One year after Seward shootings, pain is still evident

Badria Abdullahi
After drying her tears, Badria Abdullahi reflects on the loss of her son, Anwar Mohammed, who was shot to death Jan. 6 at the Seward Market in Minneapolis. Abdullahi said she moved out of her old apartment and got rid of many of her items that reminded her of her youngest son.
MPR Photo/Laura Yuen

Six days into 2010, Minneapolis witnessed three murders on a single night in a grocery store. Three men, all who fled the violence of their native East Africa, were shot to death at Seward Market and Halal Meat.

The families of the three men say the first anniversary of their deaths is dredging up memories of that night.

Jamal Hassan and Faysal Warfa call each other up nearly every evening at 7:43 p.m. It's a simple way for the two cousins to remind each other what happened at that time on Jan. 6, 2010.

Not that the two men need any reminding. Hassan, who manages the Seward Market, says he can't help but think of the shooting every time he reports to work.

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"It's not that we don't want to face the reality, but the pain is there for us to remember every day," he said. "And when you're coming to the site, the same place every single day of your life, that's something that even it's you try to forget, it's right there in front of you."

Hassan's two cousins, Osman Elmi and Mohamed Warfa, were gunned down at the front counter. A customer, Anwar Mohammed, was killed when he came in to buy a phone card.

Hassan can still remember the details of that night. The stinging cold. The confusion. And the phone call -- a relative saying, "They're dead, they're dead."

Fethi Mohammed, Badria Abdullahi
Fethi Mohammed, 39, visits his mother, Badria Abdullahi, every day in her sparse apartment in Riverside Plaza in Minneapolis. His youngest brother, Anwar Mohammed, used to spend the most time with his mother out of all of his siblings until he was shot to death at the Seward Market in January.
MPR Photo/Laura Yuen

Many of the store's customers remember that night, too, with a kind of pain that hasn't eased over time. Hassan says some of the regulars still break down when they think of his cousin, Osman Elmi, who ran the day-to-day operations at the store.

"You can see how the community is missing him, even a year after his death," said Hassan. "Some people, when they walk in they will just cry and say, 'Who is going to help us?' We tell them we have three or four other guys, and somehow they feel like he was the only one who could help them."

Hassan and Faysal Warfa are talking in their upstairs office. Warfa, the owner of Seward Market, offers just a few words, and says it's still painful for him to talk. Elmi, who was 28 when he was killed, was his younger brother.

Warfa and Hassan, dressed in suits, are more entrepreneurs than storekeepers. The family's main business is a money-wiring service, Kaah Express, that operates at several locations across six states. One of those branches is based in the Seward Market.

The cousins believe the gunman decided to rob the market because they would be easy victims. Somali storekeepers and witnesses typically don't talk.

Jamal Hassan, Faysal Warfa
Store manager Jamal Hassan, left, and store owner Faysal Warfa say they are reminded of how two of their family members were shot nearly a year ago when they report to work at the Seward Market in Minneapolis. Osman Elmi, Mohamed Warfa and Anwar Mohammed were all killed in the triple homicide.
MPR Photo/Laura Yuen

At first, Hassan feared it would be yet another unsolved crime in his community.

"What we were expecting was that these guys would get arrangements and they'd be out the state, and probably out of the country," said Hassan. "One thing the Somali community needs to do is stop helping criminals. We have to talk, and identify these individuals and make sure they're off the streets. If they need help, we'll help them, but we're not going to support them kill our people, terrorize us, destroy our businesses and make us feel unsafe."

In fact, Hassan's wish came true. This triple homicide was a turning point. Within days, with the help of the community, police charged two 17-year-old boys. The case against the alleged gunman is scheduled to go to trial in March, but it has already been postponed several times while his attorney argues over his true age.

In a high-rise tower in the nearby Cedar-Riverside neighborhood, the mother of Anwar Mohammed is crying in her apartment. Badria Abdullahi's youngest son was the customer who was shot to death at the market.

Investigators at scene of triple slaying
Investigators looked for fingerprints at the entry door to the Seward Market and Halal Meat, where three men were shot to death during what may have been a robbery at the store on Wednesday night. Police said they had no information to release on suspects and hadn't taken anyone into custody.
MPR Photo/Tim Nelson

A tear rolls down the cheek of her oldest son, Fethi Mohammed, as he translates for his mother.

"I don't want to forget about him until the day I die."

It's not about forgetting -- she just can't live with things that remind her of her son's absence. Abdullahi moved out of her old apartment and got rid of furniture.

Anwar and his brother, Fethi, both worked as parking attendants in downtown Minneapolis. He says his co-workers have reached out to him, and urged him to see a counselor to talk it out. But he says talking about Anwar just makes it worse, especially when visiting his mom.

"If I came here every day here to talk about him, I don't want my mom crying every time. She cries, and I have to cry with her," he said.

A casket is wheeled out of the Burnsville Mosque after the funeral Friday, Jan. 8, 2010, for three East African men who were killed this week in Minneapolis.
MPR Photo/Tim Post

The family is also mourning another loss this year. Tradition requires that Fethi look out for his dead brother's widow, who is still in Ethiopia. Fehti and his mother went to visit her in March. And while they were there, his father was struck and killed by a taxi cab whose driver was talking on his cell phone.

"2010 is a tough, tough year for my mom," he said.

One person who's reached out to the family is Martha Ballou. She's a Minneapolis attorney who got to know Anwar at the parking ramp where he used to work.

When she learned that his widow still wanted to come to the U.S. for a better life, Ballou's law firm volunteered to help her apply for her green card. Ballou says it was her way of paying respect to Anwar Mohammed.

"Part of it was just outrage at what happened, this terrible tragedy that occurred," said Ballou. "He was so excited to be an American, he loved his country. He was just a ray of light."

The tragedy has also inspired the Seward neighborhood in Minneapolis to rally together. Neighbors and community groups raised nearly $12,000 for the families of the shooting victims.

Katya Pilling, associate director of Seward Redesign, says the incident also convinced long-time residents that they needed to get to know their immigrant neighbors.

Pilling notes that a recent community event to celebrate the unique storefronts on Franklin Avenue involved a broad cross-section of businesses. One hardware store even handed out Somali sambusa dumplings to customers that day.

"Folks are being very intentional in reaching out, and acknowledging that these relationships are really important," she said. "Whether you're Somali or you've been here for 40 years, you're a part of Seward. We want to create a community that's welcome to all of these folks."

To this day, some residents and business owners still display signs on their windows that were printed right after the triple homicide. The signs read, "Seward Stands Together. No more violence."

It's a plea echoed by all the families who are fiercely missing their sons and brothers one year later.