Fire at Somali shop intentional, marshals say: Days after apparent vandalism, community members call blaze that heavily damaged Juba Coffee House a hate crime
GRAND FORKS, N.D. -- Though investigators have "no idea" what motivated the deliberate torching of a Somali restaurant in Grand Forks, community members believe the fire was a hate crime, with the fire ignited days after a Nazi-like symbol was spray-painted on the restaurant.
The Grand Forks Fire Department was called to Juba Coffee House, 2017 S. Washington St., at about 2 a.m. Tuesday for a report of a fire, which left the building badly damaged.
Firefighters brought the blaze under control within 20 minutes, but not before it caused an estimated $90,000 worth of damages, Battalion Chief Rob Corbett said.
No one was injured in the fire.
Fire marshals determined the fire was ignited intentionally, and with that, the Grand Forks Police Department has taken the lead in investigating the fire, according to a news release.
The fire was the second incident reported at the business in the past several days.
The Grand Forks Police Department also is investigating apparent vandalism that occurred overnight Thursday when someone painted graffiti on the exterior wall of the building. The graffiti included what appears to be an "SS" in the style of a symbol from Nazi Germany above the painted words "go home."
Authorities have not determined whether the incidents are related.
"We have no idea (what motivated Tuesday's fire) and we won't know until the investigation is concluded," Grand Forks Police spokesman Lt. Derik Zimmel said. "We're certainly not going to put blinders on our investigation, and I would encourage the public to do the same."
While he expressed his sympathies to those affected by the fire in a statement Tuesday, Mayor Mike Brown also cautioned against speculating about what happened.
But community leaders were quick to respond to beliefs that the fire was racially or religiously motivated and reassured Muslims, immigrants and others they are welcome here.
"This is your home," said Robin David, president of the board of Global Friends Coalition, at a candlelight vigil held Tuesday evening outside Juba.
There is little question for some that the fire was racially or religiously motivated.
"It was vandalized last week," said Said Mohamed, who was at the vigil. "It's not coincidence."
At the least, out of the fire surfaced fears.
"As a Muslim and an African-American, this is the first time I feel scared," said Zakariye Ahmed, a UND student also at the vigil.
Fellow student Fuad Mohamoud echoed Ahmed, saying he worried about what may happen next.
"It could be the mosque," he said.
The restaurant was a meeting place for Somali youth. Mohamoud said it was tradition for him and his friends to eat a meal there on Fridays after prayer. Goat meat was a popular menu item, he said.
"There'd be three or four of us going at it," he said.
Now they'll have to learn how to cook for themselves, he joked, saying Juba was the only Somali restaurant in town.
The blaze occurred against the backdrop of Republican presidential candidate and frontrunner Donald Trump proposing to bar Muslims from entering the country, which political commentators say echoes of 1930s Nazi Germany and is contrary to American values and the constitutional right to religious freedom.
It was anti-Muslim comments by Trump and others that motivated former UND professor Colleen Berry, who now lives in Colorado, to set up a GoFundMe page in support of the business.
The fund was set up within hours of the fire being reported and surpassed its goal of $8,000 by 5 p.m. Tuesday. It had raised more than $9,000 by 8 p.m.
"I'm overwhelmed," she said. "It really makes me happy so many people we're willing to step up for this."
Berry said she would work with the Global Friends Coalition to get the money to the business owners.
Local reaction also was swift.
Several organizations and individuals immediately offered assistance once they heard about the fire, including Hope Church and North Dakotans for Diversity and Compassion.
Local artist Kathryn Fink organized a fundraising event featuring local art and music, which will be from 2 to 4 p.m. Saturday 311 DeMers Ave., Grand Forks. Fink and local artist Adam Kemp, who immigrated to North Dakota from England, will sell their art, with all donations going toward Juba Coffee House or Global Friends Coalition.
Global Friends Coalition, which supports refugee integration, also plans to hold a fundraising event, Executive Director Cynthia Shabb said.
"It just breaks my heart," she said.
Shabb said she spoke with the restaurant owner's wife, who she said seemed "shocked" by the destruction to their business.
The owners of the restaurant told the Herald early Tuesday they did not want to comment on the fire until they knew what happened.
While fire marshals and police detectives picked through debris and took photos of the scene Tuesday, residents and customers milled about behind the yellow tape cordoning off the building.
Among them was Wayne Torrey, who lives at the nearby Ambassador Motel and said he was incredulous of the destruction.
Torrey said he regularly walked past the restaurant on his way to the bus stop and would greet patrons and workers there.
One day, he was having a rough day when restaurant employees offered him a free meal, he said.
"If they've got that much heart, I don't even know why someone would do this" he said.
Christopher Bjorke and reporters Kevin Bonham and Jennifer Johnson contributed to this story.