Before Abed Ellafdi emigrated from Rabat, Morocco, to Northern Virginia six years ago, a friend gave him a tip: When you get to America, go to the Starbucks at Skyline.
From afar, there is nothing remarkable about this Starbucks in a Falls Church strip mall a couple of miles west of Interstate 395. Situated between an Einstein Bros. Bagels and an Office Depot in an area known as Skyline, it faces a vast parking lot, beyond which is another strip mall, that soulless landmark of American commercial culture.
But come closer and enter a world where Moroccans talk soccer scores, Egyptians discuss revolution and Somalis argue over politics, all in a coffee chain store that has become an unlikely hangout for immigrants seeking the flavor of home.
After long days working as cab drivers, construction workers, scientists and business owners, they fill the outdoor seats each evening, mimicking old world cafes where men unwind and catch up over backgammon, hookahs and endless cups of coffee.
“It’s really part of our culture, to come to the café and talk about the events that happen,” said Ellafdi, an energetic 31-year-old who works in construction and lives in Alexandria. “As Muslims we don’t drink, we don’t go to the bar and hang out; we do this.”
A burly man with close-cropped salt-and-pepper hair walked up Thursday evening and waved. “Salaam Alaikum,” he said.
“Alaikum Salaam,” answered seven or eight guys sitting out front in metal chairs pulled around one table.
A younger man rose and offered his seat. He remained standing as he and his friends talked with gesticulating hands in a Moroccan blend of Arabic, French and Spanish and other languages. They passed around a Blackberry playing a trailer of a new reality TV show taking place in the deserts, beaches and mountains of their homeland.
“It’s going to be Americans competing over there,” said Moe Mouad, 29, a Fairfax salesman. He laughed as the trailer showed a tribal leader declaring that he wouldn’t want any of the American female participants as his wives.
“We’re all going to watch it.”
It’s a largely male scene, and the men have been gathering here since 1997, a year after the Starbucks opened. A handful of Moroccans, Somalis, and other African and Middle Eastern immigrants who lived or worked in the neighborhood began to trickle in. They told friends to meet them there, and their friends told more friends, who began coming each day to linger over coffee and cigarettes.
“It’s strategic. It’s close to our houses, close to our jobs, so a lot of people just show up,” said Mouad, whose drink of choice is a doppio macchiato. “It’s not about the coffee,” he added. “It’s about the people.”
That is what first drew Ahmed Abdullahi, 55, a cab driver from Somalia, in the late 1990s. “I had one friend from back home. He said, ‘Come, I’m taking you to introduce you to the community.’ ”
Now, Abdullahi lives across the street and comes sometimes two or three times a day. He sips coffee with other Somalis, and they chew on the problems of their homeland — the pirate problem, the fundamentalism problem. “Sometimes we talk loud. When we talk about politics, we get heated,” he said, grinning sheepishly. “When native Americans see people talking loudly in a language they don’t understand, they get scared.”
But most customers take it in stride, either ignoring the chattering in Somali, Arabic and Amharic, or smiling at finding such diversity in the most unexpected of places.
“You would think all these strip malls are just the same all over Washington, D.C., but this one is a real community,” said June Huang, a Fairfax mother who takes her daughter to a nearby dance school each day and stops in for coffee. “It’s kind of neat. I wish the one in my neighborhood were like that.”
Occasionally, American-born patrons will join in the conversations, including students of Arabic who have heard about this spot and want to practice their conversation skills. An elderly American man walks by some mornings, taking pictures of the immigrants with his cell phone; they are not sure why.
For the most part, they have not encountered problems here, which is one reason the scene has expanded.
“I used to hang out in the Starbucks in Pentagon City,” said Mustafa Mohamadia, a Moroccan. But that changed after the Sept. 11 terrorists attacks when a man began coming to the cafe daily, cursing about Muslims, “waiting for us to react,” Mohamadia said.
Like the patrons of Rick’s Café, the expat mecca in the film Casablanca, the Skyline Starbucks crowd tends to sit at tables defined by home region or native language. But last year, they rallied together when their hangout was threatened. A new manager told them she didn’t like them there, called the police several times to complain that they were loitering and removed the outdoor chairs so vital to their ritual, the men recalled.
“She’d never been around a community like you see here,” said Rashid ElGataa, an Arlington truck driver from Morocco. “She wanted people to pick up their coffee and leave.”
The regulars collected almost 300 signatures and wrote to corporate headquarters, and five of them — two Somalis and three Moroccans — met with Starbucks officials. A different manager is now in charge.
Stacey Krum, a Starbucks spokeswoman, said she could not comment on whether the old manager was replaced because of the complaints. But “there was definitely misunderstanding and miscommunication,” she said.
“We landed in a good place,” she added. “That store represents so many of our stores, a place where the community can come together.”
From the immigrants’ perspective, the long hours they spend there are good for business. “Myself, I spend almost $400 a month,” said Abdullahi. “I get three grande lattes a day. There are people who spend more than that.”
Krum did not provide numbers but said the company is “certainly pleased with the performance of the store.”
Jesse Foster, the new manager, whom Ellafdi and his friends call “blessed,” said he has visited many Starbucks branches but can’t recall one like this. “My feeling is that it is kind of special.”
Here, Eritreans and Ethiopians — whose countries were ravaged during a 30-year conflict — sit together, talking about work and college days.
“The war is over now. We don’t have to talk about it,” said Solomon Yared, an Ethiopian computer scientist who lives in Alexandria. He sat recently with an Eritrean soil scientist who walks to the Starbucks regularly from his home in Arlington.
The café is near two mosques, and many of the men have the call to prayer programmed into their cell phones, though some ignore it. When Ellafdi hears it he either goes to one of the mosques or slips around the corner to a cleaner part of the shopping center to pray on the ground. “I’m not going to pray here because there’s a lot of cigarettes here,” he said, pointing at the butts on the pavement.
Sometimes the men come with children in tow. But they don’t know whether their children will keep up the tradition as they grow older.
“We are the first Somali generation,” Abdullahi said. “Probably our kids, they won’t do this — they’ll be more integrated into society.”
Some of the men are there at 5:30 am when the Starbucks opens; some continue to sit out front even after the store closes at 10 pm. If someone doesn’t show up for a few days, the others will call to check up on him. If someone is out of work or new to America, they offer advice, and more. A few years ago, they dug into their own pockets and reached out to others on the Internet, raising $75,000 for the widow of a friend who had lived across the street and died of cancer.
“We help each other for free,” said Ebi Najdi, 45, one of the scene’s founding fathers, who started coming in 1997. “Because when they give people green cards, they don’t teach people how they are going to get jobs, how they’re going to get licenses, how they are going to get Social Security numbers, which school is cheaper to learn English, how you are going to buy a car.”
Some of the baristas are also immigrants. Musa Kamara, 22, moved from Freetown, Sierra Leone, eight years ago. “You know, most places in Africa, it’s like this,” he said. “There’s not too much work there, so they hang out all the time.”
To Mohammed Abdelilah, president of the Moroccan American Community Organization, the scene represents a stepping stone in the transition to American life. “In New York, years ago, the Italians would sit with their coffee and cheesecake and cannoli and sit with their neighbors, and I think that’s what neighborhood is all about.”