Making It in the Bay

Tiburon Clothing Store Tries to Survive COVID-19, Racial Controversy

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Even after the death of George Floyd in police custody, the demonstrations over racial intolerance that sprang up across the nation, the countless stories of racial injustice inflicted on Black Americans -- Yema Khalif was shocked to see the police at the door of his Tiburon clothing store that late August night, demanding to know what he and his wife were doing there at 1 a.m. They were stocking clothes.

"We're just like in our own store minding our own business," Khalif recalled of the incident.

The video of the encounter, taken by a friend, showed police officers demanding to know why the couple was in the store so late, demanding he show proof it was his store.

In the video you can hear Khalif argue the only reason officers had shown up was because they saw Black people in the store. Khalif said they were in the store stocking shelves.

The incident lead to a Tiburon Police sergeant stepping down. Shortly after, the city's police chief announced his resignation. Supporters dropped off flowers at Khalif's store "Yema" as others called the store to direct anger at him.  

Suddenly the immigrant from Kenya who graduated with a Master's Degree from Dominican University found himself drawn into the thorny firestorm over racial profiling.

The police who showed up at his store said race was not a factor when they stopped to investigate why people were in the store late at night. Khalif has a different take. 

"It just means if you're a Black person and if you're a brown person," Khalif said, "you will get harassed anywhere or at any given point." 

Khalif's life started out far from the posh bay town of Tiburon. He was born and raised in the slums of Kibera in Kenya, scratching and clawing to make something of himself. His fortunes changed when he got a bit part in the film Lost in Africa which was filmed in the slums. The actress Connie Nielsen who starred in the film, sponsored him to come to the U.S. to live in her Tiburon home while he went to school. 

He opened Yema just 35 days before the COVID-19 pandemic shut it and everything else down. But coming from life in the slums, Khalif's instinct was to look for opportunity in challenges. 

He and his wife Hawi Awash, a childhood Ethiopian refugee, began raising funds to feed children back home in Kenya and Ethiopia. Even with the store closed, they donated 20% of their online sales to the effort, and launched a crowd-funding campaign to pay for the rest. 

They bought groceries and hired chefs to cook for children who were missing meals because the orphanages and boarding schools where they were normally fed closed because of the virus. 

"We were distributing about 800 meals a day," Awash said. "That’s a lot of people and that’s a lot of kids." 

When the demonstrations over Floyd's death sprung up across the nation, the couple found themselves joining the protesters emotional ranks. When protesters marched in front of Khalif's store in Tiburon, they joined the physical ranks as well. The outrage over Floyd's reached all the way to the Kibera slums where there was a march and a large mural of Floyd.

Although it seemed those kind of outrages people were marching for didn't reach the affluent streets of Tiburon, there were the police at his door that August night, demanding he prove he was the owner of his own store. 

The incident rubbed against the grain of Khalif's clothing designs which feature 16th century Ethiopian symbols and characters expressing love, good vibes and protection. Even the tagline for his brand reads "good, joyful, human." 

On a day last week, Khalif stood in his Yema store which has since re-opened for in-person shopping. Smoke from nearby wildfires hung like fog as he talked enthusiastically about his next designs -- hoping to put the now-well publicized incident with the police behind him. Despite the smoke, the future appearing in his vision seemed clear and framed with blue skies. 

"Going back where I grew up" he said, "it gives you that perspective."  

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