Ayan Sheikh / Lantern reporter
“One second I’m comfortable in bed, and the next second I’m running out of the house in the freezing cold, running for my life,” recalls Mohamed Soltan.
Soltan, a sixth-year in economics at Ohio State, and his roommate Ahmed Mahmoud, a third-year in finance, were victims of arson in their Hilliard home on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
The FBI, along with the Hilliard Division of Police, have yet to identify the culprit of the arson that caused hundreds of thousands of dollars in repairs.
On Jan. 16, Norwich Township Fire Department responded to a 911 call made by Soltan at about 5:30 a.m.
Mahmoud, the first of the two to discover the fire, said although he did hear what he described as a “loud banging noise,” it was not until the smoke detectors went off that he realized the house was on fire.
“I immediately ran into Mohamed’s room and woke him up. That’s when we realized the situation and what’s going on, and we got out of the house,” Mahmoud said. “At first, I figured it was Mohamed moving around. I was laying in bed and all of a sudden the smoke detectors went off.”
Soltan said he was in a deep sleep, and it wasn’t until Mahmoud woke him up that he became aware of his surroundings.
“I’m a very heavy sleeper, and I remember Ahmed coming into my room shouting ‘Soltan, Soltan, there’s a fire’,” Soltan said.
Both men said they did not actually see the fire, but they were surrounded by thick clouds of smoke as they made their way out of the burning house.
Soltan calls the arson a hate crime, saying there was no way the fire was an accident.
“We don’t use the fireplace; I make sure that (when) I cook, I turn everything off, so there is no way this could’ve been anything else but a hate crime,” Soltan said. “So for someone to purposefully set the house on fire while people are sleeping at five in the morning, there is no other explanation for it that these people are attempting to kill my friend and I.”
Doug Francis, chief of police for the city of Hilliard, said the origins of the fire seemed “suspicious,” due to the lack of burn patterns, the fire’s point of origin and the use of flammable materials.
“Our investigations show that there was in fact an accelerant utilized in the home, and they ruled out any natural cause of the fire, and so with utilizing their tools, they determined it was an arson,” Francis said.
Francis said the FBI and the Norwich Township Fire Department are also involved in the investigation.
Francis contacted the FBI because there have been previous reports of Soltan’s home and car being painted with anti-Arab and anti-Muslim slurs.
“We immediately brought in the FBI simply because if we did determine it was in fact an arson, we also wanted to look at it as a potential hate crime,” Francis said.
Francis also said in order to determine the arson as a hate crime, the individual responsible for the fire must be captured.
Despite media reports saying the motive behind the arson was to target the 24-year-old’s father, Salah Soltan, who is said to be a controversial Muslim scholar, Mohamed Soltan said his father’s opinions and views are “irrelevant.”
“My father’s views are 4,000 miles away,” Mohamed Soltan said.
Eric Manske, fire marshal at Norwich Township Fire Department, said the fire originated at the “back half of the house.”
Francis called the arson a form of “ethnic intimidation,” and said the case is “very unique” because Hilliard has never experienced cases of hate crime in the past.
“Not only has it destroyed a home, but it has provided a lot of fear in the victim and that’s what happens with these ethnic intimidation and hate crime issues,” Francis said.
Jennifer Nimer, legal director for the Ohio chapter of The Council on American-Islamic Relations, said she has called the FBI to report the arson as a hate crime.
Nimer also said there is only one hate crime incident she’s come across in her seven years with CAIR that was as “drastic” as Mahmoud and Mohamed Soltan’s case.
“A couple of years ago a woman that was sprayed in the face with pepper spray, that’s probably the most egregious incident other than this one that I’ve come across since I’ve been working here,” Nimer said.
Mohamed Soltan expressed his disbelief and anger toward the fire, saying despite everything, he will not move from his home.
“You can vandalize my house, you can egg my car, you can break my mailbox, you can burn my house down, but we’re not going anywhere, because no one has the right to strip that away from me,” Mohamed Soltan said.
Authorities said investigations are ongoing and anyone with information is asked to contact the Hilliard police.
Francis also said the Ohio Blue Ribbon Arson Committee is offering a $5,000 reward to anyone that offers information to help solve the case.