The extraordinary journey of Mamba Hamissi and his wife Nadia Nijimbere is detailed in this Detroit Free Press story:
Mamba is a graduate of our ProsperUS Detroit program, which has been instrumental in helping the couple realize their entrepreneurial dreams. While we was at Freedom House Detroit waiting for his asylum to be granted, Mamba was assisted by Southwest Solutions Adult Learning Lab to improve his English skills.
“When I saw them it was, ‘Wow!’ It was so unbelievable,” recalled the sharp-dressed 38-year-old with the vaguely French accent. “Now I can touch them. I can see them. And the good thing, after 30 minutes, the connection was there already. They felt like Dad was there.”
Mamba’s family’s story is one that’s becoming shockingly common around the world as the number of refugees reportedly hit a five-year high last year, while headlines of family separations at the Southern border currently dominate our news feeds.
But unlike so many others, Mamba’s story — despite the hardships and years of separation and uncertainty of being a refugee in a foreign country growing increasingly hostile to people like him — is a positive story. The American Dream in compressed extreme.
Mamba and his wife were both granted asylum in May 2017 by the United States government and later this year will open Baobab Fare, an east African restaurant and café, in Detroit’s up-and-coming New Center neighborhood, on the busy corner of Woodward and East Grand Boulevard. After months of searching for a space, the couple signed a five-year lease with Midtown Detroit Inc. in early June.
Proving them wrong
In addition to serving African pilau rice and fried goat, Baobab Fare will be staffed, in part, by fellow refugees and feature a small retail area promoting their wares. It will function as a breakfast and lunch restaurant but act as an informal embassy for the owners’ native Burundi and for displaced persons everywhere.
“How are we going to educate people to know where we came from?” said Mamba. “We can do that having a restaurant and a market. Education — this is one.
“Being a refugee and black and Muslim, it’s a lot. But I’m fine. I’m going to use this identity that I have to educate others. I take it as a potential to help others. I’m not taking it like a sin. This is how am I. The only thing is to make sure that I’m trying to prove wrong people.”
There’s another education piece to Baobab Fare that centers on how its owners got here. It wouldn’t have been possible without support from a few local organizations: Freedom House, a nonprofit that provides temporary housing and assistance for asylum seekers; ProsperUS Detroit, which offers entrepreneurial training for low- and moderate-income Detroiters, immigrants and people of color, and Hatch Detroit, a small business competition that provides funding and business services to winners.
In that sense, the impending opening of Baobab Fare is a testament to the possibilities of what marginalized people can achieve with the right support — flipping the stereotype of refugees peddled by immigration hardliners who want to close the borders to those from African countries that President Donald Trump has spoken of derisively.
“Some people here in America have judgment about who is refugees, coming here to steal jobs,” Mamba said. “You have to be strong and show them they’re wrong. Prove them wrong. Which is hard. But you don’t have a choice. You have to survive.”
The road to freedom
Mamba’s wife, Nadia Nijimbere, became a refugee first. The human rights worker fled their native Burundi in 2013 after becoming a target of the corrupt police, who were abusing the women and children she helped. The couple had only been married a little more than a year and communicated very sporadically as she sought the safety of the United States.
Nijimbere found out she was pregnant only after Mamba’s sister, who lived in Michigan at the time, dropped her off at Freedom House, where she’d been an asylum seeker herself years before. A few months later, Nijimbere learned she’d be having twins.
Back in Burundi, Mamba applied for a visa before his daughters were born only to be denied. He applied again in hopes of celebrating their first birthday but was denied again. Then, in 2015, as the president sought a controversial third term and the political situation in Burundi worsened, Mamba was finally granted a visa. As is common, he left without telling anyone.
A rural country roughly the size of Massachusetts located in the African Great Lakes region, Burundi is one of the world’s poorest countries and perennially ranks among the most miserable by the World Happiness Report. Once a colony of the Germans and then the Belgians, Burundi today is marred by deep and ongoing conflicts between the majority Hutu and minority Tutsi ethnic groups that spawned two full-scale genocides since the country’s independence in 1962. Conditions have deteriorated over the past few years, and the United Nations has accused the government of numerous human rights abuses.
“Me and my wife had a very good lifestyle in Burundi because we were lucky to go to school,” Mamba said. “We had jobs. After, you left everything and you come and start from zero without even knowing how it’s going to be tomorrow.”
The couple reunited in November 2015, just in time for the twins’ second birthday.
“It was hard,” Mamba said of his first few months in the U.S. “These are two different worlds we’re living from Africa to United States. Everything is new. I’m coming in a new country. I don’t speak English. The weather. Being a dad for the first time of twins. It was challenging. I was not prepared for what I was going through.”
Hatching the next step
His first step was to learn the language, which he did by watching American cartoons with his girls and translating words on his phone. Freedom House also provided a language program, and he was a quick study. But only because it was a necessity.
“If someone is working 12 hours, you gonna work for 24, because you have that responsibility behind you (of being a refugee),” he said. “People used to say, ‘You are smart because you able to speak the language after nine months.’ I said, ‘No. I didn’t have a choice. How could I greet other people? How could I be where am I without speaking English?’ ”
After a year, he got a work permit and began working in a factory with the goal of saving enough money to open his own business. In the meantime, he hooked up with ProsperUS Detroit and entered its entrepreneur program for Freedom House residents.
“After graduating that program I had the idea that I can be a businessman,” he said. “You see that you can do it. It’s possible. You have a place here!”
While working seven days a week as a driver for Trinity Transportation, he noticed a potential opportunity.
“I saw the potential, especially in the food business,” Mamba said. “In our area, at that time there wasn’t any African restaurants. And another thing, ingredients or some food from Africa you couldn’t find here in Detroit. And I thought, ‘What? Why?’ ”
In 2017, shortly after the couple was finally granted asylum, ProsperUS tipped him off to the Hatch Detroit competition, which annually grants $50,000 to one winner for a brick-and-mortar retail space along with business support services.
Mamba’s family owned a restaurant back in Burundi called Baobab, named after the legendary African “tree of life,” which thrives even in the arid desert. From there, he drew inspiration for a restaurant in Detroit that would introduce east African cuisine to a majority African-American city much more familiar with west African fare.
The food at the first Baobab Fare pop-up at the Brooklyn Street Local was gone in about half hour, and with the community’s overwhelming support, the restaurant made it to the final round of the Hatch competition. It was up against three other businesses, one from a well-connected daughter of a former Detroit City Council member. Improbably, Baobab Fare took home the top prize after the final round of public voting.
“Their story played a part but their product was just amazing and the fact that nothing like that existed in the city is something that we look for,” said Hatch Detroit Executive Director Vittoria Katanski. “Their food is amazing. It’s very light and it’s vegan-focused but it’s not vegan. There’s protein options. It’s healthy. It’s unique. Right now I feel like Detroit is living in a world of a lot of burgers. They’re offering this really wonderful, much needed alternative.”
“We didn’t have nothing,” Mamba recalled. “Just an idea and some recipes. This what we cook at home. After winning, our life changed. It was huge for us. … We didn’t know nobody. We didn’t know how to do things. Hatch took us in their hands and said, ‘We’re gonna get you there.’ ”
Centered in New Center
After a location on Gratiot near Eastern Market fell through, Hatch called and suggested a meeting with Midtown Detroit Inc. Executive Director Sue Mosey. Mosey showed them a historic corner building in New Center where another restaurant was supposed to go. It had lost its financing and the 2,400-square-foot space was available again.
Mamba and Nijimbere signed the lease in early June.
Now begins the work of getting open before the end of the year, as the contract with Midtown stipulates. Rossetti Architects is doing the design at a deeply discounted rate, going for what Mamba calls a “Detroit vibe with African designs.”
When it opens, Baobab Fare will offer 65 seats in a mix of banquette seating and low-top tables, plus a 10-seat juice and coffee bar. It will be styled after the cafés of east Africa, and two other Freedom House alums will serve as chef and cook. As Mamba describes it, the cuisine of east Africa is spicier and more vegetable-based than that found in the wealthier west Africa, where meat is more common. Beans are the protein of choice instead. There’s also a bit of a Middle Eastern influence thanks to its proximity to that region and the leftovers of Belgian colonialism exhibited by dishes like brochettes (similar to kebabs) and frites.
The space will also include a small retail section and will promote products designed by other ProsperUS businesses, as well as Baobab Fare-branded, single-origin Burundian coffee.
The symbolism of their business venture is not lost on Mamba, who in less than three years of speaking English can describe its significance more eloquently than many native-born Americans.
“The baobab is a tree that grows in the desert area without anything around it and it survives,” he said. “This is how we were surviving in the United States. We came without knowing nobody and we were able to grow and to stand. We are useful, as baobab is useful.”