April 26, 2007 — Vol. 42, No. 37
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Somali refugees congregate, caffeinate at Butterfly Café

Matthew MacLean

It might not look like it at first glance, but there’s something a bit odd about the Butterfly Café.

Most mornings, the little coffee shop adjacent to the Roxbury Crossing T stop seems like just another caffeine oasis, filled with commuters and students from nearby Roxbury Community College getting their daily jumpstart.

The unusual selection of drinks — banana caramel chai, for example — might tip you off that something’s different.

If that doesn’t, the things resembling ticket windows in the back probably will.

Later in the day and on weekends, lines of people wait at these windows to wire money abroad, and the café fills with older men chatting briskly in the rattling tones of an unusual foreign language. If one understood the language — Somali — one could also read the signs posted throughout the room. They ask the men to not let their discussions become loud or overly heated.

The reminders are necessary because Butterfly Café is the epicenter of a small but active community of Somali political refugees in Boston, and café owner Mash Abdirahman is the community’s unofficial guardian, host and sheriff.

“Sometimes they become very passionate,” he said. “I tell them they can express their opinions, but they must respect this business and other customers.”

Abdirahman moved here in the early 1980s, one of a handful of young Somalis that came to Boston to attend school during the reign of Somali dictator Siad Barre, and he decided not to go back.

But since 1989, when Barre was overthrown and the country was plunged into anarchy, many more Somalis fleeing famine and murderous warlords have been granted refugee status and placed around the United States in cities like Boston, with the largest concentrations landing in Minneapolis, Washington and Columbus, Ohio.

In Boston, the immigrants have tended to settle where there is public housing. The largest share once resided in Roxbury, but recently the majority has shifted to South Boston, according to Ahmed Mohamoud, a program coordinator at the Somali Development Center (SDC), which gives aid and support to new arrivals. Other concentrations can be found in Mattapan, Chelsea, East Boston and Charlestown.

But the spiritual center of the community is at Butterfly, says Abdirahman.

“I can’t close,” he said. “Even on Christmas day, everyone comes here.”

One of his regulars is a 76-year-old gentleman named Yusuf Osman Samantar — a sort of political celebrity of the local community, which refer to him as the Somali Nelson Mandela.

Osman spent 20 years as a political prisoner of Barre before coming to Boston in 1994. Now he shuttles back and forth to Rome and Kenya as an advisor to new interim president Abdullahi Yusuf — Osman’s former classmate and fellow prisoner.

The current interim government represents the most serious effort to unite Somalia after the 17 years of anarchy that followed Barre’s ousting in 1989. The difference this time is that the U.S. has put its weight behind the effort, to counter an Islamic militia that began imposing its own version of law and order last year.

Beginning last December, Ethiopian troops poured across the Somali border in support of the interim government and helped drive out the Islamists. The U.S. supported the invasion, sending along Air Force AC-130 gunships for good measure. In recent weeks, Ethiopian and government troops have been battling remnants of the Islamists in the streets of Mogadishu, resulting in heavy civilian casualties.

But Osman believes that Islam is not the critical issue in Somalia.

“What [the West] fails to understand is that politics in Somalia is personal,” he said. “It’s not so much about Islam or philosophy. It’s about clan, and personal ambition.”

A lingering sense of clannishness and old bitterness often has a divisive effect on Boston Somalis as well, he says. Most were granted refugee status because they come from clans that were most oppressed by Barre and other warlords: the Majeerteen, Ashraf, Midgan and the Bantu-speaking peoples in the south. But each group has its own history and a different perspective on current events.

The SDC works actively towards breaking down barriers among new arrivals.

“We concentrate on the youth and women, emphasizing the great new opportunities they have in this country,” said Abdi Yusuf, director of the center. “The young people are not stuck in this clan mentality.”

To the contrary, Abdirahaman said, the younger generation is “busy trying to live the hip-hop lifestyle.”

Abdirahman also expresses concern that local Somali youth stay out of trouble and stay close to each other. In his spare time, he has organized a basketball team of Somali teens to compete on weekends in a local league. He says he points to the successful café he has started and tries to inspire them to look away from the past, toward all the opportunities in their future.

Hassan Warfa, another Butterfly denizen who works for the Boston Public Schools as an educator and liaison for Somali students, gives credit to the school district and Mayor Thomas M. Menino for implementing programs that foster inclusion for the young refugees.

“They would’ve grown up to be a nuisance to society, but because of these programs they are graduating with good jobs and are able to come back and serve the community in a positive way,” Warfa said.

Mash Abdirahman (far right) owns the Butterfly Café, a refuge of sorts for Somalis now living in Boston. Coffee and espressos are served as well as lots of political debate on the war-torn African country. (Matthew MacLean photo)

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