Local News

Chapel Hill shooting: Friends want tragedy to change how America sees Islam

Posted February 17, 2015

Deah Shaddy Barakat, left, Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha and Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha

This report first appeared on WUNC/North Carolina Public Radio as part of its education coverage.

Reema Khrais is the 2014 Fletcher Fellow focused on Education Policy Reporting. The Fletcher Fellowship is a partnership between WUNC and UNC’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication funded in part by the Fletcher Foundation.

CHAPEL HILL – The families of the three young Muslims fatally shot in Chapel Hill last week have been urging people to see the incident as a hate crime. Chapel Hill police, which have arrested and charged a suspect, say they’re looking at all possible motives, and the FBI has opened its own parallel preliminary inquiry.

But regardless of what authorities have found so far, the tragedy struck a chord with many young Muslims – especially the closest friends of Deah Barakat, Yusor Abu-Salha and Razan Abu-Salha.

Not too far from the campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, four best friends — all young men — live in a big green house. When you walk into their home, the first thing you notice are the full-sized flags representing Palestine, Bangladesh, Nigeria and the Sudan.  

Hussein Ahmad, one of the friends, says the flags show off each of the families' heritages and give their simple living room some flavor.

“Yeah that was it, and it was a cheap, easy way to do it,” Ahmad says. It’s also to “show that we’re all Muslim brothers no matter where we come from.”

The four friends knew Barakat, who was 23 and a second-year student at the UNC School of Dentistry. The friends played basketball with him regularly. One of them went to middle school with him. Others studied with him in the library.

“He’d come to the house, watch TV, watch football games every Sunday,” says Sammy Said, a junior at UNC and the youngest of the four friends.

He says he wasn’t too worried when he heard last Wednesday that three people were shot in the neighborhood where Barakat lived.

“These guys were in shock, but to be honest I shrugged it off,” Said says.

But when Said and the others didn’t get any text messages or calls back from their friend, they jumped into their cars and rushed over to his neighborhood. That’s when they got the news.

Ahmad’s sister was close to the three victims. She texted him to ask: "What’s going on?"

“I said, ‘They found Deah, Yusor and Razan and they’ve been killed,’” Ahmad remembers. “My sister was like, ‘Do they know why?’ and I said, ‘No, I don’t.’ And she texted me back saying, ‘Was it the neighbor?’”

Uncomfortable around their neighbor

Barakat and his wife Yusor Abu-Salha’s neighbor, Craig Hicks, 46, turned himself into authorities hours after the shootings on Tuesday and was charged with three counts of first-degree murder. Barakat and Yusor, 21, were newlyweds, and Yusor was going to join Barakat as a student at the dental school in the fall. Razan Abu-Salha, 19, Yusor’s younger sister, was studying architecture and design at N.C. State University.

Barakat’s four friends strongly believe it was a hate crime. They all heard from mutual friends that the three had felt hated and uncomfortable around their neighbor -- and went out of their way to make sure they didn’t upset him.

Ahmad says it’s insulting what the Chapel Hill Police Department has said so far — that the murders were motivated by a parking dispute between Hicks and his neighbors.

“As if that’s a valid reason to take away three lives just like that, as if that’s better than a hate crime,” Ahmad says.

Mohamed Eltilib, another one of the friends, says authorities’ statements so far make him feel like Muslims are being treated as second-class citizens. Eltilib, who is African-American, says the incident reminds him of regular conversations he has with his mother about being respectful and careful with law enforcement and about being Muslim in America after 9/11. He says that when his mother calls him, she reminds him: "Watch out."

“Every time I get off the phone with her, she’s always like, ‘Be careful, be careful,’” he says.

Eltilib’s mom even felt uncomfortable about his living arrangement because she was afraid that a house full of Muslims could be a target. He says that surprised him, but that after his three friends’ shooting deaths, it doesn’t seem so outlandish.

“Some of us have beards and we talk Arabic and we don’t hide our Islam so (my mom) was worried that people could see us a threat,” Eltilib says.

Heightened self-awareness

For other Muslims, that fear of how people will perceive them is very real. On the campus of N.C. State University in Raleigh, three young women were recently catching up at a library. They were also close to Barakat and even more so to his wife, Yusor, and her younger sister, Razan.

Nida Allam asked: “They were so innocent, they never did anything wrong, how can I protect myself?”

Nada Salem added: “So why am I not next?"

And Morjan Rahhal concluded: “It doesn’t matter who you are — you can be the best Muslim or the worst Muslim, and they won’t care.”

Allam, Salem and Rahhal wear headscarves, and  Salem says the killings of her friends have frightened her. She says one day last week, her family ran out of milk at home, and although she wanted to drive to Walmart to buy some, she hesitated.

“I texted my brother, ‘Hey can you go pick it up? I’m too scared to go,’” Salem remembers.

Allam, Salem and Rahhal say these past few days, they’ve been sprinting to their cars when it’s late, or that they avoid altogether going out alone after dark. They say they’ve always felt that as Muslims they have to work extra hard to prove themselves, and that now those feelings are magnified.

“I used to be so comfortable,” Salem says. “I remember people would come up to me and be like, ‘How’d you work in a place — like when I worked in Chili's? They’d be like, ‘How did you work with a scarf on?’ And I’d be like, ‘What am I supposed to do? Hide it?

Salem and her friends say they won’t take their headscarves off. And that they don’t want to hide. Rahhal and Salem say that, if anything, these recent events have brought them closer to their faith.

“The only solution is to not take off your scarf, not to hide who you are and not to protest and to educate.”

“Yeah, and represent yourself through your actions, that’s the only thing you can do," Salem adds.

Legacy of kindness, dedication and service

Eltilib, one of the four friends in Chapel Hill, says he hopes the shootings will encourage people to change their perceptions of Islam.

“Don’t let the media or ISIS or whatever may be going on in other parts of the world shape your opinion,” Eltilib says. “Base your opinions off the Muslims in your community, especially these three. I feel like they perfectly blended being an American and being a Muslim.”

All of the young men and women agree. Since last week, they’ve been asking themselves: "What would Yusor, Razan and Deah do?" They want to share the same kindness, the same dedication to service and the same compassion the three embodied.

They say that, if anything, the murders have made the Muslim community stronger. Hussein Ahmad scrolls through his phone. He’s part of a new group chat called Pack of Brothers, composed of men who are Muslim from Raleigh, Cary, San Diego, New York and other places around the country.

This weekend, they met at a UNC gym to do what Barakat would likely do on a Saturday afternoon:  play basketball. Ahmad says that Barakat used to play with many of them regularly.

“This reminds us of him, I’m sure everyone right now is happy,” Ahmad says. “We’ve been grieving these last few days, so this is a good way for us to relax, to be together and remember a great man.”

Barakat, according to Ahmad, used to pull out a white towel during every basketball game, and take it to the corner of the gym and pray. It’s something that, on this particular Saturday, most of the guys did.

31 Comments

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  • Larry Lynch Feb 18, 2015
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    Sean- you could not be any more wrong if you tried- you are an infidel in the eyes of muslims- end of story. Now under muslamic doctrine they have the right to kill you if you choose not to convert to their "religion". END OF STORY. so, I would encourage you to take off your wesern "blinders" educate yourself about islam and then act accordingly. You cant ignorance to a muslim for failure to convert.

  • Judge Smails Feb 18, 2015
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    To get back on point of the article, Hicks killed three "PEOPLE". He was fed up with being bullied by them and their lack of being able to follow a simple rule, stop parking in his parking spot. The towing company had quit doing their "contracted job" and the complex manager just ignored Hicks. He probably had yet "another altercation" with them that day and just flat out snapped. If everyone wants to judge him by reading what he had posted on Facebook, they should also read his posts saying he did not believe in or oppose "ANYONE'S" choice of religion.

  • Alan Baker Feb 18, 2015
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    You missed my point. Of course you shouldn't be expected to apologize for every story that involves Christians in a negative light. There are nearly 2 Billion Christians on the planet, of varying faiths, colors, cultures, and nationalities; it would ridiculous to expect every single one to make a personal phone call when someone has performed an action that doesn't represent their beliefs (especially when a large percentage of them are so poor they're unlikely to have a toilet, never mind a phone.) There are 1.8B Muslims on the planet and the situation is parallel, but for various reasons, the largest being a promoted and socially acceptable form of willful ignorance, it's okay to bray silence is complicity and all Muslims must be the same. These kids had much, much more in common with the posters on this board than they did with radicalized militants halfway around the globe.

  • Sean Creasy Feb 18, 2015
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    If they truly wanted to change America's perception they would actively seek out and stop the extremists causing this perception.... Displaying more tolerance for other religions couldn't hurt either after all we aren't all infidels just because we worship God in a different way than them....

  • John Jay Feb 18, 2015
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    Why was the father's Mosque under federal watch?

    Must be because the religion is just too peaceful for wild, violent America.

  • Sandy Parks Feb 18, 2015
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    Christopher, the problems in the Bible's references to slavery are tough for me. But the Abolitionist movement was profoundly Christian and continues today. I am not aware of another religion - or atheism - working similarly.

    Did you ever research what ritual uncleanness surrounding blood and death signified in the Old Testament and the New? Or what the purposes of the dietary and ceremonial laws were? Interesting topic. For the NT take on those, see Acts 11 and Romans 14:13f.

    I repeat, I have not read the Qu'ran. I did not ask Muslims to either defend or repudiate other Muslims; that was other posters. I have heard that terrorists are perverting Islam and would like to know how from those who know the Qu'ran.

    Regarding the Christian and Muslim Scriptures being about the same, I am calling your bluff. Support your claims. Does the Qu'ran speak of sacrifice, redemption and peace with God? Did Jesus say to slaughter unbelievers?

    What if Jesus was who He claimed to be?

  • Dan Basset Feb 18, 2015
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    Since you failed to cite any sources, I decided to do a little research of my own:

    http://www.rawstory.com/rs/2015/01/americas-10-worst-terror-attacks-by-christian-fundamentalist-and-far-right-extremists/

    Article written by Alex Henderson on 1/11/15, purporting to enumerate the ten most egregious terrorist attacks in the US by non-Muslims. Only three of the examples resulted in more than two fatalities and only five were perpetrated by parties with any ties to neo-Christian groups. Oh, and the author had to research back 31 YEARS to find ten examples. And this article was written five weeks ago. I bet I could find fifty examples from 2014 forward of Muslim terrorist acts that would make Timothy McVeigh look like Mother Teresa.

  • Sandy Parks Feb 17, 2015
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    Proudly Unaffiliated, your threat is inappropriate. Unhelpful. Maybe terrorizing. And unkind to others in our community. (Although you are unaffiliated I am sure you value kindness.) American citizens lead by example and convince by persuasion. As you know well, we do not impose religion or irreligion.

  • Sandy Parks Feb 17, 2015
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    David Hartman, while it is not my intent to defend or endorse everything Keller does, (if that is who you are referring to in your post,) I think that if you are going to accuse him in public of such crimes you should provide verifiable substantiation, including contexts for comments. I do stand by his observation about religions being like their gods. If you worship a harsh, unredemptive god, you will become an angry person who has no hope or peace to offer to self or others. If you worship a God who claims He is Truth you will be interested in learning the truth and making sure you are speaking it.

  • Alan Baker Feb 17, 2015
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    CAIR is an US-based organization involved with building American/Muslim relations in this country; their stance on beheadings is a rather open book. (Hint: They don't like them either.) Meanwhile I haven't seen press releases from the NFL, Teamsters, Boy Scouts, or the cast of "Friends" about it either but for some reason you don't seem to have a problem figuring out their opinion on the matter.

    Or maybe you just really like the sound of crickets...

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