Blaine fire may be catalyst to better intercultural relations

  • Article by: ERIC M. HANSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 15, 2008 - 9:51 PM

A Muslim rights group and a Minneapolis church are to meet today to spearhead a fundraising effort for a Blaine store owner who says his business was destroyed by arsonists.

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“It was terrifying,” Mohammad Ismail said of the night on Jan. 22 when fire destroyed his Dairy Store.

Photo: Kyndell Harkness, Star Tribune

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More than two weeks after the fire that destroyed his Blaine convenience store, Mohammad Ismail is still reluctant to go to the side of the charred building where someone had spray-painted an obscenity and the word "Arab" on the door.

"It was terrifying," Ismail said, describing the night on Jan. 22 when, he said, three men stormed into the store at closing time and one threw bottles that burst into flames.

One bottle nearly hit him, Ismail said, recounting how he crouched and waited for the sound of shattering glass to stop. When the men left, he said, he ran outside to flag a passing driver, who called 911.

Police are investigating the fire as an arson but the case still is under investigation and has not been classified as a hate crime, said Capt. Kerry Fenner of the Blaine police.

The fire at the Blaine Dairy Store has led some people to wonder whether the city needs to look at fostering a better relationship between the city's growing Muslim population and more established residents.

Ismail said the fire wasn't the first time he has been targeted. About two months ago, someone put a racist note on the store's front window. A couple months before that, he said, somebody set his mailbox on fire.

Despite that, he said, "I really like the city of Blaine. People are nice. But you never know when people will come around and try to do crazy stuff. It doesn't make sense." He has offered a $3,000 reward.

Though exact figures aren't available, Blaine's Muslim population has risen in recent years, along with other minority groups, as the city's entire population grew.

Ismail did not seek outside help, but it found him when members of the local chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR-Minnesota) and a Minneapolis church reached out.

CAIR-Minnesota is scheduled to meet today with members of Lake Harriet United Methodist Church to talk about helping Ismail, possibly through a fundraiser.

Initially, a member of the church had approached Ismail to see if there was anything he could do for the family. That discussion led to the meeting with CAIR-Minnesota to discuss broadening the response to perhaps include other churches and mosques.

The fire might be an opportunity for people in Blaine to come together to discuss ways to foster better intercultural relations, CAIR-Minnesota chairwoman Lori Saroya said.

"This is really about change. Blaine is changing and becoming more diverse. And I think some people are having difficulty adjusting," said Saroya, who lives in Blaine.

Last summer, CAIR-Minnesota asked administrators at a Blaine middle school to investigate allegations that Muslim students had been taunted because of their ethnicity and religion.

The school was praised for its response, including appointing a diversity coordinator and creating a task force of students and faculty at the school.

In addition, Saroya said, her group has received a couple reports of minor incidents in Blaine indicating bias against Muslims.

Some cities have volunteer human rights commissions of residents who work to foster better intercultural relations. Blaine has no such commission.

Interim City Manager Robert Therres said the city is waiting for the results of the police investigation before "taking any steps that we need to take."

Ismail said he doesn't know what his next move will be, but he hopes to reopen in the future.

"It's a little store but it's the only source of income for my family," he said.

Eric M. Hanson • 612-673-7517

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