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Fri Jan 03, 2014 at  7:40 AM PT: More sad news this morning regarding the two unaccounted for men in the building -- Ahmad Ali, age 57 who lived on the second floor of the building, and his visiting friend Mrimri Farah, age 60. Please see the end of this diary for details.

A tragic fire struck the heart of the Somali community in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood in Minneapolis yesterday, setting ablaze a three-story building with an East African grocery store on the main floor and apartments above. The latest local news reports indicate that not everyone staying in the apartments has been accounted for. This is partly due to the fact that multiple floors of the building collapsed and it is not yet safe to conduct an investigation. Another factor unique to this situation is that it is common for new Somali immigrants to couch surf with friends or family members until they are able to obtain housing for themselves. Some have a formal arrangement and stay in one place, while others stay with different friends on a rotating basis. Coupled with the language barrier, it can be difficult to track down individual people. Questions remain regarding the whereabouts of as many as three individuals. 14 people were hospitalized, with three remaining in critical condition today. Investigators are hoping to find a way to enter the building today to determine the cause of the fire and rule out the presence of bodies.

Initial national news reports were short on details, failing to mention the large cultural influence of the world's largest Somali population outside of Mogadishu in this area. A vague quote from recently-elected Minneapolis City Council member Abdi Warsame, the first Somali politician elected to office here, mentioned that a mosque near the building could have sustained damage. This small anecdote was all it took for xenophobic conspiracy theories to spring up on the internet from those with a vested interest in spreading the tired "Muslim terrorists are building bombs," trope.

Please continue below the fold for more info.

No official in Minneapolis has suggested the explosion could possibly have resulted from a bomb, and I believe Mr. Warsame only mentioned the mosque because of its obvious importance to the community and perhaps out of concern for arson committed by someone with ill will toward the Somali population. However, at this point the cause appears to be related to faulty electrical wiring.

Ahmed Muse, one of the five owners of the Otanga grocery store on the main floor of the building, describes feeling an "electrical shock" strong enough that he was prompted to call the police. Shortly after officers arrived, the explosion happened while Mr. Muse was standing outside with them attempting to explain what had happened. Unfortunately the resulting fire raged out of control immediately despite the presence of first responders prior to the fire and the sub-zero temperatures. It took several hours to put out the blaze, and as I previously mentioned, firefighters have still not been able to safely enter the building. Cedar Avenue, the main thoroughfare on which the building sits, is blocked off because water from the firefighting efforts pooled into the street and froze several inches thick on the street. City workers are trying to find a way to melt the ice, but temperatures are hovering at -7 degrees F in Minneapolis right now.

The victims of the fire likely lost all of their possessions. Somali immigrants who make the long journey to settle in Minneapolis are more often than not people who have fled extreme violence and brutality. Some eventually make their way here from refugee camps in Kenya and other neighboring countries. Many have lost all or part of their families in the civil war in Somalia that lasted from 1991-2006 and the ensuing sectarian violence.

This community rarely makes headlines outside of Minnesota, and the rest of the country knows very little about these people. One of the few stories that entered the national consciousness was the Minneapolis al-Shabab pipeline scandal, which involved local young men being shipped back to Somalia (some by force) to fight for the al-Shabab militant group, as well as fundraising efforts in Minneapolis for the group. The Somali community at large was horrified when this information came to light, and community leaders condemned the situation. After the scandal hit, the Somali community increased its efforts to reach out to and interact with the greater Minneapolis population. Many of us who live in Minneapolis have been living among the Somali community for years. I personally lived across the street from a local Halal market that served as a popular community gathering spot. My own experience with this immigrant community has been mostly positive, but of course cultural issues sometimes arise (most Somali women I encounter are terrified of my 15 lb. Cavalier King Charles Spaniel). The few negative interactions I've had pale in comparison to the exciting conversations I've had and the friendships I've made. I often feel the need to stand up for this often denigrated immigrant population. I know many of them and they are nothing like the caricature of the American-hating terrorist-pirate some people hold in their minds. Some are even born and raised in America. Shocking, right?

I hope to continue to provide updates as they occur, and will be consulting with an acquaintance who is a respected leader in the Somali community, Mohamed Warsame (no relation to city council member Abdi Warsame, it's a common last name). Mohamed serves as an interpreter for many patients at the clinic where I work. Updates are still coming in this morning at a rapid pace.

Current Minneapolis mayor R.T. Rybak has stated that a fund will be set up to help the victims of the fire, but in the meantime anyone who wishes to help is welcomed to make a donation to the American Red Cross.

This is my first diary! Any suggestions for improvement are appreciated.

11:43 AM PT: Developments are slowly rolling in. I'm not going to link the Star Tribune again because you'll hit a pay wall after reading 5 articles, but to to summarize: crews have been able to carefully enter the building and begin to sort through debris. Homeland security is on-site to rule out the t-word, but now that authorities have had a chance to look inside, they believe a gas explosion most accurately accounts for the initial explosion and the way the fire burned. There are no preliminary signs of arson, but it hasn't been totally discounted either.

I was able to speak to Mohamed. He sounded exhausted and I doubt he got any sleep last night, as he is one of the well-known medical interpreters within the community and probably spent all night at the hospital with the victims and their families. He's going to try to come by tomorrow to discuss his thoughts with me.

3:36 PM PT:A body was found in the debris inside the building. It has not been identified yet (deleted previous update that incorrectly stated it had been identified). Two families were notified of the body; two men are still unaccounted for so it is feared the deceased is one of them. Their names are Mrimri Farah, age 60 and Ahmad Ali, age 57. Mr. Ali lived on the second floor of the building. Investigators have now moved their opinion of where the fire started to either the second or third floor. The local utility company says there were no natural gas leaks in the area at the time of the explosion. Homeland Security has officially ruled out the existence of a bomb.

There is some additional conjecture happening about the cause of the fire, but I will not be posting about it until there is some sort of official confirmation or denial as rumors about this situation have proven to be baseless so far.

Fri Jan 03, 2014 at  7:40 AM PT: More sad news this morning. The two men who were unaccounted for, Ahmad Ali, age 57 who lived on the second floor of the building, and his visiting friend Mrimri Farah, age 60 are most likely the one unidentified hospital victim in critical condition and the body that was found in the building. No word yet on which man is which; their families span the globe so we will probably not hear about a positive identification until all of the relatives have been called.

I listened to a short interview on Minnesota Public Radio this morning with one of Farah's relatives. Holding back tears, the man said that Farah has family in London, Somalia and here in Minnesota and all of them keep calling. They are "heartsick," he stated. Another development about Farah being reported is that he served in the U.S. Army during a tour in Iraq. Far from being a "Muslim jihadist," Farah was a hero who fought for our country to protect our freedom.

Please keep the families of these two men in your thoughts today.

Damage to the moqsue next to the burned building is extensive; two feet of water sit in the basement and it may take up to six months to repair the smoke damage and shattered windows. The rabbi of the local Shir Tikvah  has offered space for the moqsue's members to use in the meantime, one of many gestures extended by the local community.

In a statement released on January 1st by the Confederation Of Somali Community in Minnesota, executive Mohamed Noor stated; "Noor announced that the Confederation of Somali Community in Minnesota will have a disaster relief fund open on Thursday, January 2 to accept donations.  One hundred percent of donations collected will go to victims and families.  For more information, visit CSCM’s website at  www.csc-mn.org."

More controversy has arisen between the local gas utility company, Centerpoint Energy, and investigators at the scene. Centerpoint is disputing the possibility that their natural gas could have caused the fire. Investigators disagree.


Newly elected Minneapolis City Council member Ahmed Warsame released his own statement via the Star Tribune; "This is a Minneapolis tragedy. This is a Minnesota tragedy. This is not just an East African tragedy. This is not just a Cedar-Riverside tragedy."
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Comment Preferences

  •  Tip Jar (10+ / 0-)

    Is fheàrr fheuchainn na bhith san dùil

    by bull8807 on Thu Jan 02, 2014 at 08:38:32 AM PST

  •  Thanks for reading! (0+ / 0-)

    I forgot to pre-emptively set up the tip jar :S

    Is fheàrr fheuchainn na bhith san dùil

    by bull8807 on Thu Jan 02, 2014 at 08:48:44 AM PST

  •  Is this on East or West side of Cedar? (0+ / 0-)
  •  How are the emergency responders (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    bull8807, Catte Nappe

    set up to handle emergencies in communities where folks are less likely to speak English?

    Words can sometimes, in moments of grace, attain the quality of deeds. --Elie Wiesel

    by a gilas girl on Thu Jan 02, 2014 at 09:08:42 AM PST

    •  Great Question! (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      a gilas girl

      City officials have good relationships with many of the community leaders who speak English well and coordinate translation. Also, most of the young people speak English and are able to translate for their elders if necessary. It's a busy area so at any given time it's possible to find someone who speaks both Somali and English. Obviously city departments would prefer to have bilingual employees who can do this all themselves in a crisis situation, and the police and fire departments actively recruiting from the community for this reason: Article on Recruitment

      Is fheàrr fheuchainn na bhith san dùil

      by bull8807 on Thu Jan 02, 2014 at 09:20:52 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  Serious issues with the girls and women of this (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Catte Nappe, BlackSheep1

    community, forcing them to live like women in tribal areas, not modern America

    I am from there and have many friends who work with these kids in the schools.....HATE that we allow these men to continue to treat women badly, girls can't participate in sports after a certain age, the beginning of the BS

    if you come to the USA you have to assimilate and accept our law or don't come here

    "The poor can never be made to suffer enough." Jimmy Breslin

    by merrywidow on Thu Jan 02, 2014 at 09:21:53 AM PST

    •  I agree that this is an issue (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Catte Nappe, sow hat

      and while it is a widespread paradigm, it's not uniform. And it is beginning to evolve. I met enough Somali women at the University of Minnesota who were very outspoken about their frustration with being seen as victims of oppression to believe there are differing attitudes about women's rights and autonomy within the community. I have also met plenty of women who stare at the floor and won't even make eye contact when speaking. And so many survivors of sexual violence.

      I've had some truly exciting conversations about contraception as well. A lot of the new ideas people are being introduced to here are making their way back to Somalia, including birth control pills and the idea that spacing out babies is healthier for the whole family. It will be interesting to see what happens in the next decade or two with the changing culture. I hope that as more people here have access to education, we will see more advocates for gender equality within the community.

      Is fheàrr fheuchainn na bhith san dùil

      by bull8807 on Thu Jan 02, 2014 at 09:40:23 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  I'm all for making sure if you live here you (0+ / 0-)

      abide by our laws.
      Particularly w/r/t equal rights.
      English-only is not one of the things I fight for though. We'd all be better off if we spoke more than one language IMO.

      LBJ, Van Cliburn, Ike, Wendy Davis, Lady Bird, Ann Richards, Barbara Jordan, Molly Ivins, Sully Sullenburger, Drew Brees: Texas is NO Bush League!

      by BlackSheep1 on Thu Jan 02, 2014 at 12:05:37 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  Some people can't catch a break. (0+ / 0-)

    I really have to wonder about the "electric shock" (not suspecting anyone, but that's just a weird thing).

    If I ran this circus, things would be DIFFERENT!

    by CwV on Thu Jan 02, 2014 at 09:22:47 AM PST

  •  It hurts, another (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    TakeSake, ricklewsive, UnionMade

    1880s building gone from the Ave. I think in my youth it was Martha's Antiques, a place where a fine old lady sold junk and gave the profits to the skid row guys who lived around there. A minor league saint.
    And it's across from Palmer's where I spent many happy hours before I cleaned up.
    And kitty corner from the back of the Hard Times here I coffee up on my infrequent trips back to Mpls.
    And a block from 605 1/2 where I'd sit and listen to the New King David Jug Band, and Koerner, and Hinckley and all them.
    I thought when the Dania Hall was burned that Cedar Ave had come to an end, but I thought that when Heller built the evil towers and eradicated the old Swedish-German 1870s neighborhood.
    I guess it's just going to change into something different now, hoping the new immigrants have the strength-of-community that they'll need in these permanent had times.

    Sure hated to read about this fire. Kind of made me sad for missing Mpls, I guess I am actually missing the old times though.

    I buy and sell well trained riding mules and American Mammoth Jack Stock.

    by old mule on Thu Jan 02, 2014 at 09:26:56 AM PST

    •  I can remember (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      UnionMade

      Going to Martha's probably 30 years ago. So that would be kind of on the opposite end of the street from Savrans? I think the "Apathy Now" and "Nobody for President" graffiti around Palmer's is long gone, along with Annie's when it was good.

      The United States for All Americans

      by TakeSake on Thu Jan 02, 2014 at 10:35:34 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  I used to work in the Cedar Village Theater (0+ / 0-)

        when it housed the Minnesota Dance Theater and a lot of bluegrass and blues bands. That was when Sammy D's was still on the West Bank. (I guess Sammy D's is no longer "still" anywhere, at least under that name.)

        Was Annie's the little diner next door to the Cedar Theater?  

        •  Cedar Village Theater = Cedar Cultural Center now (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          UnionMade

          I love this venue for local music, it's such an intimate setting. Now there's a Thai restaurant and The Wienery next door, a gourmet hot dog place. Yeah, seriously.

          Is fheàrr fheuchainn na bhith san dùil

          by bull8807 on Thu Jan 02, 2014 at 02:37:13 PM PST

          [ Parent ]

        •  I don't remember... (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          UnionMade

          What was next to it, but for some reason Annie's Parlor moved from that place to somewhere around the corner, and then they opened up in Dinkytown.

          For a while they sort of lost the formula - perhaps it's time to try it out again while Dinkytown still exists. They're going to raze part of it to put in a Walgreens or something.

          The United States for All Americans

          by TakeSake on Thu Jan 02, 2014 at 03:22:04 PM PST

          [ Parent ]

        •  I got two Italian restaurants confused-- (0+ / 0-)

          it was Mama Rosa's, not Sammy D's, that I remember from the West Bank. Sammy D's was Dinkytown.

  •  The first thing that came to mind (0+ / 0-)

    was a fire that destroyed the building housing a mosque in Winona, MN last year. The early reports stated the building on Cedar also housed a mosque but that was later clarified to state the building was next to a mosque. It will be interesting to hear the final determination as to cause.

    Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell. --Edward Abbey

    by ricklewsive on Thu Jan 02, 2014 at 09:32:15 AM PST

  •  These folks have been through a lot. (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    bull8807

    Sad to hear about this latest tragedy.

    If memory serves a Somali mother and child died in the bridge collapse.

    Cedar-Riverside was once my old stomping grounds.

    Added Minnesota tag. State tags help get extra views.

    God spare me the Heart to fight them... I'll fight the Pirates forever. -Mother Jones

    by JayRaye on Thu Jan 02, 2014 at 10:54:11 AM PST

  •  Nice writing, Bull (0+ / 0-)

    thanks for discussing the Somali community

    "Ronald Reagan is DEAD! His policies live on but we're doing something about THAT!"

    by leftykook on Thu Jan 02, 2014 at 11:02:23 AM PST

    •  Thank you (0+ / 0-)

      I hope someday soon they're writing their own blogs about their community. I hope they won't mind me filling in until then. I just get tired of seeing how they're portrayed by people who don't even live here. As a 4th generation descendant of Irish immigrants, it's a personal issue for me when it comes to marginalized immigrant populations being mis-characterized and treated poorly by those who don't bother to try to understand them.

      Is fheàrr fheuchainn na bhith san dùil

      by bull8807 on Thu Jan 02, 2014 at 02:32:17 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  Governor Dayton posted praises for the (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    bull8807

    first responders.  My heart goes out to the families and to the community at large.  They are close knit.

    That area is not far from where I live now, but  I went to Augsburg College and the shops and restaurants were such a part of our lives.  

    The thing about democracy, beloveds, is that it is not neat, orderly, or quiet. It requires a certain relish for confusion. Molly Ivins

    by MufsMom on Thu Jan 02, 2014 at 11:45:46 AM PST

  •  At least it's not likely to be meth labs (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    bull8807

    which was the speculation even on HuffPost as to the cause. (I assume devout Muslims are unlikely to be manufacturing meth. . . .) It did sound to me like a gas explosion, which is sometimes triggered by faulty wiring.

    Thanks to the diarist for writing this good first-hand account. Please update when more information is available.

    •  You are correct! (0+ / 0-)

      Meth is not exactly their cup of tea. They did, however, bring with them a penchant for a plant-derived stimulant called khat (which is not known to be particularly flammable). It is illegal here and the Otanga grocery was actually in trouble for selling it a couple years ago.  It is considered less harmful than tobacco. It's about as harmful as a cup of coffee, and numerous recent studies have generally found the same. Hooray War on Drugs! The Netherlands has even banned it. The UK was one of the few western hold-outs because its studies found no evidence that khat harmful. For some reason they decided to ban it anyway this past July; they put it in the same drug class as ketamine.

      Is fheàrr fheuchainn na bhith san dùil

      by bull8807 on Thu Jan 02, 2014 at 02:22:11 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

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