Muslim migrant debate reverberates in heartland
By Robert Samuels | The Washington Post | Published: December 29, 2015
GRAND FORKS, N.D. — After the fire, the patrons of Juba Coffee and Restaurant gathered behind yellow police tape and mourned the charred remains of a place they called their own. Dressed in hijabs and tunics and speaking their native language, the Somali refugees said they'd long been comfortable in this overwhelmingly white, Protestant city. But now they were upset and frightened.
"We cannot let them see us angry," the owner, Abdulaziz Moallin, 36, told his fellow Somalis after the Dec. 8 fire. "We have to be sure they see us as good neighbors. Let's not try to blame anyone."
The advice was difficult to follow. The fire, which erupted when someone tossed a 40-ounce Bud Light bottle filled with gasoline into the restaurant, happened hours after Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump called for a temporary ban on Muslims entering the country. Although the motive for the crime was unclear, many of the customers could not help but wonder whether this was the latest attempt in the city to intimidate those who practice Islam.
The echoes of presidential politics and global tragedies are reverberating in the heartland.
Here in Grand Forks, population 60,000, friendliness is advertised with a giant smiley face on a water tower. Residents, descended mostly from Norwegian Lutherans, were accustomed to coexisting with the Muslim refugees who have settled in town over the past decade. But a compounding of events far beyond the city limits - recent terrorist attacks carried out by Islamist extremists, the global refugee crisis and a presidential campaign debate over whether "political correctness" has led the United States to be too welcoming to Muslims - has made both sides increasingly fearful of their neighbors.
After fleeing a decade-long war and remaking their lives in a peaceful, quiet community, Somalis feel they are being looked at with unfair suspicion.
Many locals, meanwhile, have questioned whether the government is spending too much money on a group they think shows little interest in assimilation. And they find themselves wondering whether the people wearing unusual garb and speaking a foreign language will produce a jihadist killer.
"Accepting people is what we do as Americans," said Myrna Martinson, 65, a retired clerk who was debating the issue over dinner at the Northside Cafe one night this month. "But with the Muslims, we do not know for certain what they will do."
At a nearby table, Debra Nesland, 62, a factory inspector eating dinner before her night shift, said she was worried that the fire she had heard about at the local Somali restaurant was a sign that the rhetoric against Muslims had gone too far.
"Everyone is worried about Paris and San Bernardino," she said. "But the truth is, we had an incident here, too."
Three miles away, on that same night, nearly 20 Somalis sipped their special blend of strong, sweet tea and chatted at the city's only other Somali-owned business.
Men complained that teenagers had driven past them shouting ethnic slurs. A week before the fire struck Juba, the words "Go Home, Somalis" had been scrawled on the store's exterior. The graffiti came with a symbol that a stunned owner and his wife said they could not identify, until the police asked whether they knew what a Nazi was.
"They are telling us they don't want us here anymore," said Mohoud Yusuf, a 26-year-old engineering student at the University of North Dakota.
"I blame it on Donald Trump, to be honest," said Saida Aden, 24, a first-year engineering student. "And the media. Anyone just thinks they can say anything or do anything they want. It's like the country needs a bogeyman, and it has become us."
Grand Forks had emerged as a popular destination for refugees. Some settled here with the help of Lutheran Social Services, but hundreds more who had been relocated to other places have moved here, lured by jobs at manufacturing plants and the nearby Air Force base. Young refugees have found opportunities to study at UND.
Most of the refugees here have come from the tiny Asian country of Bhutan.
But locals estimate that about 1,000 have settled in Grand Forks after fleeing Somalia, birthplace of the Islamist militant group al-Shabab, which has attacked targets in Africa and threatened to expand its reach.
Refugee advocates encouraged residents to welcome the newcomers, suggesting they be called "new Americans" to avoid a refugee stigma and sharing statistics showing that the immigrants' labor participation rate was higher than the state's residents as a whole.
But over the past few months, disdain has intensified.
As Europe's migration crisis swelled over the summer, a Change.org petition asking Lutheran Social Services to stop bringing refugees to the state garnered more than 3,000 signatures. Some people in Grand Forks began to question why the Somalis were not doing more to try to fit in, speak English or prevent their children from dropping out of high school.
"People here are a little scared of them," said Michael Brown, an obstetrician at the university who has served as the city's mayor for the past 16 years.
"If you don't fully integrate, what do you do?" Brown asked. "I don't know. Maybe you deport them."
Residents became concerned about the local mosque. Some wanted assurance from the city that it was not a breeding ground for terrorists. Others worried the anti-Muslim sentiment might lead to the mosque being attacked. So the city suggested that police officers doing paperwork park their cars in front of the mosque to have a presence and allay fears on both sides.
City officials said they wanted to find a productive way to discuss the refugee relations, but they were not fully sure how to do it. Never before had Grand Forks navigated such a sticky stew of global concerns and local problems.
"We know we're the best in the nation when it comes to hockey," said Pete Haga, the city's community relations officer. "We know we're the best in Grand Forks at making chocolate-covered potato chips. But we are not sure we can lead the nation on this."
At a public hearing in October, the city considered whether it should create a commission for "diversity and inclusion." Half of the speakers said the city needed to learn how to recognize and appreciate its changing demographics, according to a video recording of the meeting. Others opposed it, vehemently.
"Too much government," one speaker said on the video.
"We don't need to learn about the cultures these refugees left behind," another said.
"This town's built by white people," said a third, to some applause. "Not by blacks. Not by Mexicans. Not by Indians."
Pent-up frustrations in the city were bubbling to the surface, said Terry Bjerke, a Grand Forks City Council member running to unseat Brown for mayor. Some were already upset that UND's mascot, the Fighting Sioux, was being replaced with the more culturally sensitive Fighting Hawks - and had embraced the anger at the "P.C. police" expressed by presidential candidates Trump and Ben Carson. The campaign had finally given people a license to say how they feel.
"We are sick of it," Bjerke said. "Our questions are legitimate."
Bjerke said he was upset that there were no statistics to show whether refugees had been responsible for an increase in robberies and burglaries. With so many refugee students learning English in school, he wondered whether native speakers were losing valuable time from their teachers. Most upsetting, he said, was that the Somalis were not adopting "American customs," such as playing hockey or eating hot dogs.
Although he condemned attacks on Muslims, Bjerke said they might have been "the cost of doing business" in a country that rightly values free speech.
The week after the public hearing on diversity, Bjerke invited a speaker named Usama Dakdok, an Egyptian Christian, to lecture about the city's need to contain Islam's influence. More than 450 attended, watching as Bjerke raised copies of the Constitution and the New Testament in the air and declared, "From my cold, dead hands!"
Asha Amare, 47, who said she came to Grand Forks about nine years ago and thinks she was the first Muslim woman to move to the city, always sensed more intrigue in her culture than anguish about her presence.
When she rode the bus, occasionally people would tug on her hijab and ask whether she was too hot. Conversations with them were always short; they had to be. After eight years, Amare, who grew up speaking Somali, still does not feel entirely comfortable with English.
In September, she and a friend opened the Safari Market. They shipped oils and basmati rice from Minneapolis, placed halal meat in an icebox and stocked up the refrigerators with Somali fruit juice.
Before the first customer could walk through the door, someone wrote "Somali Niggers" on the property, according to local news reports. Amare said they opened anyway because they refused to be scared.
After the fire at Juba, the Somali community was thankful to have the market, which became a new gathering spot. The owners made one adjustment: changing the closing time from 11 p.m. to 8:30, to ensure safety.
Sipping tea, Hamse Hussein, 30, talked with his friends about whether they will fully be accepted in Grand Forks.
"When you came to this country, did they ever tell you about American Dream?" Hussein asked.
"Yeah, I heard all the rappers talking about it," responded Mohammed, 32, who did not feel comfortable giving his last name, because he feared reprisal at his job.
"I'm still waiting for it," Hussein said, laughing. He works at a local macaroni packaging factory and took auto mechanic classes at the community college. He serves as a translator for the city and has been trying to piece together the money to build a Somali community center.
They struggled to reconcile recent events with the city they thought they knew.
"Before the fire, I used to think 99 percent of Grand Forks people were good people. Now, maybe 96 percent," he said. "I don't know if that's the way things always were. Or if people are just pissed. Or confused."
All those emotions went through the owners of Juba. One week after the fire, Moallin and his wife, Ihaam Hassan, walked their family through their wrecked business. Inside was cold and dark. It smelled of rotting meat and burned rubber. The security cameras had melted into the ceiling.
Moallin, Hassan and their four children had come only recently to Grand Forks, in September. They had moved from Minneapolis to build a family restaurant business - a mark of progress in the United States. Now Hassan was spending December searching the Internet and asking friends whether they knew of any jobs, as she did when her family first moved to the United States more than a decade ago.
"There is some fear here because we don't know if someone will do it again," said Hassan, 30.
"Let's talk about the good," Moallin said.
They recalled that an elderly white man had approached them the morning after the fire and assured them that Christians are peaceful and neighborly. Then there was the church that helped put plywood over the broken windows and the vigil in which 100 people showed up to support them.
As the family surveyed the damage on this afternoon, a relative handed Moallin an iPhone. A news article had stated that Grand Forks police had arrested a suspect named Matthew William Gust and charged him with arson. The 25-year-old had a minor criminal history and a fondness for Bud Light, according to court records.
Gust, who refused to talk to police, could not be reached for comment.
"I am happy they caught someone," said Moallin, exuding little emotion. As Moallin made his way out of the restaurant, he turned around one last time. The family's American Dream had turned into a dark cavern, surrounded outside by a blanket of white snow.
"I just want to know why he did this," he said, his eyes beginning to glaze. "Why? This place was beautiful."