Deah Barakat, his wife, Yusor Abu-Salha and Razan Abu Salha. Photo Facebook/Our Three Winners.
Members of the Duke community joined more than 1,000 local residents Wednesday in remembering "three winners," a family of young Muslim students who in their short life had affected many lives.
Before an overflow crowd that filled every available space in UNC-Chapel Hill's central "Pit," speakers honored Deah Barakat, a student in the UNC School of Dentistry, his wife, Yusor Abu-Salha, who had planned to begin her dental studies at UNC next fall, and her sister Razan Abu-Salha. All three were shot dead Monday night in Chapel Hill. Neighbor Craig Hicks has been charged with three counts of first-degree murder.
"This is the saddest, most heart-breaking and incomprehensible day," said UNC-CH Chancellor Carol Folt, the sadness being broken only by "the outpouring of love from around the world" for the three young people.
"We want the legacy of these three to be the legacy of hope and understanding," Folt said.
Police say their investigation is ongoing, but family friends and members of the Muslim community express concerns that the shootings were related to the family's faith. The shootings attracted international attention and launched a global #MuslimLivesMatter social media campaign.
But at the vigil Wednesday night, the focus was not on hate crimes but the many lives the three people had changed. The three had close connections to UNC-Chapel Hill and to N.C. State University, where they were students, but their ties extended to Duke throughout the Triangle because of their significant amount of volunteer work.
Barakat had spent the previous weekend in downtown Durham providing free dental care to low-income residents, said his brother Farris Barakat. He also was raising funds in conjunction with the Syrian American Medical Society to go to Syrian refugee camps this summer to provide dental care to refugees.
His wife Yusor had also previously traveled to Turkey to engage in dental relief and was active in several other causes. Imam Abdullah Antepli, Duke's chief representative of Muslim Affairs, encouraged those at the vigil to take up the dreams of the three slain students.
"There are things we can do and things we can't do," Antepli said. "We can't bring them back. We can't punish the criminal because that is reserved for the legal system.
"But we can support their family in their grief and hold them in our thoughts and prayers. We can remember three beautiful souls and imagine what they might become. And most importantly, we can take part in fulfilling their dreams … We can make their dreams of peace come true, God willing."
People from throughout the Triangle filled the UNC-Chapel Hill Pit Wednesday for the vigil. Photo Austin Root/UNC General Alumni Association.
Omid Safi, director of Duke's Islamic Studies Center and a former UNC-Chapel Hill professor, also called upon those at the vigil to be inspired by the "lives of Deah, Yusor and Razan."
"What all three teach us through their lives is to connect the suffering all of us feel in our lives to suffering felt throughout the world," Safi said. "They teach us that our humanity is obviously wrapped up with the humanity around the world."
Safi urged all not to give in to despair and to have "faith that at the end of the day, knowledge is more luminous than ignorance, justice more beautiful than intolerance and love more divine than hatred."
Prior to the vigil, Duke Vice President for Student Affairs Larry Moneta represented Duke at a news conference to discuss the aftermath of the shootings. Moneta expressed condolences to the family from Duke President Richard H. Brodhead and the entire Duke community.
"When a North Carolina student is harmed, all of our students are harmed," Moneta said. "When a Muslim student anywhere in the state, anywhere in the country is harmed, all of our students are harmed. Grief occurs in but a moment, but healing will take much longer. We have to commit the same solidarity we demonstrate tonight to a much lengthier period of solidarity to enable our students to heal."
To donate to Syrian Dental Relief's Project Refugee Smiles, the organization Deah was assisting, click here. The website includes a video he recorded for the project.