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Marshals say fire at Somali shop intentional

Juba Coffee House, a popular Somali restaurant in Grand Forks, North Dakota, was heavily damaged by a fire Tuesday. (Lori Weber Menke | FORUM NEWS SERVICE)

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 University of North Dakota 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.

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.