From the mountains of Tripoli to Steel City: How a Libyan made it in Pittsburgh

Humble North African roots inspire entrepreneur Abdullah Salem to expand supermarket chain and feed poorest residents of adopted home

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Abdullah Salem owes everything to his father.

A first-generation Arab American, he strides into the latest iteration of supermarket chain Salem’s Market and Grill, welcoming the shop’s early-morning customers before offering a helping hand in the butchery department, cutting meat for his regulars.

A team bustle about the aisles, monitoring items of stock with a hand-held barcode scanner to confirm all produce is halal. Anything that fails the test is collected in boxes and donated to local charitable causes.

“We are here to serve the community," Abdullah tells The National.

“That’s our job as a grocery store … when we were young and teachers taught us about community, there was police, firefighters and always a grocery store.”

The community Abdullah is referring to is Pittsburgh’s Hill District, a vibrant inner-city neighbourhood with a history rooted in jazz music, but one that has been “underserved” throughout recent decades.

The Hill District, which Abdullah proudly represents on his red hooded sweatshirt, was regarded as a food desert before Salem’s Market opened on Centre Avenue in March.

“We’re in an area where the median annual income is about $15,000 and 60 per cent of residents don’t have access to transportation," he says.

“We get freezing weather here. Imagine a mum with two or three kids having to get on a bus, or two buses, to get to a grocery store and carry those bags home. It’s heartbreaking.”

Abdullah’s drive to serve the community and empathy for those who are less fortunate can be attributed to his family’s humble roots.

His father, Massaud Salem, lived a tough life when he was young.

He grew up in the village of Alriyayna, in the mountains outside of Libya’s capital city Tripoli.

“He wrote on stone at school and there was no power, no electricity," he says.

“I saw where he slept, it was like a dug-into-the-ground cave with small holes in a clay wall.”

Massaud left the mountain village to go into Tripoli when he was about 16 to further his education.

But a run-in with the regime of the late Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi would change Massaud’s life forever.

“He was outspoken in Libya and he was put in prison for that," Abdullah says. “He was against the persecution of religious rights and didn’t feel like people were being treated justly.”

Massaud was able to escape the hardship he faced in Libya after his wife, Abdullah’s mother, received a scholarship from the University of Pittsburgh to pursue her PhD.

They quickly moved to the western Pennsylvania city, known for its many bridges and history of steelworks, and settled in the Oakland area.

But being in Pittsburgh in the 1970s, they found themselves part of a tiny immigrant community, unable to enjoy the home comforts and needs they took for granted in Libya.

One of the main challenges was food.

“My father could not find halal meat for himself to eat,” Abdullah says. “And as Muslims, if we cannot find halal we are supposed to eat kosher.”

Massaud sought out a kosher supermarket in the predominantly Jewish neighbourhood of Squirrel Hill and was invited by its owner to visit the slaughterhouse they use. They let Massaud slaughter a goat.

“Every so often he would do this and that was how he was able to have halal food for himself,” says Abdullah.

“But as it started to become burdensome to bring so many animals back, him and his friend decided to open a small meat store to serve the community while they were studying.”

As the business began to grow, Massaud would bring home leftover meat and cook curries with his wife, usually rice with lamb or chicken, then sell the packages for $3 or $4 to students at the university.

“By God’s grace, the kids really caught on to it … and that’s how the concept was born,” Abdullah says.

Those humble beginnings have spurred on a burgeoning business empire.

With Abdullah at the helm today, his family own several businesses aside from the new Hill District store. They include a second location of Salem’s Market and Grill in the city’s Strip District and a real estate company which owns the properties.

Massaud, now 78, is taking a well-earned break from work but still lives in the US.

“After the revolution, he did build a home for himself in Libya,” says Abdullah. “But Pittsburgh is Pittsburgh.”

Life has not always been easy. Abdullah says he and his family have suffered racial discrimination over the years.

“As an immigrant growing up in America, it’s extremely challenging,” Abdullah says. “Especially in the early '80s and '90s … no-one knew what I was, it was hard to explain to people that I’m Arab.”

“My sisters were one of the first hijab girls in Pittsburgh public schools … we were called terrorists.”

But there are fond memories woven into Abdullah’s immigrant experience, too.

He recounts stories of nationals from around the world sharing food at his home while growing up.

“We would always have a Nigerian person, a Ghanaian person, a Turkish person at our house for dinner every other night," he says.

“A lot of people’s first experience here is coming to Salem’s and we ended up being this connection point for all immigrants.”

Today, Abdullah is fiercely proud of Pittsburgh and its residents. He eagerly tells of how the city's public school system gives all students the Eid holiday off, a far cry from the days in which his late mother fought with the city's board of education for alternative lunches.

“Back then, they only had pepperoni pizza for lunch," he says.

And he has vowed to continue serving Pittsburgh through food.

“I think what we're doing is special, as we become more and more diverse, I think a store like this is needed.”

Abdullah has been recognised for his contributions.

Upon moving his business into the Hill District, a much-needed boost for the area, the city of Pittsburgh declared July 17 to be Abdullah Salem Day.

“I have no explanation for it," Abdullah says about the award. “I thought maybe they made a mistake.”

And in the same humble manner which laid the foundations of his life’s work, he refuses to pat himself on the back.

“I don’t need to be celebrated in any way for doing my Islamic duty … my reward will be from God,” he says.

Salem's Market and Grill – in pictures

Updated: May 17, 2024, 6:00 PM