Sometimes tragedy brings out the best in people. At a vigil Feb. 11 for three students slain the night before, community leaders, friends and family members expressed the hope this would be the case now.
They called for unity and love in the wake of the tragic shooting deaths of Deah Barakat, 23; Yusor Abu-Salha, 21; and Razan Abu-Salha, 19 – three young Muslims, a fact that attracted national and global media attention.
“Love is more divine than hatred,” said Imam Abdullah Antepli, Muslim chaplain at Duke University, to the estimated 2,000 people gathered at the Pit at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
“I plead that you live in their legacy,” said Farris Barakat’s, Deah’s older brother. “Do not fight fire with fire. Do not reply to ignorance with ignorance.”
During the service, photos of the slain students in happier times flashed on a screen beside the podium. There were family photos of Yusor and Razan, who were sisters, and wedding photos of Deah and Yusor, who married in December. The three had worn plenty of red, since Deah and Yusor both attended N.C. State University and Razan was a design student there this year.
But there was also Carolina blue, including an obligatory Tar Heel couple’s photo in front of the Old Well, because Deah was a second-year dental student at Carolina and Yusor had just been admitted to the School of Dentistry for the fall semester.
The chancellors of both schools spoke at the vigil and at a news conference held an hour earlier. Both expressed gratitude for the messages of support they had received all day.
“We have seen an outpouring of love, not just in our own community, region and state, but across the world – people who want to affirm that we do not have to feel alone at this moment,” said UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Carol L. Folt. “These were such amazing people, sensitive, generous. From what I hear, their main interest was saving the world. We want the legacy of these three wonderful students to be a legacy of hope and understanding.”
N.C. State Chancellor Randy Woodson called the flow of positive messages “remarkable to witness.”
“The best thing we can do, and what we are doing,” he said, “is to come together as a community and to support those who have entrusted their lives to us.”
Chancellor Debra Saunders-White of N.C. Central University, whose college has one of the largest Muslim faculty and student populations in the state, also came to show support. “We stand with you today as one community,” she said at the news conference. “We are here with you, shoulder to shoulder.”
Many of the mourners crowded into the Pit knew the facts of the tragic event: the three had been shot around 5 p.m. Tuesday in the couple’s apartment on Summerwalk Circle, a quiet neighborhood about a mile east of campus. That same night, Craig Stephen Hicks, 46, a neighbor, turned himself in to authorities and was charged with three counts of first-degree murder.
Hicks is being held without bond in the Durham County Jail. Although a police statement attributed a parking dispute as the preliminary motive for the killings, the police are also investigating the possibility that the murders were hate crimes.
At the vigil, the mourners stood silently, some holding candles that sputtered in the chill wind. A young woman in a green hijab wept softly. Over the next hour, speaker after speaker told the stories beyond the headlines, stories of three young people already seeking to make a difference in the world. The Facebook page created in their memory called them “Our Three Winners.”
Deah Barakat, for example, had provided free dental supplies to the homeless and was working with his wife on a project to send dental supplies to refugees from war-torn Syria. The dental student also was known for his thousand-watt smile, big bear hugs and surprise gifts to friends. Yusor Abu-Salha served food at soup kitchens and loved pancakes, they said, and Razan Abu-Salha was an amazing sister, friend and artist.
The loss of young lives is particularly tragic, because “there are so many hopes and dreams that die with them,” said UNC President Tom Ross at the news conference. His response to others calling attention to differences in society was “We are one humanity. It’s important to remember that, “ he said. “We need to stand together. We need to show the world that all of us are one community and speak with one voice.”
Expressing dismay at the labels that may be applied to Chapel Hill because of the murders, Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt countered with some labels of his own at the vigil.
“This community, this university, this town is a welcoming town, a compassionate town, a peace-loving town,” he said. “I know this because the three souls we lost today helped not only to create but to sustain that truth about who we are as a community – welcoming, compassionate, peace-loving.”
Another vigil for the students was scheduled to be held at 6 p.m. Thursday (Feb. 12) in the Brickyard on the N.C. State campus.