For years, Tukwila’s stretch of highway 99 was known for its crime: drug sales, prostitution, burglaries and violence. Then one morning in 2013, hundreds of police officers raided the old motels where most of those crimes were happening.
Mohammed Jama ran a small shop next to the motels. He’s part of the large Somali and refugee community centered around the Abu Bakr mosque in Tukwila.
He told us the raid changed his life.
The following interview was lightly edited for length and clarity.
KUOW: Tell us about the raid.
JAMA: It was something you only see on the movies. I’ve never seen anything like that live — happening. It was just surreal.
KUOW: When you learned the extent of what was happening in the hotels, what did you feel?
JAMA: We used to hear gunshots in those places. We used to hear people fighting. We used to hear sirens, somebody overdosing. We used to hear all that stuff. But as a newcomer and someone who was just trying to make it, I wasn’t wise enough to see my surroundings at the beginning. I was just seeing that shop — let me open this shop, let me make a business here. I wasn’t even paying attention to what is going on next door or the hotel behind it, or anything like that. I was just focusing on my business and how to make my life better.
KUOW: How was crime hurting your friends and other business owners in Tukwila?
JAMA: Before, there were a lot of people who never wanted to be around the area. Because there was prostitution, drugs and that stuff. If you have a young kid or something, you don’t want them to see that kind of image.
Learn more about the giant motel raid that reshaped Tukwila's future.
KUOW: The motel raid was about five years ago now. Did it work?
JAMA: We're glad it happened, because it cleaned the area. Tremendously. You can't even imagine what it was before and what it is now. Those activities are way, way, way less — or non-existent — now.
KUOW: How did the motel raid change your thinking about where you fit into Tukwila?
JAMA: I realized that you cannot be in the place that you want to make a living and ignore what’s going on in its surroundings. I realized that you have to make it better, the whole — either the city or the community or the state — you have to make it better to live in.
KUOW: We met here in the lobby of this old motel to talk about a project you’re working on. The Abu Bakr Mosque wants to take this motel and turn it into affordable housing and affordable retail space for the community. Why’d you get involved with that?
JAMA: Honestly, there was a time when every community was newcomers or refugees or something in this country. Like New York and Italians. And they all make a landmark. We’re trying to make our landmark in Tukwila. We want to be part of this city. We want to be part of this state. We want to be part of the American culture.
Learn more about the Abu Bakr mosque's dream for the Knight's Inn Motel this week on KUOW. Follow all our stories from the former highway 99 in Tukwila on our series page: Along the Mother Road.
Contact reporter Joshua McNichols at email@example.com. After our Tukwila coverage, Joshua will spend some time reporting on communities around new and future light rail stations. He'd love to hear your personal stories on that topic.