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Volunteering to honor a legacy

More than 350 students from the UNC School of Dentistry spent the day digging, building or cleaning to assist 22 local organizations, all in memory of a former student.

On any other Thursday morning, third-year dental student Brian Swift would have been in a classroom reviewing X-rays.

But on Sept. 17, Swift and hundreds of other UNC-Chapel Hill dental students left their classrooms behind and followed in the footsteps of a former classmate by donating their time to help others.

“Some things are more important,” Swift said.

More than 350 students from the UNC School of Dentistry spent the day digging, building or cleaning to assist 22 local organizations.

Referred to as “DEAH DAY” – which stands for Directing Efforts And Honoring Deah And Yusor — it was their way to honor the legacies of the late Deah Barakat and Yusor Abu-Salha, who were killed earlier this year along with Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha. Barakat was a dental student; his wife, Yusor, planned attend to the School of Dentistry this year; and Razan, Yusor’s sister, was a student at N.C. State.

“DEAH DAY was perfect because that’s just the kind of young man Deah was, that’s what Yusor and Razan were like, and our students are like that too,’’ said Chancellor Carol L. Folt. “For the students to have that idea and see it through in such a great way was really perfect.”

A close friend and classmate of Barakat, Omar AbdelBaky partnered with other student organizers and began planning the service day just weeks after the February deaths. The day of service, he said, was the obvious way to remember the two.

“We got the idea for DEAH DAY because we knew we wanted to honor Deah and Yusor,” he said. “We knew the thing they prioritized the most — and something that inspired everyone — was their commitment to service.”

School of Dentistry administrators cancelled classes for the day to allow students to partake in various projects around the Triangle. The volunteers provided nearly 1,200 hours of service at sites ranging from Habitat to Humanity in Efland to packing food at Table in Carrboro.

“I believe that Deah would have loved this day,” said Sommer Wisher, who spent the morning planting a garden at the Chapel Hill Ronald McDonald House. “I think doing this in honor of him is something that will put a good mark on something that was so tragic.”

One focal point of the day was The Light House Project, a home owned by Deah that now is being transformed into a community center to support the youth in Raleigh. A dozen students spent three hours helping to renovate the home, which will soon feature study rooms and a prayer room.

Namee Barakat, Deah’s father, stopped by the site to visit with the students — an experience he said brought him to tears.

“This is a great project and a great, noble thing to do,” he said. “We’re so touched and so pleased. Words cannot describe how grateful we are for what they’re doing and what’s going on here. … I came here and started crying seeing all these beautiful guys and girls doing what they can to help the situation and do something that Deah always loved to do with a lot of passion.”

Students said the day was bittersweet because Barakat and Abu-Salha would have — should have — been among those leading the project.

“[Deah] would have been right by me or he would have been at the food bank,” Swift said. “He would have been doing something.”

AbdelBaky hopes the day of service will grow in the coming years both as a platform for helping the community and an opportunity to honor the positive legacies of Barakat and Abu-Salha.

“We want this to keep going and we want it to keep growing,” he said. “I can totally see it as a university day or even a national day someday, where people use DEAH DAY as a day of service and a day to step back from the things that keep us busy and really remember that there are so many people in need.

“After an awful day in February, it’s really nice to know that we’re remembering them through positivity. I know that the big thing is replacing darkness with light and using service and good to remember them and honor them. We know that it’s something that would make them proud.”