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Fire at Grand Forks Somali restaurant intentionally set, investigators say

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Juba Coffee House in Grand Forks on Tuesday, Dec. 8, 2015, following a fire. (Lori Weber Menke / Forum News Service2 / 3
Juba Coffee House in Grand Forks. Forum News Service photo.3 / 3

GRAND FORKS – Investigators have found that an early morning fire that badly damaged a Somali restaurant was ignited purposefully.

The Grand Forks Fire Department has turned over the investigation of the fire at Juba Coffee House, a popular Somali restaurant on South Washington Street in Grand Forks, to the Grand Forks Police Department. Fire marshals and the department said in an afternoon news release the fire was “incendiary and suspicious in nature.”

Juba Coffee House, a popular Somali restaurant on South Washington Street in Grand Forks.

The Fire Department responded to a report of a fire shortly after 2 a.m. at 2017 S. Washington St.

Firefighters brought the blaze under control within 20 minutes, Battalion Chief Rob Corbett said. No one was injured at the scene.

The estimated damage to the building and its contents is about $90,000, he said.

About 17 firefighters were on the scene. Fire marshals and Grand Forks police detectives remained at the site of the restaurant into the afternoon. The investigation into the fire is ongoing.

The fire was the second incident at the business in the past few 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 for Nazi Germany’s Gestapo above the painted words “go home.”

Authorities have not determined whether the incidents are related.

Yellow police tape surrounded the building today, and police cars blocked the frontage road on the east side of South Washington Street between Campbell and Park drives.

Fire marshals could be seen picking through the debris and taking photographs of the scene. Two of the front windows were broken and glass littered the sidewalk in front of the restaurant.

Nearby residents and customers of Juba, known for its cuisine of sambusas and goat meat, milled about in front of the restaurant Tuesday.

The city of Grand Forks released a statement this afternoon on behalf of Mayor Mike Brown, who said the city’s thoughts and prayers are with those affected by the cafe fire.

“As a community, we come to the aid of our 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.”

The mayor’s office has reached out to the cafe owners and local organizations, which offered a network of support. But as the investigation is ongoing, he said it was “premature to speculate” on what happened.

“I have full confidence in our local and assisting agencies to get to the facts and when they do, we will determine the appropriate actions,” he said.

Several organizations immediately offered assistance once they heard about the fire, including Hope Church and North Dakotans for Diversity and Compassion (NDDC). A GoFundMe page also has been established in support of the business. More than $6,000 had been donated by 2:30 p.m..

Some donors left messages of support for Juba and for immigrants on the GoFundMe page.

Global Friends Coalition, which supports refugee integration, is taking the lead on a soon-to-be planned fundraising event, Executive Director Cynthia Shabb said.

“It just breaks my heart,” she said.

NDDC is waiting to hear what the needs of the Somali community are first, chairwoman Natasha Thomas said.

“Our role is to listen and to support,” she said. “We’re all sort of spinning with this right now.”

Residents will gather outside of Juba at 5:30 p.m. today in a “show of support,” said Robin David, president of the board of Global Friends Coalition.

Wayne Torrey, who lives at the Ambassador Motel next door to Juba Coffee House, 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 the patrons and workers there.

One day when “nothing was going right,” the restaurant employees offered him a free meal, he said.

“They’ve got that much heart,” he said.