Friday, July 4, 2014 | 2 a.m.
The American flag is an important fixture at Green Cleaners & Alteration Center.
There’s a full-sized flag that dominates the right wall of the dry cleaners, a sign of how proud owner Mahamed Youssouf, originally from Ethiopia, is to be in this country. There are customers’ flags that Youssouf cleans year-round for free. And lately, there are hundreds of smaller flags behind the front counter.
Since Flag Day last month, Youssouf has distributed a free flag to any customer who will take one. So far, he has given away more than 300. He bought 500 and will keep handing them out until they're gone.
Youssouf smiles when he speaks about the American flag. It’s an important symbol to him — and for good reason.
“I value the freedom,” he said. “When you have it, you appreciate it.”
When Youssouf left Ethiopia more than 30 years ago, the country was in turmoil.
As a student, Youssouf actively resisted military rule, demanding free elections. He and other dissidents became political targets. Youssouf was jailed and tortured for a few weeks, until a guard allowed him to escape, he said. He and others walked 300 miles to a refugee camp in a French colony.
“If I stayed (in Ethiopia), I’d get killed for sure,” he said. “The only choice I had was to get out of there.”
Youssouf made his way to New York City in 1980, after the United States agreed to take in Ethiopian refugees. He stayed with a cousin in Los Angeles but in 1985 moved to Las Vegas, a place he felt was brimming with opportunity. He worked as a tailor, a trade both his father and grandfather were trained in, and eventually bought his own business.
Jan Waters said Youssouf's skill with alterations made her a customer.
“Plus, he has just got a huge heart,” Waters said. “He is so proud of his country. We should all be so proud and express our pride like he does.”
Youssouf has thrived in the valley and is an active member of his community. Green Cleaners’ walls are decorated with thank-you plaques from a local softball team the business sponsors.
Happily settled with his wife and two children, Youssouf now has lived in Las Vegas longer than anywhere else.
“This is my hometown,” he said. “I’m very proud to say that.”