Afro Deli owner ships over 100,000 books to Somalia, Djibouti

Feb. 17—Abdirahman Kahin has no trouble sleeping. You'd think the owner of Afro Deli would, considering how much he fits into his schedule.

Aside from managing three — make that four in the spring — Afro Deli locations across the Twin Cities, Kahin recently sponsored the shipment of more than 110,000 books to Somalia and Djibouti through the St. Paul-based nonprofit Books for Africa.

Kahin came to Minnesota in 1997 from Somalia for better schooling and opportunities. In the late '90s, Kahin said, finding East African community members and a centralized community was difficult. As more East Africans moved to the Twin Cities in the early 2000s, it became easier to find food he grew up with, people to go to the mosque with and friends to play soccer with. In 2010, Kahin and former owner Faruk Cingilli opened their first Afro Deli location in Cedar Riverside.

The original mission behind Afro Deli was to bring communities together through food by creating an approachable menu with classic bites and some creativity. On the menu, customers can find cheeseburgers below Somali steak sandwiches and gyros, sambusas (a Somali stuffed pastry) and hot and spicy chicken wings.

Today, Kahin says, Minnesota remains the desired destination for East African refugees. "Those refugees in the refugee camps who are accepted to come to the U.S., their first choice is Minnesota," Kahin said. "The Somali community in Minnesota is the most vibrant community outside of Somalia or Djibouti: We have a lot of politicians. We have a lot of businesses. We have a lot of educated people. We're very visible."

Born in Somalia and raised in Djibouti, Kahin is one visible change-maker in the Twin Cities. By working with Books for Africa, the largest shipper of donated textbooks and library books to Africa, Kahin has sent five semi-trucks full of books to libraries, universities or other book beneficiaries in Africa.

"He's clearly one of our important contacts, not only because of his fundraising background and his philanthropic spirit," said Patrick Plonski, executive director of Books for Africa. "I don't go to Djibouti and Somalia with the frequency he does. So somebody like Kahin is a critical connector to make sure that our books are getting to the right recipients."

Last September, Kahin gave $10,000 worth of scholarships to Somali students attending Minnesota universities through the Afro Deli Foundation. He hopes to fund the education of more African students in Minnesota through a $200,000 scholarship fund, according to the Minnesota Spokesman Recorder.

"My community, they always brag about Afro Deli and the work that I do. So I think I owe them a lot — you're nobody without your community backing you," Kahin said.

In May, Kahin will open his fourth Afro Deli location in the former Campus Cafe space in Cedar Riverside. He dreams of expanding his restaurants outside of the Twin Cities, into the suburbs and maybe someday going national. "If it worked in the Twin Cities it's going to work everywhere," Kahin said. For now, he's focused on the community that he's cultivated and that has supported him since he opened Afro Deli nearly 12 years ago.

And what about his sleep? Between frequent travels to Africa, creating his own foundation and running restaurants, does Kahin even sleep?

"Actually, I sleep really well," he tells me. "Yeah, I do. Because when you do these kinds of things, even if you sleep less, you sleep with joy."