When police catch the man who allegedly burned down a Somali-Muslim owned restaurant in Grand Forks, North Dakota last week, their first task will be to determine his motive. Regardless of what authorities find, the arson feels like an act of terrorism to the Somali-Muslim community there.
Two days before Matthew Gust allegedly sent his 40-ounce Bud Light bottle filled with gasoline crashing through the window of Juba Cafe, someone had vandalized the restaurant popular with the Somali-Muslim community by painting a crude Nazi SS logo on the window with “go home” beneath it.
If Gust was not responsible for that act of vandalism, Grand Forks Police have another potential bigot to track down.
For the better part of a decade, refugees from Somalia, Burundi, Bhutan, and Iraq have been vetted by the State Department and given safe passage to Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota. About 100 men, women and children a year come to Grand Forks, said Chuck Haga, a now-retired journalist and columnist who works with the Global Friends organization, which helps refugees assimilate in the area.
“These people, they’ve got nothing and all they want is a safe place to raise their kids,” Haga told The Daily Beast. “The Bhutanese especially are just overwhelmingly grateful for the opportunity. Many of them have spent as much as 20 years in refugee camps, never having lived in their own country.”
Acceptance of the refugees has been mixed over the years, said Jaylani Hussein, director of the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
Exacerbating tensions are anti-Muslim grassroots organizations, conservative talk radio hosts, and Usama Dakdok, an Egyptian Christian who profits from this Islamophobic cottage industry that provides North Dakotans with misleading information regarding Islam, Hussein said.
“Usama Dakdok has made Northern Minnesota and Grand Forks his home,” Hussein told The Daily Beast. “He’s just been kind of let loose, and there have been a lot of people who have been listening to him, including a city councilperson who has cited him as a good source of information.”
That would be Terry Bjerke, who has championed Dakdok’s rhetoric in more than one event at the Empire Theater in downtown Grand Forks. At the end of Dakdok’s November presentation, Bjerke held up the free copies of the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence and the New Testament that were handed out that night, saying there was only one way enemies foreign and domestic would take them from the bombastic city councilmen.
“From my cold, dead hands!” he yelled.
A warrant has been issued for Gust, who has a minor criminal history that includes threatening workers at an adult video store, for which he was tasered by police and arrested, according to the Grand Forks Herald. His Facebook page doesn’t provide clues as to his politics, or any anti-Muslim beliefs, just a few photos of himself and friends, one of whom is wearing a shirt that reads “Redneck Country.”
Despite what you might read on the Facebook links to news stories about the incident—and people are saying some especially vile things about the victims of what will likely soon be called a hate crime—Haga insisted that the response from the community has been overwhelmingly positive.
A vigil was held following the fire; online fundraising has secured nearly $20,000 to help the owners of Juba Cafe rebuild.
Overrall, Haga said, the refugees have been welcomed by Grand Forks, but some skepticism remains.
“There’s a range of them, the people who are perhaps not so welcoming of the refugees,” Haga said. “There’s some of them who are outright bigots. They think that there’s a lot of tax money being spent on (the refugees); they think that the crime rates is going up, which just isn’t true.”
The racist vandal’s instructions that the owners of the Juba Cafe “go home” ignores that many of the thousands of Somalis who have emigrated there from their war-ravaged country have gone through all the proper channels to become American citizens;, even paying back the State Department for their airfare, Haga said.
Grand Forks is as much their home as anyone else’s, but that may be a difficult concept for people like Gust to understand, considering how easy it was for police to name him a suspect.
It started with the brown glass from the bottle, then with a check of area gas stations, and finally a tip from one of Gust’s acquaintances who police say overheard the hapless man bragging about torching Juba.
With police working to track Gust down, one can only hope he doesn’t take his moronic crusade to a more violent level and decide to flee, or worse, fight.
Hussein said Muslims cannot be the only ones to stand up against mindless bigotry, whether it takes place at a California mosque or the south side of Grand Forks.
“It has to be the average North Dakotan that says ‘I may not understand everything about Muslims or Islam, but you cannot burn businesses, and you can’t threaten people with violence—because in this country we don’t do that,” Hussein said.