When it’s time to fill her refrigerator, Sugri Matan has only one option in Shakopee that meets her family’s dietary restrictions.
The small market operating out of a Payless Gas Station, just outside the southwestern suburb’s historic downtown, marks the city’s first venture into halal meats, which are butchered in a way that’s consistent with Muslim beliefs.
For years, Shakopee’s growing Somali-American population has had to go elsewhere to shop and worship. That began to change this spring.
“I used to drive to Eden Prairie every time I needed meat,” said Matan, 30, as she filled up her minivan at the Payless station. “Everything we eat is here.”
Sensing a smart business opportunity, 27-year-old Abdiaziz Farah opened the international marketplace in March to cater to the town’s changing demographics. In addition to the popular grab-and-go snacks offered at convenience stores, Farah stocks an assortment of frozen halal meats such as chicken legs, diced beef, goat and camel — a Middle Eastern delicacy.
In a backroom, shelves are stacked with specialty teas, ethnic spices, familiar cleaning products and household necessities such as diapers. Most have dual language labeling in English and Somali.
“We want it to be a one-stop shop,” said Farah, a Savage resident who co-owns and operates the store with business partner Mohamed Ismail. The men recently signed a seven-year contract with Shell and will soon begin rebranding the station.
The market has become a gathering place for Shakopee’s burgeoning Somali-American population, which has nearly quadrupled to an estimated 800 residents since 2010. A mixture of affordable housing, quality schools and blue-collar factory work at Amazon, Shutterfly and MyPillow have drawn more than 250 families to the city in less than a decade.
Farah, who graduated from the University of Minnesota with a degree in business administration, said those companies offered immigrants a way to make a decent living. “Some are paying up to $17 an hour for jobs that don’t require a college education,” he noted.
But without a single mosque, Muslims in Shakopee must either commute to another city for worship or pray at home. In the past, residents have rented out city schools for large gatherings such as those during the holy month of Ramadan.
As the Somali community continues to grow, leaders say that designating a physical space in town is a necessity. Efforts are underway to buy the building at 214 Holmes St., which houses a Somali-American community center.
Visitors now use the center to pray and to get help filling out job applications and translating bills, said Ibrahim Mohamed, head of the Shakopee Diversity Alliance.
Converting the 5,000-square-foot building to a mosque would require city approval. Applications for the mosque have not yet been filed with the city, as the building’s sale is not yet final. But when news of the nascent plans spread on social media, some disparaged the Muslim faith and asked city staff members to decline the permit.
A Facebook post on the group calling itself “Concerned Citizens of Shakopee” was removed by an administrator who wrote that the discussion had “degenerated into (mostly hateful) RELIGIOUS banter and debate.”
City Council Member Jay Whiting reminded Facebook readers that the First Amendment to the Constitution protects everyone’s right to practice whatever religion they choose. He said in an interview that the Somali community needs a place to worship.
“We don’t want them to go elsewhere,” Whiting said.
In recent years, Minnesota has witnessed resistance to the establishment of several mosques. After some controversy, Plymouth, Willmar and Bloomington each issued permits. St. Anthony initially refused, but finally agreed after the U.S. attorney’s office in Minnesota filed a civil rights lawsuit.
Mohamed said that 54 languages are spoken in the Shakopee School District and that he’d like to see a synagogue, temple and mosque in town to reflect that diversity.
“We are law-abiding citizens. We are taxpayers,” Mohamed said. “We can worship our God as much as we want, just like our Christian brothers and sisters,” he said.
“We want everyone to feel respected and safe,” he said. “That’s why we’re here — we didn’t have freedom in our country, so we have to have freedom in Shakopee.”