Thousands gather to remember slain Chapel Hill students
Posted February 11, 2015
Updated February 12, 2015
Chapel Hill, N.C. — Nada Salem has a memento from Deah Shaddy Barakat and Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha that she will forever cherish.
"Deah and Yusor both bought me my first dentistry school sweater so we could announce it together," she said, her voice filled with emotion. "Two days ago, she sent me a picture of us in our matching sweaters, excited about us starting together."
Salem spoke in front of thousands during a vigil Wednesday night inside The Pit, a popular student gathering spot at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Many held candles in memory of Barakat, 23, his wife, Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, 21, and her sister, Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, 19. Each were found shot in the head Tuesday evening at Finley Forest condominiums on Summerwalk Circle in Durham County.
Craig Stephen Hicks, 46, who lives in the complex, surrendered to Chatham County authorities following the shootings and is charged with three counts of first-degree murder.
Investigators believe the triple-shooting was over a possible parking dispute, although authorities said they haven’t ruled out the possibility that the motive was bias.
Committing violence or any other acts of retaliation will do no good, said Barakat's brother, Farris, who also spoke during the vigil.
"I plead that you live in their legacy, that you share the good that you know of them, and take the message my mom wanted to make public and do not fight fire with fire," he said.
Students remembered as selfless
Caring for others and thinking of more than themselves is how Barakat and Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha lived their lives – especially when it came to children.
Barakat's focus on giving back began at Broughton High School, where he worked on a project to raise money for children in Africa.
"He had a huge happy heart and he was infectious," said Myra Smith, the school's International Baccalaureate program coordinator. "Obviously, the work he was doing and heading toward, the whole world loses."
In a YouTube video, Barakat asked for donations for an upcoming trip to Turkey to provide dental care for Syrian refugees.
Barakat talked about opening a clinic for children after finishing dental school, said Imad Ahmad, his friend and former roommate.
“I just can’t explain how impactful he is in everybody’s life, especially mine,” he said. “I was in a troubled state when I met him and as soon as I met him he became a foundation for me.”
Dr. Suzanne Barakat said her brother was well-known for his kindness, lightheartedness, dedication to community service and his loves for basketball and “anything Steph Curry,” an all-star basketball player for the Golden State Warriors.
"Six weeks ago, I cried tears of joy at my baby brother’s wedding,” she said during a Wednesday afternoon press conference. “Today we are crying tears of unimaginable pain over the execution style murders of my brother Deah, his bride, Yusor, and her younger sister and best friend, Razan.”
Suzanne Barakat described the couple as “kindred spirits,” and said her youngest sister-in-law was creative, generous and a loyal friend.
At the UNC School of Dentistry, Barakat, a second-year student, was well-liked, said Jane Weintraub, school dean.
“His 1000-watt smile, his way of truly getting to know those around him,” she said. “His incredible heart for service, his generosity, his leadership and much more.”
Grief expressed online
In an online article titled “My best friend was killed and I don’t know why,” Amira Ata, a Raleigh woman who knew Yusor Abu-Salha since the third grade, credits her friend for who she is today.
“She always put others ahead of herself, just like her husband, Deah Barakat,” Ata said in an article on the website for Fusion, a cable network. “I am the person I am today because of her. She’s a really sweet person, you never catch her angry. She’s patient, very loving, like her mom, she’s caring. She’s a good person.”
Ata, a teacher at a Raleigh private school, recalled how Yusor Abu-Salha helped deliver toothbrushes and dental floss her students collected for those in need in Turkey. Abu-Salha paid extra baggage fees to have the items delivered, she said.
Yusor Abu-Salha grew up interested in the helping side of medicine – her dad is a psychiatrist and her mother helps with his practice, Ata said.
“I feel sad, but I also feel happy because she didn’t die alone,” she said in the article. “I’m not really sure how I feel exactly. I wish I could see her again — last time I saw her was Sunday. We were just talking about pictures she had posted from her surprise bridal shower in the mountains. I was planning on seeing her tomorrow, just to hang out. It’s just very unreal. It doesn’t make sense. I’m trying to stay faithful.”
A father's pain
Mohammad Abu-Salha, the father of Yusor and Razan, also had difficulty coming to terms with their deaths.
"I don't even know how to feel yet," he said.
"They lived a clean life, never gave us a bad day," he added. "We raised them in our faith. We raised them to love their country and their people, and everybody’s heart is broken. Everybody. All walks of life. The whole city did not sleep last night."
The slain students will be buried Friday, according to a Facebook page dedicated to their memory. A special prayer service will be held at 1:35 p.m. Thursday on the Method Road soccer fields across from the Islamic Association of Raleigh. The prayer service is open to the public.