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Wichita restaurant burns down in what owners believe was a hate crime

A 2:10 a.m. phone call was the alarm that woke up Ranya Taha and Bashar Mahanweh as their restaurant was overtaken by flames in a two-alarm fire — a fire that they believe may have been a hate crime.

“We were first asked if we had anyone who would want to hurt our business, and we said no,” Taha said. “There was a small incident on a window awhile ago with graffiti, but we just covered it up and moved on. It was three months ago, and we didn’t think bad of it.”

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Now Taha is not so sure if the Nov. 1 fire was just an accident and if the graffiti was just a coincidence.

After the fire destroyed their Jordanian restaurant, Petra Mediterranean Restaurant, and left nothing but charred contents inside, they took a walk around their building.

When doing so, they found two words painted on their storage unit behind the restaurant.

“It was really upsetting,” Taha said. “It was two words that have a lot of hate in it.”

The words were written in big, bold letters with black spray paint. They filled the space of almost the entire storage unit.

“Go back”

Taha said those two words were not there when they had left the restaurant the night before the fire.

“It looks like a hate crime,” she said, “but we can’t tell until the investigation is done.”

Fire investigators were on scene at about 8 a.m. on Wednesday. The cause was not immediately known, but crews who had responded to the fire found flames escaping through the roof near the HVAC units.

While it looks like a hate crime, Taha said, she is “positive it is an isolated incident.”

“We have lived in Wichita a long time,” she said. “We always experienced love and support.”

It is because of this that she and her family are not letting the fire bring them down.

“We’re okay,” she said. “We are strong, we have to be strong. We have a family who looks up to us. It is going to make us stronger.”

But it is too soon to look forward.

“We will rebuild our life for sure,” Taha said, “but for the restaurant, it is too early to say definitely what we are going to do.”

Petra has been open since April at 6140 E. 21st St.

“We rebuilt the building for six months to clean it and rebuild and bring stuff from Turkey and Jordan to make it really be like Jordan when you enter,” Taha said. “The music and seating and food, the atmosphere and the decorations was like entering a different country.

“It took a long time to put together,” she continued. “Unfortunately, that is gone.”

And this is not the first restaurant fire the couple has had to face.

In March, their restaurant Byblos caught fire and forced them to close it for a few weeks. They believe that fire was caused by a pot on the stove that caught fire overnight.

“The first one was very small, so it didn’t really bother us,” Taha said. “We had to stop for a while to repaint, but it’s not something that bothered us like this one. This is really sad and very devastating.”

Wichita Fire Department’s investigations unit and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives did not immediately return a request for comment, but investigators with the bureau, as well as the State Fire Marshal’s Office, were still on scene as late Wednesday.

Kaitlyn Alanis: 316-269-6708, @kaitlynalanis

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