Amongst a small shopping complex on Martin Luther King Blvd in North East Portland, sits the Horn of Africa. Behind the counter Mohamed Yousuf and his wife Khadija prepare platters of lukku hurdi (chicken and yellow curry) and foon hoola diima (lamb in a house-made sauce)— traditional dishes of Northeast Africa— to serve to tables of eager customers.
Guests do not receive silverware with their meal but instead, eat with their hands from one large platter that is placed in the center of the table for the entire party to share. Eating here is not just about the flavorful dishes on the unique menu, but about gaining an authentic cultural experience.
“We give [the table] a platter and they eat together like the culture. If it is a private party, we give you an upstairs room and you take your shoes off and sit down on the floor to eat, like the culture,” Mohamed says, who moved to the U.S. in 1989 as a refugee originally from Ethiopia.
The Horn of Africa, which opened its doors three years ago, is just one of many African-inspired eateries cropping up in North East Portland that are owned by African immigrants or refugees like Mohamed and Khadija. The growing African population that provides a necessary network of support has helped make Portland one of the most popular cities for refugees to relocate to in the U.S. Refugees are forced to leave their home countries in order to escape war, violence, and political corruption.
Mohamed fled his home in Ethiopia when he was 17 to escape the brutal attacks he could have faced from the government due to his participation in the political rebellion movement during the Civil War.
“All the younger people from my ethnicity was killed because of the movement we were in. All of the revolutionaries had to leave,” Mohamed says. “Either you go to jail or you are killed.”
Mohamed relocated to a refugee camp in Sudan before moving to Cairo, Egypt to study business and English at university on a UN scholarship. After marrying Khadija, Mohamed moved to California in 1989. Khadija stayed behind to work as a chef for foreign diplomats, but she was able to follow her husband five months later, and the couple moved to Portland to start their new life.
“I’m happy. I’m safe. I didn’t die.” Mohamed says. “This is home now.”
Mohamed says he never wanted to work for a company, but always hoped to start his own business. Mohamed decided to combine Khadija’s cooking talent with his business and English skills and open a food cart at the Portland Saturday Market. The unique East African cuisine was an instant success at Portland and other festivals on the West Coast. When customers started asking where the real restaurant was located, the Yousuf’s worked to save enough money to lease a building.
Yousuf and Khadija opened the doors to their restaurant three years ago. Today, Horn of Africa offers an insightful view into the cultural differences between America and Africa. “It’s a big difference,” Mohamed says. “Back home, they don’t worry about tomorrow.”
Learning to adjust to America’s focus on individual success instead of depending on family for support was one of the biggest differences Mohamed noticed. “Back home there is more sharing, here it is very individual,” he says.
Today, Mohamed and Khadija are both American citizens and have two daughters who speak both their native African tongue and English fluently. It is important to the family that the girls are raised with an understanding and pride of their culture and heritage— something many refugees try to maintain.
While the network of African refugees continues to grow, a small community is developing near the area of MLK Blvd offering a refreshing taste of African culture.
Stop by one of the grocery stores, barber shops, or restaurants and talk with the owners to learn more about their story and the places they come from.
Check out Kerri’s feature story, A Home Between Cultures