overwhelmingly Muslim Somalia and there are no vegetarian items on the Banadir menu except for the beverages although I read an account of the chef accommodating a vegetarian — something most cooks are willing to do, especially if given a head’s up. With no social halls or clubs and most Los Angeles mosques catering culturally to Arabs, Banadir is also notably one of the primary third places for the local Somali community.
Further Reading: Eat the World – Los Angeles’s review of Banadir
PROMINENT SOMALI ANGELENOS
There have been a few Somali Angelenos who could be characterized as public figures. Hussein Mohamed Farrah Aidid, son of General Mohamed Farrah Aidid (leader of the Somali National Alliance), emigrated to the US when he was seventeen and attended Covina High School, from which he graduated in 1981. Hollywood television writer Ubah Mohamed grew up in Memphis and New York but moved to Los Angeles around 2007. Basketball player Farhiya Abdi was drafted by the Los Angeles Sparks in 2012 and played with them until 2015, after which she moved to Israel to play for Maccabi Bnot Ashdod. Somali-German poet Sofia Samatar joined the factulty at California State University Channel Islands in 2013 but subsequently moved to Virginia. Poet Warsan Shire was born in Kenya to Somali parents, raised in the UK, and moved to Los Angeles around 2015. Actor Barkhad Abdi, star of Captain Phillips, lives in Los Angeles. Dahabo Hagi came to the US as a refugee and went on to pursue a career as a model.
“Tiny, Unfurnished Office Is a Symbol of Hope for Somalis : Refugees: Group seeks to become a unifying force for the fragmented and scattered immigrant population in the Southland” by Dean E. Murphy, 1992
Los angeles somali comunity [sic] (Facebook)