Ranya Taha, the owner of Petra, talks about a fire that destroyed her family’s restaurant the night before. Some graffiti with the words “Go Back” were written on the back of the restaurant. Taha is from Syria and has lived in Wichita for 16 years. Investigators have not yet said what started the fire. (Travis Heying/The Wichita Eagle) theying@wichitaeagle.com
Ranya Taha, the owner of Petra, talks about a fire that destroyed her family’s restaurant the night before. Some graffiti with the words “Go Back” were written on the back of the restaurant. Taha is from Syria and has lived in Wichita for 16 years. Investigators have not yet said what started the fire. (Travis Heying/The Wichita Eagle) theying@wichitaeagle.com

Religion

Couple strengthened by faith, community after restaurant burns

By Katherine Burgess

kburgess@wichitaeagle.com

November 02, 2017 04:48 PM

UPDATED November 03, 2017 06:59 AM

When an Iraqi-American family was detained at Emprise Bank – sparking accusations of racial profiling – Ranya Taha and Bashar Mahanweh wanted to build bridges.

Closing their Petra Mediterranean Restaurant to the public, the couple held a private event, inviting police officers, bank employees and Muslims to talk together.

“It was a very, very nice meeting for peace,” Taha said.

Just months after that gathering, Petra Mediterranean Restaurant was destroyed by fire early Wednesday, a fire the couple believes may have been arson. The words “Go back” were painted on a storage unit behind the restaurant.

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What Taha and Mahanweh say they hate most is not that their business is gone or that they may have been targeted. Rather, it’s that this incident could cause divisions.

“We hate to be labeled as ‘us,’ ‘they,’” Taha said. “It always should be ‘we,’ we as a community. … We hate to see our community divided.”

The state fire marshal’s office and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives said Tuesday that the investigation into the fire was ongoing and that the FBI, which investigates hate crimes, is aware of the fire. A spokesman for ATF said investigators are trying to determine how the fire started before determining if it was a hate crime and if the FBI should become more involved.

Fire destroys east Wichita restaurant

An early morning fire that destroyed Petra is being investigated. The restaurant is near 21st and Woodlawn. (Nichole Manna/The Wichita Eagle/Nov. 1, 2017)

nmanna@wichitaeagle.com

The Council of American-Islamic Relations, which the couple has asked not to be involved or to speak on their behalf, has called for investigation into a possible bias motive for the fire.

The Wichita community has rallied behind the couple, Taha and Mahanweh said. After the fire, they had phone calls from the police chief, from a Mennonite church, from Inter-Faith Ministries and from Emprise Bank. Restaurants have offered a portion of their proceeds to help them rebuild. The Greater Wichita Ministerial League is drafting a letter of support.

“It really eased our pain,” Taha said. “We don’t even think about our loss anymore. Now we only think how really we only see the love and the support.”

If the destruction of their restaurant was a hate crime, Taha wants everyone to know that it was not the norm.

Mahanweh said ultimately, he’s not afraid for the future. Everything that happens is from God, he said, and this will only make them stronger.

When they saw the outpouring of community support, it encouraged them to want to give a portion of their restaurant proceeds after reopening toward peace-building in the community, he said.

“Peace will be our partner, a partner in our business,” Mahanweh said.

Mahanweh and Taha said that’s a part of their faith. They pointed to a verse in the Quran that says when anyone unjustifiably kills another person, it is “as if he had slain mankind entirely.” The verse continues, “And whoever saves one – it is as if he had saved mankind entirely.”

They’ve worked to help others and build bridges in the community for years, they said. Mahanweh, born in Jordan, has lived in the United States for seven years. Taha, born in Syria, has lived in the United States for 22.

Building relationships between people is a lot like building a house, Taha said. You first work on the foundation, which nobody sees.

Jan Swartzendruber, a member of People of Faith for Peace who was raised Mennonite, said the couple has been active in uniting people in Wichita.

She’s planning a prayer vigil outside the former restaurant and invites anyone to come, bringing flowers and candles.

“I really want to invite everyone in Wichita who wants to be good neighbors to come and make that clear by being there, being present,” Swartzendruber said. “It should be a positive time of prayer and lighting candles, so we can express that love is stronger than hate.”

The prayer vigil starts around 5 p.m. Friday outside the former Petra Mediterranean Restaurant, 6140 E. 21st St.

Contributing: Nichole Manna of The Eagle

Katherine Burgess: 316-268-6400, @KathsBurgess