SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) — Men of color are trusting their heads with a barber who sees the world their way.
He is Chani Liben, 30, an immigrant from Africa who brought his scissors with him to Sioux Falls. He once prayed to God that he could make just enough money cutting hair to cover the rent at his eastside barber shop.
“For one or two years it was very hard to get a customer,” he told the Argus Leader reported ( .)
Now he’s busy enough that his shop has become a focal point in the specialized field of ethnic haircuts.
Liben calls his business A Multicultural Barber Shop. It’s a storefront in a mall at 208 S. Wayland Ave., a mile east of downtown.
“This is the only place I come for a haircut,” said Berekat Haile, 37, who sees Liben once a month.
It’s a bit of an effort for Haile. He works as an oil field technician in Tioga, N.D., a 10-hour drive from Sioux Falls.
Samantha Hooker’s drive was across town when she brought in her son Jayden, 4, on a recent weekday.
“Somebody told me about you guys,” she told Liben. “I went to another barber shop and they said, ‘I can’t cut his hair because it’s curly.’ “
Liben and his wife, Sifrashi, have four children from age 1 to 9. He left Ethiopia as a political refugee and moved first to Nairobi, Kenya, then Minneapolis in 2006 and Sioux Falls a year later. He opened his current shop in 2011.
“I came to this country to find a better way, to change my life,” he said.
He would do that by cutting hair. He received training at barber school in Nairobi and, once in South Dakota, went to Pierre to pass a state exam for his operating license.
His workplace is to the rear of a pawn shop that shares the same building at 10th and Wayland. Inside his door is a waiting area that serves a motley collection of businesses in nearby rooms. One door leads to Diva’s, a hair products shop. Another door leads to a desk where Jacques Derrick Eviglo offers a buffet of services — income tax, fax, cell phone pricing, travel agency work and “a taxi service when I’m not busy.”
Eviglo, 33, from Togo, West Africa, is a former 800-meter runner who now is one of Liben’s best customers.
Inside a third door is Liben’s barber chair. He is a slender, neatly trimmed stylist who dresses in black and goes about his work with few words.
He doesn’t consider himself having any sort of monopoly on ethnic haircuts. He only knows that he sees enough traffic for him to be open every day. He had 15 customers last Friday and gave his final cut at 8:30 p.m. On Saturdays, he works all day until 9 p.m. He said he does take a day off every week. By that he means Sunday, when he worships at Faith Lutheran Church, eats lunch with his family and then works a short day from 2 to 8 p.m. He does that in order to be open when others have Sunday off and may be stopping in for a trim.
“I cut hair for others. God gave me this opportunity,” he said.
The ethnic haircut is a small but growing fraction of the local market in cosmetology. Sioux Falls was 1.8 percent black and African-American in the 2000 census but that more than doubled to 4.2 percent in 2010. The actual number of residents in that racial category almost tripled during the same decade. It went from 2,226 to 6,494, and 56 percent of the new total — or 3,664 — are boys and men, the group Liben aims to serve.
Caitlin Hoogland, curriculum coordinator at Stewart School of Hairstyling, which has about 100 students, said Stewart does not have specific training on ethnic hair but integrates the subject throughout its instruction. Students learn of different textures and tensions in hair and learn how to deal with those differences, such as how to relax hair before cutting it. The skills don’t concern one race or another but stress the individuality of each customer.
“Every head is different,” Hoogland said.
Those factors create an opening for barbers in ethnic cuts, said Comfort Schilling, a black American from Sudan who is a partner of Liben’s and manages the Diva’s hair products shop. Barbers and customers of a different racial heritage often face a gap in trust and understanding, she said.
“It’s a special skill because you guys don’t know how to cut our hair. No offense. People trust each other more. Like, for instance, you would rather go to a white barber than you would go to a black, just because you think they do relate to you more,” Schilling said. “We do get white customers also, but the majority of our customers, they have nowhere else to go.”
Robert Brooks, 25, who moved here from Louisiana, turned his head to show a design cut into the back, the logo of the New Orleans Saints etched into his hair just above his neckline. Such a pattern in a cut is a cultural statement for him, but he hasn’t seen another since coming north.
“I’m the only person I’ve seen so far with a haircut like this,” he said. “I mean, if I can find another person with a haircut with just one design in it, I’d be happy, and I won’t feel like I’m alone.”