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‘We can rebuild’ : Somali restaurant fire triggers FBI probe; owners say they will come back stronger

A possible arson attack reported Tuesday at a Somali restaurant in Grand Forks has triggered an FBI investigation, but the business’ owners are determined to rebuild.

Ilhaam Hassam, one of the owners of the family-owned Juba Coffee House and Restaurant, said Thursday she was “in shock” the morning she and her husband, Abdulaziz Moallin, heard of the damage inflicted in their business.

But, she said, the business is made of material things, and most importantly, no one was hurt in the fire.

“As long as you’re alive and healthy, we can rebuild the restaurant,” she said.

The restaurant on South Washington Street was damaged in a fire police say was deliberately ignited around 2 a.m. Tuesday inside the business. The blaze occurred days after the words “go home” and “SS” in the style of a Nazi symbol were spray-painted on the restaurant’s front windows.

An 11-second video released by police shows a suspect smashing in the restaurant’s front windows moments before the fire began.

Police are still investigating the attack, and the FBI opened a probe into the fire to determine whether any federal laws were broken, FBI spokesman Kyle Loven confirmed Thursday.

Hassam said the fire was a major blow to the business.

“We recently moved from Minneapolis for the sake of the restaurant … to expand it and make it bigger and better,” she said, adding a niece had been running the restaurant.

The family had invested a lot into the business, Hassam said, often working 16-hour days. They opened earlier and closed later and had expanded the menu to include more breakfast options and dinners.

The majority of the restaurant’s patrons were Somali, she said, but there was a fair number of non-Somali customers as well.

“We had a lot of American customers that loved our sambusas and rice,” she said.

It was not uncommon, she said, that family members would remain at the restaurant until 3 or 4 in the morning preparing for the next day.

“Luckily that night, we left early,” she said.

Though police are still investigating the motive behind the possible arson attack, concerns have been raised that the fire was racially or religiously motivated, especially after the vandalism of the restaurant days earlier and after anti-Muslim comments by presidential candidates were made in the aftermath of the attack on Paris by Islamic extremists and the killings perpetrated in San Bernardino, Calif., by a Muslim couple.

Though Hassam is still trying to understand what happened the night of the fire, she is determined to rebuild.

“Juba is going to come back, and it’s going to come back stronger,” she said.

The business has the backing of community members, with slightly more than $18,000 pouring into a GoFundMe account within three days of the fire.

About 100 residents, including local faith leaders and activists, gathered outside the Juba restaurant Tuesday evening to express their support for the restaurant and to assure Muslims and immigrants they are welcomed in Grand Forks. Global Friends Coalition posted a letter on its website asking people to electronically sign it in support of Muslims and immigrants.

“We are not less American than the people who do this,” Hassam said of the fire, adding she has lived in the U.S. for 16 years and has raised her children here.

But she is also concerned another attack could happen.

“Since I saw the writing on the restaurant window, there was fear there,” Hassam said.

Grand Forks Police Cpl. Jessica Thorlacius, the cultural liaison officer, said she has received reports of fears in the city’s Islamic community for their safety.

“Everybody’s going to be at a heightened level of awareness,” she said.

Police officers have been instructed during shift briefings to provide extra security around the mosque by, for instance, driving by more often in squad cars, she said. Officers have also been encouraged to sit in the parking lot outside the mosque if they have reports to finish typing.

Though she felt fear, Hassam said the majority of Grand Forks residents are good people and she is “honored” to be part of the community.

“I want to say thanks everyone for your support and for your kind words,” she said.

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