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Tukwila needed a new police station, so these businesses must find a new home

Meet Ali Jama. He owns a jewelry store with a clever name: Haveniceday Jewelry.

“A simple name that everybody can remember and say it without having any difficulties," he said.

Jama built his jewelry store up from nothing over 16 years. He has metal bars over the window, and you have to press a buzzer before he'll open the door. So, he's prepared. Kind of.

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“I did not expect someone to come to me and destroy everything that I’m trying to build for so long,” he said.

He's referring to the city of Tukwila, which intends to build a police station on this property.

The new Tukwila Public Safety building is one of three major development projects that are displacing 50 refugee businesses in this neighborhood.

In small spaces by the strip club, in windowless hallways carved out of the back rooms of restaurants, refugee merchants sell everything from food to headscarves to tax preparation services.

Each tells a different version of the same story. They don't know where to go. This came as a surprise. They don't know where they'll find another space like this one.

Some of those merchants turned to the Abu Bakr Islamic Center mosque for help.

I met with mosque official Ahmed Hussein at the school that’s connected to the mosque — where 130 kids are jammed into part of an old casino. Today, they're learning about the coordinate system, plagiarism and the Holy Quran.

Across the street from the mosque is an old motel — the Knight’s Inn. Hussein used to think it was a bad place, full of crime and prostitution.

“When did you start to think about that hotel differently?” I asked him.

“The second we heard that the owner was putting the place for sale," he said. "It clicked right away in our minds, to say, 'You know what? This is what we need.'"

They could turn the front of the motel into a kind of mall for displaced refugee-owned businesses. They could turn the two-story space in back into affordable apartments. The only obstacle was money.

“This is a religious center," said Hussein. "We don’t have millions of dollars lying around. So, this is where partnering with Forterra comes in.”

Forterra is a land trust. It was started to protect forests, farms and wetlands from development. But lately, the trust has been preserving communities of minority business owners.

Michelle Connor, President of Forterra put it this way: “Whether you’re talking about an old growth tree, or a small business owner, we all need a place to thrive.”

Forterra put up the $4.25 million for the motel property. Over time, Abu Bakr will pay the money back.

The city of Tukwila helped facilitate the deal. But at the same time, the city is proceeding with plans to build a police station on the land where the businesses operate. It’s part of the city’s decades-long plan to bring new life to Highway 99.

I sat in on a tense meeting between city administrator David Cline and a group of refugee business owners who marched on city hall.

“In the end, the community has chosen, for this site to be the public safety ...," Cline began, before interupting himself. "I know that’s hard to hear. But we’re giving you time. And I’m trying to give you as much time as you can have.”

That disagreement remains unresolved.

You might think the motel project makes up for the displacement. Ali Jama said that project is fine, but it will only save a few businesses. He said it shouldn’t let the city of Tukwila off the hook.

“They looking for an exit," he said. "But I think it’s the wrong exit. They cannot run away from their responsibility towards us."

When I was spending time with Ahmed Hussein for this story, I saw a Somali business woman chew him out in a parking lot. In the car afterward, he told me he gets that sometimes.

“It’s understandable frustration," he said.

“Do people want you to solve the whole problem?” I asked.

“Yes. Absolutely," he said. "And if it was feasible to do that, that would be good. It’s fortunate that Forterra was able to step in. But not everyone’s needs will be met with this project. Maybe in a future project. Who knows? But for now, we’re doing what we can.”

The partnership between the mosque and the land trust helps. But it can’t counterbalance the larger development patterns pushing people out.

Correction: Since the reporting for this story began, Michelle Connor's title at Forterra changed from executive VP to president.

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