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One year later: living their legacy

  • 6 min to read

In the early evening of Feb. 10, 2015, the world stopped for the Abu-Salha and Barakat families. They lost children. The lives of siblings, classmates and friends were abruptly altered all because a 46-year-old man took his gun to his neighbor’s home and executed three innocent people, supposedly because of a parking dispute. 

Today we remember the lives of Deah Barakat, Yusor Abu-Salha and Razan Abu-Salha.

 

How they lived

Deah was a 23-year-old, second-year student at the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Dentistry. He graduated from NC State in May 2013 with a bachelor’s degree in business administration. His wife, Yusor, graduated from NC State in the fall of 2014. She was 21, and she had plans to join Deah at the dentistry school in the fall of 2015. Deah and Yusor had just gotten married in December 2014 — the deal was that they couldn’t get married until Yusor graduated, so she finished her degree a semester early. 

Yusor’s younger sister, Razan, was 19 years old. She had just begun her second semester at NC State, where she was studying environmental architecture. 

As children, Deah, Yusor and Razan attended the Al-Iman School on Ligon Street, just down the road from NC State. They grew up in Raleigh. Sister Mussarut Jabeen, principal of the Al-Iman School, taught all three of them during elementary school and remembers them for their kind spirits. 

They were children, siblings and classmates. They were proud Muslims and leaders in their communities.

The three participated in various community service projects through their local mosque. Deah organized the program Project Refugee Smiles in an effort to bring dental care to Syrian refugees. Razan and Deah took to social media to combat the stereotypes they saw being unfairly cast upon Muslim Americans.

 

Feb. 10, 2015

A woman who had just gotten off the bus called 911 after hearing gunshots ring out near Deah and Yusor’s condominium complex in Chapel Hill. 

Deah’s body was found lifeless near the front door. Yusor and Razan had been shot in the head at close range in the kitchen. 

Deah is survived by his parents, Namee and Layla, his sister Suzanne and his brother Farris. Yusor and Razan are survived by their parents, Mohammad and Amira Bamyeh, and their brother Yousef.

“We share [the loss from the shootings] — both families,” Farris said. “I would argue they loved Deah and saw him as a son and we loved Yusor and saw her as one of us, too. It’s like we all felt like we lost something together. Maybe that was better to go through it with two families instead of just one.”

 

A year of healing

For Deah’s older brother, Farris Barakat, the year has been one of growth. 

“I lost patience for some things after that,” he said. “I’ve heard that was one of the effects after something like that happens. I didn’t want to wait to do what I wanted to do, in a sense.”

He took the trip to Turkey for Project Refugee Smiles — the trip Deah didn’t get to make. He went on the Hajj pilgrimage with his mother, but felt death had followed him there. 

“There was the incident where there was a big stampede that year, and we were on the fourth floor walking, and it was happening on the ground floor,” Farris said.

For Farris, daylight isn’t just a break from the sadness, but a gentle reminder of Deah, whose name means light.

“Sometimes, the nights are the worst … there are a lot of long nights,” Farris said.

Justine Hollingshead, NC State chief of staff for the vice chancellor and dean in the Division of Academic and Student Affairs, said she is inspired by how the families have taken their loss as an opportunity to educate others in the community. 

“The courage and the strength of the family is remarkable to me, to know that they’re grieving for the loss of their child or their brother or sister, and to put themselves out there to help us as a community to understand more has just been astonishing to me,” she said.

Jabeen explained that her sadness over the loss of Deah, Yusor and Razan is a valuable tool to teach the children of the Al-Iman School.

“What I want these children to understand is life is not stagnant; it keeps moving on, and the values that we have — it’s an ongoing thing,” she said. “You have to live these values, not just talk about it, not just write about it, draw pictures about it.”

Jabeen wears three green bracelets on her right arm bearing the names Deah, Yusor and Razan — one for each of them.

“If I wear one, then I know the other two will be saying, ‘How dare you wear for him and not for me?’” Jabeen said. “I keep hearing their voices, so I keep saying, ‘No, no, no, one for each. I have it, don’t worry.’”

 

Living their legacy

After the shooting, Farris’ life changed course. He now serves as executive director for the Light House Project, an initiative he started to renovate a home in downtown Raleigh to create a space for the Muslim youth to collaborate. 

“My mom and my dad inherited this house from my brother,” Farris said, “And we were talking about what we could do with it. We came up with a cool name, the Light House, because my brother’s name means light.”

The organization aims to reclaim the Muslim American narrative.

“For me, I’m just doing what I’m supposed to be doing,” Farris said. “I think it was just the obvious step forward, but it’s also meaningful.”

Monthly community service projects at the Al-Iman School, Jabeen explained, are ways she can continue to instill the values of Deah, Yusor and Razan in the schoolchildren all year long. They volunteer at My Deah’s Goodwill on Beryl Road and a women’s shelter down the street from the school.

“We are looking for opportunities where our students can go and give back to the community,” Jabeen said. “And they take this ownership of doing what they can do as a human being, as a Muslim. That’s very important that we instill these values in our children.”

Shortly after the shootings, NC State created the Our Three Winners scholarship fund to be awarded to students who embody the values of Deah, Yusor and Razan. 

“I’m very proud that we’ve been able to arrange the funds to endow scholarships in their honor,” Chancellor Randy Woodson said. “So there are many positive things that have happened this year, but I’m glad that we’re able to celebrate their lives and to continue to remind ourselves of their legacy and what they’ve done in terms of service acts for the community.”

The scholarship fund has been endowed in perpetuity, or forever. 

“You think about service, just the element of service, and how important that is to us at NC State. As many people would say, it’s part of our DNA and our fabric as a university,” Hollingshead said. “That was just one element that was important across the board to all three of those students, and they gave back in so many ways to NC State, to the Wolfpack community and the world over.”

 

Forward with faith

Despite the progress that has been made in carrying out the legacy of Our Three Winners, there is still progress to be made toward creating an environment of acceptance for all. 

Jabeen said even the schoolchildren, at their young ages, are beginning to notice how people outside of their community view them differently. 

“Our girls especially, they are very bold,” Jabeen said. “They don’t care what people think about them, they will say what they have to say. But of course, deep down, they do feel that there’s Islamophobia now, and they are not as comfortable as they used to be, as strong as they used to be. But they are doing what they can to make a difference.”

Jabeen views education as the route to creating a more tolerant community, and she stressed the importance of parent and teacher role models for children. 

“When children are little, naturally they are innocent, and naturally they look for good,” Jabeen said. “It’s the adults who make them who they become when they grow up. It’s the people around them, it’s the environment around them that forces them to choose one way or the other. Otherwise, this world would be so beautiful if everybody thought like a kid.”

Mirroring a quote Yusor gave in an interview with Jabeen for StoryCorps in May 2014, Jabeen spoke of the diversity that has shaped America for generations, making it the place people all around the world flock to for a chance at a better life.

“[The Muslim youth] are as American as any other American,” Jabeen said. “They will do anything for their country. We came to this country because of the diversity, because of it being so receptive of other cultures and other religions, and if they are going to change, then it’s not the same country we came to.”

At NC State, Hollingshead said the conversation is just getting started. 

“When you think about what’s the best place to have a conversation and help to educate people, it’s a university, it’s a college campus,” she said.

Hollingshead and Jabeen both agreed that in the wake of the shootings, it’s important to remember that our differences are things to celebrate.

“It’s the diversity that makes you beautiful,” Jabeen said. “And this is what the message should be out there.”

Hollingshead echoed this sentiment.

“At the end of the day, regardless of your religion, your faith, your ethnic background, your race, your sexual orientation, your gender identity, we’re all more similar than we are different,” Hollingshead said.