Zainab Farah wants Najah grocery store to serve African families, those new to cuisine

The emphasis is on the jah, says Zainab Farah, as she looked up from behind the deli counter of her African grocery store that bears the word across its large front windows.

It means “success” in Somali, she explains, her gloved hands busy assembling two popular dishes — a combo meal that included a generous portion of sauteed goat over a bed of fluffy rice and a basket of fresh Somali sambusas, fried dough pastries stuffed with beef.

advertisements”That’s my goal,” says Farah, 42.

On a Wednesday afternoon, Najah Grocery & Deli was quiet. Farah’s husband, Rashid Mohamad, and their young son, Khalil Muktar, were behind the checkout counter. Muktar, 13, sat on a stool, his hand on a computer mouse, staring at the screen, while his father, at times, stood up from his seat and scanned the aisles.

Farah and Mohamad are nearing their first anniversary as business owners. They inherited the small brick store at 1016 University Ave. in Des Moines last October from a friend and leaped into the unknown of entrepreneurship.

They began with securing the proper permits and navigating building codes — a process that was new and tedious yet crucial to their store’s operation. Farah said those kinds of steps don’t exist back in Somalia where she’s from. There, she says, it’s especially easy to sell hot food.

The couple repaired the flooring and kitchen sink and learned how to keep the books and where to purchase their goods. Farah regularly travels to warehouses in Minnesota and stocks up on a mix of African and Middle Eastern products like sacks of flour, spices, canned goods and personal care items.

Farah says this — living in America and owning a business — has been her dream since she was a girl growing up in Las Anod, the capital of the Sool region in war-torn Somalia. She remembers watching movies such as “The Mask” starring actor and comedian Jim Carrey and seeing America through the scenes.

She thought it was beautiful. But something else piqued her interest. The U.S. is “the land of opportunity,” says Farah, who arrived in the states in 2013 with her husband and son. Here, she adds, anything is possible.

When Farah talks about her life in East Africa, she describes it in one word: “long.” She speaks quickly, doling out the highlights — moments of loss and tragedy met with constant movement. The ongoing civil war in Somalia forced Farah’s family to leave their home country and seek refuge, first in Kenya and then later Uganda. That’s where Farah met Mohamad, got married and soon after gave birth to their son — all while waiting for resettlement to the U.S.

Farah still knows the exact date they arrived in the U.S. — Sept. 26, 2013. In the middle of fall in North Carolina, she thinks of how beautiful the trees were, how the leaves’ colors changed to match the season. Farah says she found a job at a local Krispy Kreme, but her husband struggled to get work and hatched a plan to seek employment elsewhere, maybe in North Dakota.

Farah, who around that time was pregnant with their second child, says Mohamad decided to visit North Dakota and see what he could find. She, alone with Muktar, traveled to Des Moines to stay with her cousin.

But while in Des Moines, Farah fell ill and was rushed to a hospital where she ultimately lost her baby. Mohamad cut his trip short to be beside his wife.

“We decided to stay here,” says Farah, whose family has lived in Des Moines since 2014.

Back at the deli counter, Farah’s nephew, Abdiquafar Mohamud, and Muktar huddle around Farah and carefully watch her plate some dishes. Farah says she’s excited to see what comes next for Najah Grocery & Deli.

To her, Najah is two-fold: It’s a place where African families feel at home and where others can discover new cuisine. Farah says she’s already spreading the word about Najah whenever she serves her sambusas and chai lattes — your choice of hot or iced — at the Oakridge Neighborhood’s farmers market and the Downtown Des Moines Farmers’ Market.

When asked to reflect on the store, Farah smiles.

“I love to be my own boss,” she says. “You have your own freedom.”

F. Amanda Tugade covers social justice issues for the Des Moines Register. Email her at or follow her on Twitter @writefelissa.

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