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Donations for Grand Forks coffee house exceed expectations

More than $21,500 has been raised through an online fundraising account set up by a Colorado woman to benefit owners of a Somali coffee house in Grand Forks that was damaged in a fire set intentionally Dec. 8.

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In this Grand Forks Herald file photo investigators could be seen taking pictures of the site and digging through debris at Juba Coffee House on Dec. 8, 2015. Grand Forks Herald photo by Lori Weber Menke.
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More than $21,500 has been raised through an online fundraising account set up by a Colorado woman to benefit owners of a Somali coffee house in Grand Forks that was damaged in a fire set intentionally Dec. 8.

The amount of money raised on behalf of the Juba Coffee House and Restaurant is "amazing," said Colleen Berry, who moved to Boulder last December, after teaching for nine years at UND, to accept a faculty position with the University of Colorado.

"I have a strong feeling about how much anti-Muslim sentiment, and how much hatred, there is in the country as a whole," she told the Herald.

"I have a few Muslim friends here; they've been affected. It's a very scary time for them."

Some money from the GoFundMe account she established has been withdrawn, although she doesn't have access to details on how much or for what purpose, Berry said in a phone interview Sunday.

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"I did get a message from a member of the family, thanking me profusely," Berry said.

"I was happy to (set up the fund)-but, also, it really made me happy to see how many people stepped up and sent comments of support. I think that made a huge difference to the family."

Berry sent the comments to Ilhaam Hassam, an owner of the business, and her family, she said.

Although Berry no longer resides here, she keeps up with Grand Forks news via Facebook and other resources, she said.

After the coffee house was torched, she read comments in a North Dakota-based website which called for someone to raise money to help the business get back on its feet.

"I thought, yes, someone should do that. Why not me? I could start the ball rolling," she said.

"At first I thought $2,000 would be a good goal. Then I thought, maybe $8,000. It just took off."

The amount that has been raised "has totally shocked me-in a good way," she said. "There's been a lot of really supportive comments. It's been incredible to me."

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She did some research on whether she personally had any tax liability in connection with setting up the account, she said. "Then I thought, this is ridiculous. I'm not getting a penny of this and I can prove it. I will not let these worries stop me from doing what I think is the right thing to do."

She checked with various contacts in Grand Forks, including Global Friends, to make sure the funds would go to the right family, she said.

Berry is not surprised by the attack on the coffee house, she said. "(But) it's not something I expected to happen (in Grand Forks). I think it can happen anywhere there are people who are ignorant and misguided."

She knows from personal experience what it's like to live through a fire, having lost her Grand Forks home in a February 2014 fire.

In the aftermath "so many wonderful people in Grand Forks" stepped up to help her, including a neighbor who paid for her dog's daycare, she said.

"That is more true. There are more people like that than people who would do something like what happened (to the Juba business owner)."

She knows how difficult it can be to get insurance lined up after such an event, she said.

Matthew William Gust, 25, of East Grand Forks, has been charged with arson, a Class B felony, in connection with the fire at the coffee house, 2017 S. Washington St.

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Court documents filed in the case claim Gust threw a 40-ounce beer bottle filled with gasoline through the window, starting a fire which caused $90,000 in damages.

No one was injured in the fire.

The FBI also has launched an investigation to determine if federal laws may have been broken.

The owners have told the Herald they intend to reopen the coffee house.

Related Topics: CRIME
Pamela Knudson is a features and arts/entertainment writer for the Grand Forks Herald.

She has worked for the Herald since 2011 and has covered a wide variety of topics, including the latest performances in the region and health topics.

Pamela can be reached at pknudson@gfherald.com or (701) 780-1107.
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