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Continued: Gambians in Minnesota: Finding family on foreign ground

  • Article by: ANNA PRATT , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Last update: February 18, 2014 - 1:10 PM

Just as the local Gambians go to lengths to connect with one another, the Islamic Education Center in north Minneapolis helps keep the group’s culture alive.

The center is a community hub. On weekends, more than 80 children take Islamic classes at the volunteer-run center, according to administrator Omar Sanneh.

The center also hosts monthly religious dialogues, weddings and baby naming ceremonies. There’s also a mosque available for prayer times.

Like the association, the center began informally, with a small group of Gambians meeting at each other’s homes to talk about religion, community affairs and politics “back home,” Sanneh said. That was over a decade ago.

Its expansion has mirrored that of the community’s, he said.

Gambian businesses

The growing presence of Gambians means that more businesses that cater to that community are springing up.

For example, at Regal Foods in Brooklyn Center, Gambians can find staples from their homeland. That’s a relatively recent development.

Before Abdou Jaiteh opened the store in 2010, no other places around town catered to Gambians, he said.

Jaiteh, a Gambian who came to Minnesota to go to business school in 2000, wanted to fill that void. He imports fonio, thiakry, moni kourou, bissap rouge, fufu mix, peanut powder, red oil and more from the Gambia.

Regal Foods also sells 55-gallon plastic barrels for $35, which people buy to ship things to the Gambia, he said.

Similarly, many Gambian immigrants have come to rely on Modou Mbye for another type of service. Mbye, who owns a cellphone shop in Brooklyn Center, knows his fellow Gambians’ phone numbers by heart and he’ll answer their calls around the clock.

If someone needs to transfer money at midnight or to add minutes to their prepaid cellphones, he’ll process a credit card payment on the spot, then go back to sleep.

Mbye, a home builder by trade, goes out of his way to help the community, but it’s good for business, too, he said, adding, “It’s a twofer.”

Nearby, Ismail Ceesay opened Esteem Merchandise, a clothing shop, in the Brooklyn Crossings office building in May of last year.

Coincidentally, the space was once occupied by the Wireless Center. He steers customers to Mbye’s new location.

Ceesay, who works as a chef in the mornings before he comes to the shop, used to sell clothing out of a suitcase in his car. The Brooklyn Crossings building, which is home to a number of minority-owned businesses, was one of his regular stops, he said.

The right clothes can provide a self-esteem boost, hence the “Esteem” name, he said.

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  • Members of the Twin Cities Gambian community at a rally. The number of Gambians in Minnesota has risen from fewer than 10 in the 1980s to as many as 2,000, according to a Minneapolis-based nonprofit.

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