“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be known as the children of God.”
“He is full of wisdom, acquainted with all things.”
“May you be well, may you be happy, may you be free from suffering.”
Gathered outside the remnants of Petra Mediterranean Restaurant on Friday night, people took turns saying prayers. They were prayers from a variety of traditions, but all prayers for peace, for healing and for unity.
Earlier Friday, the Wichita Fire Department said they were still combing through the aftermath of a fire that burned down the restaurant early Wednesday. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the State Fire Marshal’s Office are also involved in the investigation.
The words “Go Back” were found spray painted on a storage unit behind the restaurant after the fire. Investigators must determine what caused the fire before starting a possible hate crime investigation, which would involve the FBI.
Friday evening brought an outpouring of support for owners Ranya Taha and Bashar Mahanweh.
Members of Lorraine Avenue Mennonite Church unfurled a banner that said, “God is love and love wins.” Several people brought flowers, placing them on the piles of charred wood and insulation in the parking lot.
Mahanweh, who filmed parts of the vigil, said that despite the fire, hearing the prayers made Friday feel like one of the best days of his life.
“I feel a new friendship with a different taste,” he said. “This taste is unique.”
While he has had many friends, the friendships made as people came together to support them after the fire is different, he said, friendships he wants to last into the future.
Several referred to Mahanweh and Taha as “peacemakers,” referencing their work to build unity in Wichita such as when they brought people together after a family was detained at Emprise Bank.
Sharon Kniss, director of education for the Kansas Institute for Peace and Conflict Resolution, doesn’t know the couple, but wanted to come anyway.
She said she wanted to support Mahanweh and Taha’s approach to the fire: bridge-building and showing that this is a “community that stands for love, not for hate.”
Whatever happens to one person happens to “all of us,” said Durell Gilmore. Gilmore urged the people gathered to not let action stop after one day, but to continue acting.
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“This is a pivotal moment for us here in Wichita, and it can be a powerful moment if we allow it to be,” Gilmore said. “We must continue to gather together and we must continue to move and shift the consciousness of our city so things like this never happen again.”
Jan Swartzendruber, who organized the vigil as a member of People of Faith for Peace, has known Taha for about two years.
Taha is always positive, Swartzendruber said.
“She’s like a sunflower,” Swartzendruber said. “Whenever something good is happening, she follows the sun. She always chooses to forgive and see the best in people.”
The couple has said that they want to eventually reopen their restaurant, and has stressed that if it was arson, that is not representative of Wichita as a community. Instead, Wichita is a community of love, they said.
After the vigil, Taha said she was speechless
“It is really just overwhelming, this love,” Taha said. “Now I don’t know what to say. It’s just overwhelming. Thank you so much.”
A campaign has been started at https://www.launchgood.com/project/help_rebuild_petra_cafe_potential_arson#!/ to support the family as they rebuild.
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
Contributing: Nichole Manna of The Eagle