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Life Stories: Ahmed Omar 'Was Always Giving'


Published August 22, 2023 at 1:33 p.m.

  • File: Oliver Parini
  • Ahmed Omar

More than 200 people gathered last Friday at the Islamic Society of Vermont's mosque in South Burlington before caravanning to Lakeview Cemetery in Burlington to mourn and honor Ahmed Omar, chef-owner of Burlington's Kismayo Kitchen.

Among those attending the traditional brief Islamic funeral prayer at the mosque was Maryan Maalin, who said she had known Omar for almost two decades. Both were originally from Somalia and came to Burlington as refugees.

"He touched so many lives," Maalin said. "He was the owner of the first Somali restaurant in Vermont. He was always helping and deeply involved in the community. If you were new to town, he would say, 'Come, stop by, and I will give you free food.'"

When her 14-year-old son learned of Omar's death, Maalin said, he cried for two hours. "That shows the impact he had," she said.

Omar died on August 13 at his New North End home, where his brother-in-law, Madey Shegow, found him in his bed early in the afternoon. Shegow said it appeared that Omar, who was 36, died in his sleep.

According to the death certificate, no autopsy was performed. Ben Truman of the Vermont Department of Health said by email that the chief medical examiner's investigation into the cause of death is under way.

Omar and his wife, Anisa Mohamed - COURTESY
  • Courtesy
  • Omar and his wife, Anisa Mohamed

Shegow said he went to Omar's house to check on him after the chef failed to show up at Kismayo that Sunday morning to prepare for a large catering job. Omar's wife, Anisa Mohamed, and the couple's two young daughters were out of the country in Africa at the time, Shegow said.

It was a shock to find his brother-in-law dead, Shegow said. Omar had been at the home of Shegow and his wife, Omar's sister, Asha Omar, until around 11 p.m. on Saturday evening. "He was a healthy guy," Shegow said.

Shegow said the family has not yet decided the future of Kismayo Kitchen, which Omar opened in 2019 and named for the Somali city of his birth. The chef-owner described his restaurant as multicultural, although he also hoped it would help "to bring the [Somali] culture to the community," he told Seven Days shortly after he opened. It became known for Somali dishes, such as coconut chicken stew with rice, as well as all-American classics, including Philly cheesesteaks.

Homage to Omar outside Kismayo Kitchen last week - MELISSA PASANEN
  • Melissa Pasanen
  • Homage to Omar outside Kismayo Kitchen last week

But most of all, Kismayo Kitchen was known for its warm, energetic and ambitious owner who seemed to beam with a perpetual smile.

"He just had this electric smile," said his longtime friend Oliver Parini, a photographer and Seven Days contributor who collaborated with Omar on a series of YouTube video tutorials for healthy recipes. "You could not help but smile back."

"His smile never left his face," concurred Omar's friend, Islam Hassan, the former imam of the Islamic Society of Vermont, where Omar was a devoted member.

Omar, as he was known to all, was the youngest of 14 children. His family fled war-torn Somalia and became refugees in Kenya. They came to the U.S. in 2004, when Omar was 17. He graduated from Burlington High School two years later.

Shegow said Omar lived with him and his wife, Omar's sister, when he first arrived in Vermont. "He was like one of my kids," Shegow said of his younger brother-in-law. "He was a very funny guy. We were always joking a lot. He was very social with everybody, Black and white. He was a very gentle man with everybody."

Evidence in support of Shegow's description flooded social media last week as news of Omar's death spread.

Omar at Kismayo Kitchen in 2019 - FILE: GLENN RUSSELL
  • File: Glenn Russell
  • Omar at Kismayo Kitchen in 2019

"Omar was the man. He made my heart swell with every encounter," Jeremy Hudson of Colchester wrote, elaborating through direct message that Kismayo Kitchen was one of his family's "go-to spots" for chicken stew and kale salad — "predictably affordable, delicious and accompanied by Omar's warm energy."

Thea Lewis of Burlington recalled meeting him several years ago in the Costco parking lot. "He offered to lift my huge purchases into the car. Got to talking about the restaurant," Lewis wrote on social media.

She shared in a follow-up text that about a week after meeting Omar, she ordered Kismayo takeout for the first time. "When I got there, he greeted me like I was a long lost relative ... I went home with what I'd ordered and a slew of extras on the house," she recalled. "I think this was the experience of many."

Empress Levi, a fellow Black Burlington food entrepreneur, posted that Omar was always supportive of her vegan diet and her business. Once he found out she was vegan, he had vegan samosas ready the next time she came in. He often asked her opinion on new dishes, offering full servings for which he never charged.

Without fail, Levi said, Omar asked how her business was going. "He would say, 'Believe in yourself, and don't give up,'" she recalled by phone. "He always talked like I would have my restaurant some day."

Omar at a bodybuilding competition in 2014 - COIURTESY OF OLIVER PARINI
  • Coiurtesy of Oliver Parini
  • Omar at a bodybuilding competition in 2014

Before Omar became a restaurateur, he worked as a personal trainer and online health coach. He was a competitive bodybuilder and continued to value physical health while also aiming to help and inspire others to do the same.

When talking with Seven Days last year about his YouTube video series, Omar said he wanted to show his fellow Somali how to cook with health in mind. "When God gives you skills, you're gonna share with your people," he said with a broad smile.

Among those he influenced was Hassan, whom Omar met through the Islamic Society of Vermont, where Hassan served for a decade before moving to Ohio earlier this year. Omar was not only a deeply committed Muslim but also a personal friend, Hassan said.

The two men often worked out together at a local fitness club early in the morning after the first prayer of the day. Omar would always encourage his friend to work harder, "pushing me to do more reps than I think I can do," Hassan recalled. "He was always giving you advice: how to do recipes to build muscle, to lose fat. He was always giving: a protein shake, a tip. He was a person who was willing to give all the time."

Ahmed Omar with his sister, Asha Omar - COURTESY
  • Courtesy
  • Ahmed Omar with his sister, Asha Omar

Hassan added that Omar gave generously to the Islamic Society but preferred to do so quietly. When the group was raising funds to buy a former church in South Burlington to become its new mosque, Hassan said, Omar made a significant anonymous donation. "This is something that not a lot of community members knew," Hassan said.

More public were the generous amounts of food that Omar provided to the Muslim community for many events, including the breaking fast meals during Ramadan. "This is something that touched the hearts of everyone," Hassan said.

Omar also made his mark as "a pivotal member of the African diaspora," Priscille Lokossou of Burlington said as she and her mother, Olga Daga, sat waiting for cars to leave the cemetery last Friday.

Omar with his daughters - COURTESY
  • Courtesy
  • Omar with his daughters

Daga, who came to Vermont from her native Benin, said she studied English with Omar when each first arrived in Burlington. Lokossou said her family became close with him over the years and also regulars of Kismayo Kitchen.

She offered an example of the deeds that made Omar stand out. Her uncle, who drives for Uber, would often pick up food orders at Kismayo for delivery. "Always, Omar would ask if he was hungry and give him food," she said.

Parini said he will remember his friend for his enthusiastic devotion to his family and his faith along with food, bodybuilding and fashion. "He was such a unique, quirky guy. He lived life to the fullest," Parini said.

In a follow-up text, Parini added that toward the end of the YouTube videos they shot together, "Omar would always say, 'The secret ingredient is always love.'" That phrase was also emblazoned on the side of his Kismayo van, Parini noted.

"He had so much love to share with the world and I think that's why he loved cooking so much," Parini wrote. "He could cook for the world and have a positive impact on his community."

The Islamic Society of Vermont has helped set up a fund for the family of Ahmed Omar at GoFundMe.

The original print version of this article was headlined "'He Was Always Giving' | Ahmed Omar, Burlington chef-owner of Vermont's first Somali restaurant, dies unexpectedly at 36"

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