Nestled among the downtown businesses of South Sioux City — a pizzeria, some salons, a bakery — the East African Restaurant & Grocery offers foods that aren’t readily available in most eateries in Northeast Nebraska.
Foods like injera, an Ethiopian staple that’s a cross between tortilla and spongy bread, is used to wrap up warm vegetable and meat dishes and sop up their spicy, savory juices. The store also provides a place for East Africans living in the area to buy ingredients they need, such as a variety of halal meats.
This is important for a community that has grown considerably in the area over the past two decades, said Ahmad Mohammad. He moved to South Sioux City in January 1997, and there was already a small community at the time.
“I’ve seen it all since I moved, 22 years,” he said. “When I came, there were some people, 10 or 15 Muslim families in the area.”
He has served as the imam of the Islamic Center of Siouxland since he moved. Mohammad is from India and also has lived in Michigan, Oregon and North Dakota before coming to South Sioux City.
It was established in 1995 by eight community members and the secretary of state of Iowa as a nonprofit, and it didn’t initially have a building. Members worshipped at Briar Cliff University, which for men involves prayers five times a day.
Need for more space has steadily increased over the years, he said. In 2002 they completed the first phase of building the current facility at 2701 Willow St.
Around 2005, some refugees from Somalia and Ethiopia started resettling in the area due to job opportunities at nearby meatpacking plants, including Tyson Fresh Meats in nearby Dakota City.
The communities continued to grow, and soon there wasn’t enough room for services, Mohammad said.
“In 2015, this place was not enough. It was all full here, basement was also full, we felt a need to make this place bigger,” he said. “We started construction in 2017 and finished in 2018.”
These changes increased capacity by 150%, he said, allowing up to 250 people to pray. On a weekly basis, the busiest day is Friday, when Jumu'ah is held. This is a congregational prayer held after noon.
“The main reason for making this Islamic center was because of Friday congregation. Everybody wants to come on Friday,” he said. “Then we have problems with parking.”
After expanding the parking lot by at least 40 spaces, he said they’ve made all the changes they need for now to accommodate demand. About 10 to 20 people usually attend for daily prayers, but it can get up to 50 when they’re not working. About 200 to 250 attend on Fridays.
In addition to prayers, the space, which is registered as a not-for-profit religious/cultural organization with the Secretaries of State of Iowa and Nebraska, is used for education, social activities and ceremonies.
It’s an important hub for not only regulars, but people who live farther away who need a space for a wedding or funeral, he said.
Sometimes he meets Muslims who live in areas like Norfolk for bigger holidays like Eid, which marks the end of Ramadan.
“At that time we have to rent a big convention center for prayer on those days. We get about 2,000 people there,” he said. “We felt a need for a larger place.”
Although Muslims used to live in Norfolk when there was a Tyson Foods beef packing plant, many have since moved away for other work opportunities after the plant closed in 2006. There have been 13 refugee resettlements in Norfolk since 2002 — seven from Somalia, five from Burma and one from Sudan, according to the Refugee Processing Center.
Some moved from Norfolk to the Sioux City area for work opportunities and the growing Muslim community, he said.
“What is happening is this place is serving as an anchor, a magnet,” he said. “They’re able to find jobs, they can do their religious obligations, educate children, I think they’re happy. That was the reason we enlarged the Islamic Center. We utilized all the possibilities to make it larger.”
Adnan Waheed, the president of the Islamic Center of Omaha, said a few Muslims from rural parts of the state visit the Islamic Center of Omaha for such events as Friday gatherings, but more often it will be for a major event such as a family death. Muslims have been resettled in rural communities including South Sioux City, Lexington and Grand Island.
“Unfortunately we don’t have a picture of all the Muslims in these (rural) areas unless they come into the picture with us here,” he said. “Sometimes it’s difficult, you don’t hear from them. No communication.”
While Lincoln and Omaha account for about 80% of resettlements from 2002 to 2018, this accounts for only part of the picture. It doesn’t show births, deaths or secondary moves.
South Sioux City has resettled 58 refugees from 2002 to 2019. The majority of resettlements have been from Somalia and Ethiopia (29 and 17, respectively). Others have been from Sudan, Vietnam, Iraq and Kenya. Sioux City, Iowa, also has resettled 23 Ethiopian refugees and 12 Somalian refugees since 2002. Most of its resettlements have been from Vietnam, at 39.
However, in fiscal year 2018, the wheels of refugee resettlement agencies slowed precipitously when President Donald Trump’s administration issued executive orders limiting the numbers of refugees coming to the United States. The administration set a yearly limit of 45,000 resettlements, but a total of 22,491 were actually resettled from Oct. 1, 2017, to Sept. 30, 2018, according to the Refugee Processing Center data. In addition, the majority of admitted refugees has shifted from Muslim to Christian.
The national ceiling determination in fiscal year 2019 is set at 30,000. In Nebraska, more refugees were resettled in 2017 at 799, than in 2018 and 2019 so far combined. And on Sept. 26, the Trump administration announced that it would reduce the cap to 18,000 for the coming fiscal year.
And Executive Order 13769, another Trump administration policy that was known as the Muslim travel ban, had a negative impact on families in South Sioux City, Mohammad said.
“The Muslim ban effected by President Trump has adversely affected many Somalian Muslim families, whose spouses and other relatives are unable to travel to the U.S., and many family reunions have been very sadly disrupted both in Sioux City and South Sioux City here,” he said.
Despite presidential administrative policies that suppress Muslim communities and Islamophobic rhetoric on both national and local levels, Mohammad said South Sioux City has been a welcoming community. Local media reports reflect the growth of the mosque and he said local attitudes toward Muslims have been positive.
“This place has been really good to us. We don’t have problems at all,” he said. “Even though all these things happened, we haven’t had problems. That’s a very big plus for us.”
It’s also become attractive to some Muslims living outside the area, who visit for a weekend and decide to move to the area because of job openings or specialty grocery stores, for example.
“When they come here, they find social comfort because the community was growing here,” he said. “What would happen is the newcomers will come from Kentucky or Minneapolis, they come for the weekend and see how things are, they apply for a job and get a job and start a new family here.”
Refugees have the same concerns that most Nebraskans do, Mohammad said — they want to support their families, find good jobs and further their education.
“These people have left their countries, they are new here, learning English and finding jobs … (they’re) slowly adjusting, buying new cars, buying homes, sending kids to colleges. They are hard-working people.”
Also helping Muslims thrive is the Tyson Foods Upward Academy, a nationwide program that partners with local Tyson plants and colleges to offer its workers classes right in the plant’s facility. A plant in Dakota City partnered with Northeast Community College’s South Sioux City campus in March to provide the company’s 40th academy program.
“It’s been really great,” said Melissa Kebaili, Northeast adult education volunteer. “They don’t have to go home, change, any of that. They just can come to their shift early or when they head to class.”
The program, which offers GED and English Learned Language classes, helps students of a variety of ages and nationalities. Kebaili is one of five instructors for the program.
“It is very diverse,” she said. “In my first class, I have students of Latino descent, Somali, Ethiopian, Vietnamese — just a broad, broad range.”
The idea originated after some Northeast students working at Tyson said it would be helpful to have classes right at work, which spurred discussions about bringing Upward Academy to Dakota City.
“They have families and other things happening, the reasoning is once they leave the parking lot, the chances of them attending class or pursuing anything like that is going to be far less than we offer at the facility,” Kebaili said.
Three large rooms are being utilized to offer the programs, which are a part of the team members’ benefits package, according to a Northeast press release. Students have a variety of options, including attending classes before or after shifts three times a week, or taking classes online with regular instructor meetings.
About 700 of Tyson’s 4,500 Dakota City plant team members have enrolled in Upward Academy programs, according to a Northeast press release, with around 400 attending regularly. So far, one student has earned a GED and seven have passed citizenship tests by taking Northeast civics classes.
These accomplishments have made the Dakota City plant stand out as an example for other programs, Kebaili said.
“I’ve been told we are one of the biggest and we are one of the most successful and they’re kind of using this case here in Dakota City as a role model for the other plants that are going to be in this,” she said. “That’s really good news.”
The classes provide students with necessary workplace skills, she said.
“With the ESL portion of it, a lot of it is just gaining those language skills so they can connect and have conversations with their coworkers and people at work. It also provides opportunities for them with the GED class to apply for different jobs in the company,” she said. “Some of them don’t know how to do basic things like write an email, which would be a requirement for a job. Within the classes, they learn reading and writing they can use in their work.”
The program’s had a strong response from Tyson workers. Kebaili sees new Tyson students fairly regularly and hopes more will sign up soon.
“It’s a great response, we really have not had a lot of people who have dropped out,” she said. “Everybody that started at the onset is still coming. … A lot of positive word of mouth is happening, new students are continuing to join all the time. They’re talking to their coworkers about it and seeing the benefits of it.”