On a cursory glance, The Three One Cafe could pass as a greasy spoon on any main street in small town America. The walls are a shabby pastel yellow, the booths linoleum, and the tableware is all plastic. A TV tuned to "Cops" plays in the background, and a sign that says "Mom's Diner" hangs beneath the cash register. But the Three One Cafe in Lewiston is not a middle-American diner: it is the town's only Somali restaurant, a cultural oasis where some of the area's 3,000 Somali immigrants can congregate and see their countrymen over the food that reminds them of home.
On a recent Wednesday evening at the Three One, owner Mahamed Mahamud, a slight, soft-spoken man whose most noticeable feature is a red goatee, was apologetic when he greeted us, his last two customers of the day. "I have no food left, but I will see what I can make you," he said. Apart from one other man sitting at a nearby booth, the Three One was empty. The "Cops" theme song hummed softly. "Bad boys, bad boys, watcha gonna do when they come for you?" Mahamed emerged shortly after with a single large dinner plate, atop of which sat a mélange of beef, chicken and goat, spaghetti, and rice with fresh and sautéed vegetables—enough food for four despite his initial modesty.
On painted wooden paddles hanging the wall, Mahamed had handwritten personal mantras and reminders, many in Somali, that sounded like the notes of a homesick traveler. "Let by gones be by gone," said one. "No man can know where he is going unless he knows exactly where he has been," said another.
Mahamed, however, is not a traveler so much as he is a refugee, having fled Somalia in 1999 to escape political violence. He opened the Three One in 2008, nine years after he left Somalia, a country that has been wracked by civil war and famine since 1991 and still has no functioning central government. Here in the states, he joined a growing wave of Somali immigrants who have chosen Lewiston as the place to build new lives and raise their children as Americans. The Three One restaurant is Mahamed's stake in America, at least until the end of March, when Mahamed says he will close due to residency and visa issues.
Mahamed wears a perpetual smile, but his disappointment at such an anticlimatic end is clear. Lewiston's Somali community is still so young, and Mahamed fears that he may now be unable to pass on to his children the opportunity that America gave him. "This country is a bowl," he said. "Everybody is coming, he throw in something. You know who's going to take it? Our children. Every generation that is coming putting in something, taking something out. When I come, I'm eating what some people already put in that bowl."
Now we were eating out of Mahamed's bowl, which today was leftovers, but on another day might have been a pastiche of Indian sambusa and curry, or east African chicken suqaar, or spaghetti with a thin tomato sauce, liver and onions, and egg sandwiches. The variety stands as a testament to Somalia's long history of foreign occupation and to its central location, jutting out on the Horn of Africa toward the Middle East and India. In keeping with Somalia's Muslim heritage, no pork or alcohol were to be found. Even the flatbread that we scooped our food with fell somewhere on a spectrum between spongy Ethiopian injera and charred Indian roti. In other words, it fell in Somalia.
Mahamed's younger brother Sham was at Bowdoin last weekend to see The Dean's List perform. Sham speaks English fluently and is attending Central Maine Community College in Auburn, and plans to stay in Lewiston at least until his studies are finished.
For Mahamed, though, the future is uncertain, and he doesn't know where he'll go after he closes the restaurant. "Wherever you go, you can create a life," he said reassuringly. On the wall "God Bless Lewiston" was written in Italian, Chechnen, German and Azerbaijani, a dedication to Mahamed's adopted, multicultural city and his patrons from around the world. Now that he is leaving, he will have to find a new residence, but he will not return home.
"I used to live my whole life in war. There's no one believe me on earth about my life. No one believe me. Some things are not possible to say. I don't want to go back. I want to go forward." As if searching for a distraction, Mahamed paused and looked at the back room where his brother Sham was cleaning up. "My journey? I am not complaining... I don't have that power right now to speak. But maybe one day I'm going to tell all these things."
Editors' Note: An earlier version of this article misspelled the restaurant owner's name as Mahamad Mahmoud. His name is in fact Mahamed Mahamud. The Orient regrets the error.