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Kenyan immigrant and Worcester restaurateur fulfills childhood dream of living in US

Telegram and Gazette
Sunday October 10, 2021
By Nicole Shih

Fatima Mohamed and her husband, Omai Issa, at Fatima's Cafe in Worcester. Christine Peteson/Telgram & Gazette

WORCESTER — When restaurant owner Fatima Mohamed was a little Kenyan girl, she had always dreamed of living in the U.S., loving freedom of speech and the passionate people here.

After Omai Issa — Mohamed's husband, who came to the U.S. in the late 1970s — proposed to Mohamed over the phone, they got married in 1989 in Nairobi, Kenya, and Mohamed moved to the U.S. with Issa in 1994. She was 27 then.

The couple knew each other since they were young, but it wasn't until years later that they started talking on the phone, with Issa in the U.S. and Mohamed still in her homeland.

"He came here in the 1970s, and I was still in elementary school," Mohamed, now 56, recalled.

When Issa, now 69, arrived in the U.S. he studied at Boston State College (now UMass Boston) and majored in economics. At the same time, Issa's brother was a doctorate student at Harvard University, and later returned to Kenya to be a professor.

Before Issa became co-owner of Fatima's Cafe on West Boylston Street in Worcester, he had worked for restaurants for 28 years.

Mohamed was working in Saudi Arabia at a beauty shop and clothing business, making clothes for the royal family, before emigrating to the U.S.

When Mohamed arrived in the country, she settled in Framingham with Issa. The couple have three children, now well into their 20s, who grew up there.

Mohamed worked at Stop & Shop and a bakery shop for a few years in Framingham, until she and her husband opened a grocery store there that they later sold after starting their new life in Worcester in 2001.

Passion for helping refugees

Mohamed never liked cooking before, she said, but helping refugees all over the world had always been a dream for her.

Before starting the restaurant, she worked at several refugee service organizations in Worcester, including the Refugee and Immigrant Assistance Center and Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service. She also opened the East African Community Outreach in the city, but it has since closed.

Working at the organizations, she sometimes helped prepare foods for events and received a lot of praise for her East African cuisine. It wasn't long before others, including her husband, encouraged her to open a restaurant.

The couple opened Fatima's Cafe in 2014, and Mohamed said she loves cooking now.

A mix of Kenyan and Somali food as well as influences from Indian food, Fatima's Cafe brings authentic homeland flavor — with some of their signatures dishes including Somali chicken sandwiches and ugali (a type of maize porridge) with sukuma (collard greens), a traditional Kenyan meal — to local East African immigrants and others.

The couple said they thank City Manager Edward M. Augustus Jr. and the city for caring about local small businesses, including providing financial support for them.

Love for the country

Mohamed's mother came to the U.S. before Mohamed. Mohamed recalled that her mother, who was a radio broadcaster in Saudi Arabia before moving to America, always used to say, "Don't worry. We'll move there someday."

Now Mohamed lives the dream, for her late mother and herself.

“One thing I like about the United States is the freedom of speech, and another thing is, no matter which nationality you came from, nobody would bother you on the street,” she said.

Mohamed's father, 86, lives in Kenya. She recently flew back to Kenya this summer, after postponing her annual visit there last year due to the pandemic. She is the only daughter in her family and has two younger brothers.

In 1982, Mohamed had also worked for the U.S. Agency for International Development in Somalia.

As a native of Kenya, Mohamed said Somali people could tell by her accent that she's not born in the area even though she spoke the language.

“They would say, ‘Oh, the lady from Kenya.’ I didn’t like that,” she said, adding that even when she was back in Kenya after working in Somali for a long time, people from her homeland would call her "that Somali lady."  

Mohamed was also not used to the culture in Saudi Arabia, where she was required to cover her face and show her ID nearly wherever she went.

Besides the freedom of speech in America, Mohamed said the passionate and friendly personalities of American people also fostered her love of the U.S. She also wanted to move to a place where people would not always treat her as a foreigner and judge her based on her color, appearance or accent, she said.

“I love this country. I’m not lying,” she said.


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