OAKLAND -- Walking along Eighth Avenue with a friend last week, Bu Reh noticed something he doesn't usually see in the Eastlake neighborhood: the circular letters of the Burmese script.
The words beckoned. They were on a sign, and the sign was on the side of an 85-year-old building at the corner of 8th and Foothill Boulevard. The message told him Burmese food could be found inside. It said the same thing in Nepali, Hindi, Tamil and Arabic. Reh walked inside, strolled through the aisles and smiled.
"It's a good place," said Reh, a 22-year-old Karenni refugee from Myanmar.
The Durga Food Market opened last week, adding to the hundreds of tiny groceries and convenience stores that line street corners throughout Oakland. But for the refugees who work at Durga, and live nearby, this one is not just a store but a haven, a comforting spot in a city that can feel alienating.
"We're starting it small but what we see is a lot of commonality among the Bhutanese, the Nepalis, the Burmese," said Ryan Nathan, a businessman who lent the capital to open the store. "It's a very monumental thing. This is the first grocery store opened by them, for them. And it's the first (in Oakland) to serve Nepali food, Sri Lankan food, Burmese food."
Half of the store sells food and the other half sells a range of cheap items. Owners have visions of adding a tea shop for elders to relax and a beauty shop for women to get their hair fixed up the way they did back home.
For now, the store sells prepackaged food that can be found at a typical Indian grocery. One aisle has more than seven varieties of dal and lentils. In the future, the store owners hope to expand into fresh produce and, sometime later, fresh meats. The store is also a place to get doma, or paan, a mild stimulant chewed throughout South Asia.
The cheery store strives for a diverse clientele. A statue of Ganesh, a portrait of Jesus and a photograph of Mecca adorn the main counter, not far from beauty shots of Bollywood superstar Aishwarya Rai. Garlands and holiday lights brighten the interior. A Hindu priest blessed the store on Nov. 8, the day it opened. The cashier, Bhutanese refugee Yukesh Gurung, likes to wear a Santa Claus hat when he works.
The clientele on a recent evening was multiracial, reflective of a changing neighborhood that at the last official count, a decade ago, was 40 percent Asian, 25 percent African-American and 23 percent Latino.
The neighborhood is changing rapidly, but it has, for decades, been a home for those fleeing conflict. Apartments once occupied by refugees fleeing Cambodia, Vietnam and Bosnia are now homes for those who escaped Bhutan, Myanmar and Sri Lanka.
The cashier, Gurung, arrived in Oakland from a refugee camp in Nepal last year, and still struggles to speak English. He previously worked at a Chipotle restaurant in San Francisco and was glad to find a job closer to where he lives. Getting around the Bay Area without a car has been tough, he said.
He was riding his bicycle on Coolidge Avenue about six months ago when two men pushed him off as he passed them. He crashed to the pavement and was transported to the hospital for a gash above his eye.
Such attacks are common, said Nathan, and one of the reasons that the store was opened. A Malaysian immigrant of Indian descent, Nathan said he faced similar discrimination when he arrived in the United States years ago.
"There's a lot of refugee-bashing by the local hoodlums," Nathan said. "A lot of them get robbed, beaten, pistol-whipped."
Nathan raised the idea of a store with refugees he had befriended. They chose the Foothill location for its convenience, he said. Many Bhutanese refugees travel long distances on public transit to visit Indian markets in San Leandro or Berkeley, and yearned for something closer.
Durga Food Mart still has a lot of growing to do. For one thing, a large welcome mat says "Dave's Smoke Shop and Newsstand."
"Somebody just gave it to us for the time being until we get a new one," said employee Sashi Subba, 29, a Bhutanese refugee who moved to Oakland last year.
Subba says she helps pick the food that gets stocked in the store. She points to one that can be used to make chiura, a flattened rice dish in Nepal. Subba likes the job, her first in the United States. Nathan and other backers of the store train her in accounting and other skills. She said it is a major adjustment from the nearly 17 years she spent in a refugee camp.
"It was not so bad (in the camps) because we had school, a proper education there, and social services," she said. "We were dependent at that time. Now, we're independent."
Working at the Durga market, she said, is a change she thinks she will enjoy.
"To challenge yourself is to live," she said. "I like that."