PORTLAND — Buying a car and finding someone to do repairs can be stressful enough for native-born Americans. For immigrants who speak limited English and have no experience with cars, those tasks can seem impossible.

Two young Somali men say they will bridge that cultural divide by opening an auto dealership and repair shop aimed at serving African immigrants throughout Maine.

Salebaan Motors Inc. is set to open in two weeks at 235 St. John St., in a former brake and muffler shop that has been vacant for two years. The owners say it will be the first such business in Maine owned by African immigrants.

Mukhtar Geele and Ali Ali have invested their life savings in the venture and have raised money from relatives. They say immigrants, particularly the elderly, are being deceived by auto dealers and repair shops that sell them products and services they don’t need.

“I feel all of them are being ripped off. That’s why we started this business,” said Ali, 25, who graduated from the University of Southern Maine last year with a degree in business management.

“They don’t know the system like we do,” Geele said. “They don’t know much. We are going to change that.”

The business is named after Geele’s father, who died five years ago in Somalia. Geele said his father, who sold goats and shoes, is his role model because he did his best to provide for his family no matter how difficult life became.

Geele, 25, one of 11 children, was the only member of his family to emigrate to the Unites States. He said there was only enough money to send one of them, and his father chose him because he was the youngest of five sons. He arrived in Boston in 1999 and moved to Portland three years ago.

Geele, the principal owner of Salebaan Motors, has already established a business buying cars for Somalis. They tell him what kind of car they want, and he buys it for them from a dealer in Boston.

“Once you sell two good cars to somebody, everybody knows about it,” he said.

Geele said he plans to sell used cars at the shop, across St. John Street from the Union Station Plaza. He said he will sell sedans and vans, which are popular with Somalis because they typically have large families.

Islamic law prohibits Muslims from paying interest on debt, so Geele said he will let customers buy cars with interest-free monthly payments as long as they provide large down payments.

He also will offer cars for rent. Many immigrants haven’t established enough credit to have credit cards, so they can’t rent cars. Geele said customers will need only debit cards to rent from him.

Geele and Ali are starting the business with an investment of $90,000, including a $30,000 loan from Coastal Enterprises Inc., a nonprofit community development corporation.

Portland’s economic development division helped them navigate the permitting process and secure a $4,550 matching grant from the Downtown Portland Corp. to pay for public improvements, including building a brick sidewalk and removing a curb cut.

They have hired one full-time employee, Kerry Lynes, a master mechanic. Lynes said he enjoys working with Somalis because he finds they are straightforward and honest.

Some of the business owners and residents in the neighborhood have mixed views of the new business. While they hope it will improve the neighborhood, which has several other businesses that cater to immigrants, they worry that it could become an eyesore if it’s not properly managed.

“We are certainly open to changes,” said Alan Prosser, who owns the nearby Alan Auto Volvo Service and three apartment buildings in the neighborhood. “We are hoping that whoever’s in there runs a clean operation.”

Geele said he plans to be open for business Sept. 15. On Thursday, he and his partner were busy getting the shop ready.

Hawo Ali, 40, a Somali immigrant who stopped by, said she needs a mechanic to keep her 1995 Ford Windstar van operating.

She said he has gotten into heated arguments at auto repair shops over work that she didn’t think needed to be done. She said she doesn’t know whether the problem was due to a language barrier or she was cheated. She suspects the latter.

“I feel like I’m being taken advantage of,” Hawo Ali said, speaking through an interpreter.

She said she is excited about the new business because it will fill a huge need in the Somali community.

“In America,” she said, “you are crippled without a car.”

Staff Writer Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at:

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