The door of the Community Halal Store in Burlington bears a chart of the cuts of meat into which a goat carcass can be divided. Presumably it’s an animal that has been slaughtered by a deep incision to the throat by a mentally competent adult Muslim, according to the rules of Halal laid down in the Koran.
The Community Halal Store is one of almost a half-dozen purveyors of Halal foods in greater Burlington. At the Brixton Halal Market just up the street, I procured some gorgeously lean slices of camel. Although they’re admissible for Muslim consumption, Islamic law places camels on the same footing as locusts, undeserving of a Halal dispatch — no prayers necessary.
I am here at the Community Halal Store to meet Abdi Sharif, the 23-year-old co-owner. When I inquire at the counter, one of the young men there, who appears to be no more than 15, looks up from some paperwork. “I’m Abdi,” he says.
Dressed in a button-down camouflage shirt and jeans, the baby-faced businessman looks at first like any young American, but he is just a little too neat, a little too formal, a little too … foreign. His handwriting is perfect and his vocabulary solid, but his accent makes his words run together melodiously as if he were singing.
Sharif, his mother and “about six” brothers arrived in Syracuse as refugees in 2006. Sharif left his native Somalia at age 5 and says he barely remembers it. The family fled first to Kenya, then sought “a better life” in the U.S. “They’re not in Freedomland,” Sharif says of Kenyans. “It’s a hot situation there.”
With the help of the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program (VRRP), where Sharif is now an interpreter, the family arrived in Burlington in 2007. Though Syracuse was a step up from Kenya, Sharif says he prefers living here, calling the New York city “overcrowded.” He treasures Burlington for its “good neighbors and good health,” and he already knows all about the national honors it’s won, saying, “Burlington is the best city for two years on the side of healthy.”
Sharif offers to give me a tour of his tiny store, which he and his 19-year-old brother Hassan bought from “someone called Haji” in April 2008. His brother Ahmed, also 19, remains at the counter, consumed in his laptop. Their diminutive mother, Multuba, sits quietly on a metal folding chair among piles of African bed linens and fabrics, her head covered in a bright shawl.
Sharif leads me to a pair of large chest freezers. Inside are dozens of white plastic supermarket bags. He opens one to show me the contents: Deep red cubes of bone-in goat meat for stews. When I ask how Sharif recommends preparing the meat, he thinks for a beat, then responds, “I think you boil it.”
Sharif and Hassan cut the meat from whole animals — slaughtered in Australia and shipped via Minneapolis — in a small room just behind the main floor. Sharif shows me the band saws on which they craft slices and chunks to the specifications of customers who wait in a row of folding chairs at the front of the store. Hassan is cleaning the equipment. He glares at me and says, “I’m not good friends with the media.”
Back at the freezers, Sharif gingerly produces a Ziploc bag filled with two beautiful skin-on fish filets. He says that fish is “not a big deal in Somalia” and that, moreover, “Talking about myself, I don’t eat it. It’s kind of stinky.” Turns out there’s a good reason for Sharif’s general ignorance of meat preparation: “I just eat vegetables,” he reveals.
He seems happy to steer me to the next freezer, containing a collection of Goya bags filled with okra, French fries and corn. Sharif describes the preparation of a favorite dish called umngqusho, which requires hominy, beans, salt and a boiling pot of water. Apparently bachelor cooking follows an international template.
I ask if people in Somalia eat injera, the spongy, sour flatbread that serves as both plate and utensils in Ethiopian cuisine. Sharif excitedly points me to a row of flours, which he recommends for just that. He says he prefers chapati, the pan-fried whole-wheat bread that many Americans know as an Indian dish.
When I share this with Sharif, he smiles. “We have similar cultures,” he says of the subcontinent. “I like their movies and music.” He reveals that they also share the tradition of applying complex henna designs to women’s hands for celebrations, pointing to a row of boxes filled with the paste.
Sharif prides himself on carrying products important to cultures besides his own. “Everybody comes here,” he says. “This is a multinational store.” He points to a pile of 25-pound bags labeled “Super lucky Elephant Jasmine white naturally scented rice” — a favorite of Bhutanese clients, he explains. Facility with Somali, Swahili and English ensures that Sharif can communicate with most customers, though not all. “People come from Iraq,” he says. “I have to call an interpreter and say, ‘What is he asking for?’”
Sharif says a fair number of native-born Americans also make their way to the store. He shows me a shelf filled with a product called BCool, an African Kool-Aid counterpart that comes in flavors from passion fruit to watermelon. Sharif says his mostly college-aged American clientele is particularly fond of the guava and mango varieties.
As the store’s primary buyer, Sharif has to know his markets. When it comes to the realm of “ladies’ things,” his mother has educated him, and it shows. He knowledgeably sums up his beauty stock, from skin-lightening creams to coconut-oil conditioner. The kicky asymmetrical denim skirt that hangs above the counter in a row of youthful women’s fashions was his choice, too.
A woman of about 40 enters the store and speaks excitedly to Multuba. She sits for a few moments, then leaves with Ahmed in tow. “She asked for a ride,” Sharif explains. He says that this is a common occurrence: “Friends stop by sometimes. People come from Winooski and buy a lot of stuff, and so I give them a ride.”
Sharif says he welcomes these interruptions, as his business doesn’t give him much time for a social life beyond the store. “I’m too busy,” he says with a sigh. “I open; then I go and intern at the VRRP, then back here. By the time I close, I’m so tired.” One bright spot: “Sometimes friends of mine, boys my age, sit around and talk about soccer. Like, ‘Hey, did you see how I did this and when I did that?’ They come when it’s slow and they’re out of a game.”
Always a leader, Sharif helps organize weekend soccer games on the Winooski High School field. His all-Somali team’s recent opponents have included Vietnamese, Nepalese and Congolese teams. Games happen on the fly: “I’m the information person,” Sharif explains. “Everybody has a cellphone. You call around and make sure everybody comes on time.” Next up: the formidable Bosnian squad.
Until then, Sharif considers himself lucky to help connect all the cultures that populate North Street. He sells phone cards by the case to families that have left members behind. His work with the VRRP has imbued him with a desire to help make life easier for “every community,” he says. “I open my store for everyone to come in.”