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Kansas City Grocery Store Provides A Piece Of Home To Middle Eastern Community

As the crisis in Syria and the Middle East persists, local grocer Ahmad Alhabashi works to make his store a place where the local Arab community can feel closer to home, despite being thousands of miles away.

Upon entering the Al-Habashi Mart in the River Market in Kansas City, Mo., guests are greeted with Arabic music playing over the radio, sharp smells of curry and cayenne waft through the air as they weave through rows and rows of the vibrant spices. Brightly colored products line the walls, many of the labels in Arabic.

Alhabashi is from Jordan. His family opened the store 24 years ago after moving to the United States in 1980.

He says he gets a wide variety of Middle Eastern customers from Syria, Iraq, Egypt and Somalia. He speaks to many of them in in their native Arabic language.

The United States and its Arab allies continue to lead opposition against the self-styled Islamic State of Iraq, referred to as ISIL or ISIS. Alhabashi says he goes to a lot of effort to make his store a place where his guests can feel closer to home, especially during a time when conflicts in their home countries are putting loved ones at risk.

“I play music my customers can relate to, they see products they haven’t seen in ages probably, right here in Kansas City," he says. "We talk about things here and there, they feel at home again, which is nice. You know, they have a hard time these days, with what’s going on (in the Middle East) but they relate here, they can talk and they don’t feel like if they say something they’ll get in trouble. It’s the least we can do here.”

As United States-led air strikes in Syriacontinue, Alhabashi worries about his own family in the region.

“I have an aunt who lives in Syria, she lost two kids, she lost a grandson," he says. "Every once in a while we are able to get hold of her, but she keeps moving from one part to another, so it’s really stressful.”

And with his sister in Jordan, just 15 minutes from the Syrian border, he fears the threat of ISIS moving even closer to his family.

“We pray for peace every day, but that’s all we can do for now,” he says.

As he walked into the store on Tuesday, Alhabashi greeted customer TareqAlbasri with a warm handshake and hug. Albasri is Iraqi and buys his bread at Al-Habashi Mart every week. The store gives him a chance to make a new friend in Alhabashi, which wouldn't have been possible in his home country.

“I really didn’t see people from other regions, even Iraq, growing up. Not until I moved to the United States,” Alhabashi says.

In the United States, Alhabashi doesn’t think about the political and religious divisions that exist between countries.  He just hopes to provide a space where people can share and feel a little less detached from their homes.

On Monday, Alhabashi’s experience watching news about his home country will air at 10 a.m. on Central Standard, along with stories of how other international communities in the Kansas City area are reacting to crises far away.

Slow news days are a thing of the past. As KCUR’s news director, I want to cut through the noise, provide context to the headlines, and give you news you can use in your daily life – information that will empower you to make informed decisions about your neighborhood, your city and the region. Email me at lisa@kcur.org or follow me on Twitter @larodrig.
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