Support grows for Somali restaurant hit by suspicious fire

Supporters rally in Grand Forks, N.D.
Natasha Thomas leads dozens of supporters in a song Tuesday evening down the street from Grand Forks' Juba Coffee House. The popular Somali establishment was damaged in a 'suspicious' fire early Monday.
Courtesy of Jesse Trelstad | Grand Forks Herald

Updated 5:05 p.m. | Posted 6:40 a.m.

Residents of Grand Forks, N.D., are showing their support for a Somali restaurant that was heavily damaged by what authorities have called a suspicious fire.

The city's mayor issued a statement of support, a crowdfunding effort has raised about $12,000 and dozens of people of different faiths showed up for a candlelight ceremony outside the Juba Coffee House on Tuesday night.

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"It just shows that we are together as a community," Saaid Mohamed, one of those who attended, told WDAZ-TV.

The business suffered an estimated $90,000 in damage in the early Tuesday fire that the Fire Department called "incendiary and suspicious in nature." It happened just three days after vandals spray-painted an offensive symbol on the business along with the words "go home," though it's not yet known if the two incidents are connected.

Juba Coffee House
Firefighters were able to bring a fire at the Juba Coffee House under control within 20 minutes, but not before it caused an estimated $90,000 in damages, the Grand Forks Herald reported.
Courtesy of Lori Weber Menke | Grand Forks Herald

Police released a poor quality video, which appears to show someone breaking a window at the front of the business, and asked the public to help identify a suspect.

The Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations released a statement Wednesday calling on the FBI to investigate the fire and recent vandalism as hate crimes.

Police Lt. Derik Zimmel said it would be difficult to determine that the fire was a hate crime before authorities have a suspect.

"To attribute the hate-crime moniker to it brings with it an assumption of knowledge of motive of the crime," he said. "And I don't think we can establish motive without establishing a suspect. So to jump to that conclusion, I think, is putting the cart before the horse."

Last March, a racial slur targeting the city's Somali community was found on a different building. The anti-Somali graffiti might be due to the fact that the Somali population has been growing, and "our presence became a little bit more noticeable," said Nabil Suleiman, a University of North Dakota professor and president of the Grand Forks Islamic Center.

The Somali community is an easy target, Ifrah Esse said.

"When people say horrible things about black people, that's part of the Somali community. When they say hateful things about Muslim people, we're in there. When they hate refugees and they don't want immigrants, we're also that," Esse said. "We're literally a combination of every category in which people choose to hate."

Mayor Michael Brown issued a statement encouraging residents to support the Somali community.

"As a community, we come to the aid of friends and neighbors who are hurting and we rally around them," he said. "It is part of who we are and we will do it again."

MPR News reporter Dan Gunderson contributed to this report.