After the iftar: How an immigrant community's worst fears came true

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Captain John Hayes explains the "two languages everybody understands."

Second of two reports

When Seattle’s young Somalis gathered to celebrate iftar, the Ramadan evening feast, homeland politics dominated the agenda. When the city’s Oromo community gathered for the same occasion a few days later, all politics was local, and very practical.

The Oromo, about half of whom are Muslim, live in southern and central Ethiopia. They’re that nation’s largest ethnic group, but they’ve chafed since the 1800s under the domination of the mostly orthodox Christian Amhara. Some have resisted, clamoring and fighting for an independent homeland. And, in the way of the world, many have wound up refugees, fleeing to grim conditions and sometimes hostile receptions in Somalia, Djibouti, Kenya, Yemen and Sudan.

A few thousand have wound up in the Seattle area — a big change from their pastoral homeland, entailing difficult and, as subsequent events would prove, sometimes dangerous adjustments. They’ve established one beachhead in a low-slung, nondescript building on a side street in Rainier Beach: the Oromo Cultural Center and mosque.

The center doesn't seem to get a lot of outside visitors, and its members were visibly pleased and proud to welcome a high-powered delegation from the Seattle Police Department to iftar last month: Deputy Chief Carmen Best, Assistant Chief Perry Tarrant, Captain John Hayes, who formerly commanded the local South Precinct and now leads SPD's community relations unit, and its new East African community liaison, Habtamu Abdi. Abdi, who's Oromo himself, served as interpreter, since many older men wanted to communicate with their guests but couldn't in English. Captain Hayes would use that limitation to connect with them.

The sun finally set and we could break what had been a very long day’s fast for our hosts, if not for us non-Muslim guests. Ramadan follows the lunar calendar and so migrates around our solar calendar; fasting sunrise-to-sunset is one thing midwinter, another thing when Ramadan falls in summer, as it did this year.

As at prayers, the women and girls stayed separate, inside, together with Chief Best. Men and boys stood or sat cross-legged around a printed cloth spread on the parking-lot Astroturf, where the communal dishes appeared. First came dates, recalling those Muhammad ate after fasting — a quick boost to the blood sugar. Samosas, vegetable soup, and chicken and rice followed. One robed elder stood to offer a welcome and thank Seattle’s police chief (hey, a deputy chief’s a chief) for coming down to Rainier Beach.

The police brass spoke in response; Captain Hayes, 6-foot-7 and built like a bear, stole the show just by standing up. His size commands audience’s attention; his eager, genial, sometimes goofy manner then disarms them. “We all come from different places around the world and speak many different languages,” he declared with the measured tones and emphatic gestures of a practiced storyteller captivating a schoolhouse audience. “But there are two languages everybody everywhere understands. Can anybody tell me what they are?” Young men and elders with henna-dyed beards turned to each and murmured and shrugged, clearly intrigued by the riddle. Hayes repeated his question, drawing out the suspense. “I’ll tell you. The two languages everybody understands are music and food. We’ve just come together and shared food, and now we understand each other better!” (Never mind music, which would not be shared at a mosque.)

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Not to be shushed.

The Oromo audience laughed and cheered, confirming Hayes’s point. Meanwhile, the little kids, who weren’t yet subject to gender restrictions, capered back and forth between the male and female sections as their elders hissed “Shhh! Sit down!” – another universal language.

A young fellow who arrived late noticed Hayes and exclaimed, “Hey, I saw that guy before” – probably at a large East African gathering at Bellevue’s Meydenbauer Center where Hayes spoke six months earlier. “It was really cool. He told this story about how there are two languages everybody understands….”

Then the party got down to business. The Oromo hosts asked the police for help with some problems. Unfortunately, the one at the top of their list wasn’t within usual police purview. Mukhtar Sado, the Oromo Cultural Center’s president, pointed to a parking lot crammed with trucks, boats and miscellaneous scrap behind the mosque. They wanted to buy it to build a community center and swimming pool. The problem: the Islamic prohibition on interest payments prevented them from securing a long-term loan. They’d paid off the mosque property in just four years, but they didn’t have nearly the money to buy the lot and build the rec center. Could the Police Department help them out?

Captain Hayes asked for some clarification: Couldn’t folks use the very nice pools at the new Rainier Beach Community Center a few blocks away? Several people spoke at once, and Abdi translated: “No, the women won’t go there. They don’t want to be uncovered around men, or around naked people who aren’t of the faith. They need a pool where they can be naked just with other women of this group.” I once saw two women in full chador slip into the unisex Jacuzzi at the community center. But it didn’t look very comfortable, and certainly wouldn’t be conducive to swimming laps.

Hayes then pointed to the Somali Community Services building right across the street, apologized for his ignorance, and asked, “Could you share a center with them?” No, replied Sado: “We’re different from them.”

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Hayes and hosts reach an understanding.

The pool project came up again and again as the evening progressed. Finally, Chief Tarrant made a promise: “I don’t have the money to buy the property. But I do have connections. I’ll use them for you!”

Some other requests were easier to oblige: Could you provide some police presence for Friday prayer service? Cars race by, and drivers sometimes make threatening gestures. Others concerned a deeper anxiety, shared with immigrants from other traditional societies. Several men complained that children had learned how to use the law against their parents: “When kids go outside, parents want to watch them. The kids don’t understand that. Little kids call 911 when their parents won’t let them do what they want. Police listen to the story and lock out the parents and kids, and the parents wind up destitute on the street.”

“Women call 911 over little things, and then there’s a domestic violence case,” another man complained. “Police need to understand better.” Patiently, the top cops explained: Customs may be different in this country, but police enforce the laws as they are. If domestic violence occurs, they must arrest somebody. Heads nodded, and one man replied, “We are famous for abiding by the law in all the countries we go to. Sometimes we might break rules without knowing it. So we need you guys to teach us what the rules are.”

And they wanted the police to help them get through to their own kids, who were growing up outside their reach, getting lured by gangs and deadly violence. Concern and bewilderment were written on their faces. No one could know how soon these fears would come home to roost, almost at the mosque’s door. Three and a half weeks later 20-year-old Muldhata Dawud was killed in a drive-by shooting after leaving a party in Federal Way. The next day (Islam requires speedy burial), Captain John Hayes attended his funeral service at the Oromo Cultural Center.

Zakariya Issa, also 20 and a close friend of Dawud, also attended the funeral, wearing a traditional white robe. He left shortly after Hayes did. Issa had rounded the corner onto Cloverdale Street when a car pulled up and a man got out, shouted at him, knocked him to the ground, and shot him fatally in the head, reportedly in an intra-gang dispute over money. Hayes sounds shocked, even after 33 years on the force: “He was standing right next to me in the mosque.”

Photos by Eric Scigliano


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About the Authors & Contributors

Eric Scigliano

Eric Scigliano

Eric Scigliano's reporting on social and environmental issues for The Weekly (later Seattle Weekly) won Livingston, Kennedy, American Association for the Advancement of Science, and other honors. He has also written for Harper's, New Scientist, and many other publications. One of his books, Michelangelo's Mountain, was a finalist for the Washington Book Award. His other books include Puget SoundLove, War, and Circuses (aka Seeing the Elephant); and, with Curtis E. Ebbesmeyer, Flotsametrics.