This unassuming two-story tan brick building on the bustling thoroughfare of Cedar Avenue reflects a major shift in immigration in Cedar-Riverside-from Scandinavians and Europeans to East Africans. In 1998, Somalis opened their first mosque in Minnesota here, calling it the Riverside Islamic Center.
Initially this building housed a steam laundry, and then a small knitting factory owned by Scandinavian immigrant, Christian Nelson. The factory produced wool sweaters, underwear, cardigan jackets and hosiery. It remained in operation until the 1960s. The Guild of Performing Arts School and Theater rented the space for almost a decade before it was left vacant in the 1980s. By the 1990s, multiple groups, including a police precinct safety center, Bedlam Theater, and the West Bank Karate Club, had converted the space to their needs.
Large numbers of Somalis began arriving in Minnesota in the early 1990s, fleeing civil war in their homeland. At first they joined mosques that had been operated by other Muslim communities, mainly from South Asia or the Middle East. These mosques helped Somalis transition to new lives in Minnesota by providing religious space and community support. By 1998, Cedar-Riverside had become home to one of the largest concentrations of Somalis in Minnesota, and many Somalis felt they wanted a mosque tailored to their specific language and cultural needs. They also wanted their mosque to be close to Riverside Plaza so it would be accessible to elders and youth.
The new Riverside Islamic Center converted its first floor room to a prayer room for men (replacing the police center); a prayer room for women was established next door (next to Bedlam Theater). The second floor became offices, classrooms and community meeting spaces. In 2000 it became the Dar Al-Hijrah ("Home of Migration") Cultural Center in reference to "the experience of leaving your homeland to settle in another land that embraces you." In 2006, Somali community members raised $400,000 over five months to purchase the building outright from local land developer, Vicki Heller. At the same time, the name was changed to Dar Al-Hijrah Islamic Civic Center, and in 2013 the name changed again to the Islamic Civic Society of America, which includes Dar Al-Hijrah Mosque.
These changes reflect a unique commitment by Somali leaders to provide civic education along with religious guidance in their community. They went from seeing themselves as immigrants and refugees to seeing themselves as American citizens and their mosque as an American institution. Part of their process of integration into American society included understanding their Islamic faith as compatible with U.S. democracy.
On January 1, 2014, a devastating, multi-building fire almost destroyed Dar Al-Hijrah and it was closed for more than a year. After extensive renovation to the interior spaces, the mosque reopened in the spring of 2015 with a new entrance on Cedar Avenue. However, the more popular entrance remains around the back of the building.
There are now more than 30 mosques in the Twin Cities and approximately half of them have been founded by Somalis. In Cedar-Riverside, Dar Al-Hijrah is one of three mosques, and has become part of a long history of religious organizations founded by newcomers to the neighborhood.