6 weeks post-tragedy, Seattle friends of Chapel Hill victims share their reflections

Zeinab Abrahim of Kirkland (left), a close family friend of the Chapel Hill victims and Sophia Malik (right), a resident physician in family medicine at Group Health, at a vigil held in honor of their departed friends on Feb. 13. (Photo by Alex Garland)

The last time Zeinab Abrahim met up with Yusor Abu-Salha was for a quick frozen yogurt run with a group of friends in North Carolina. One of the girls in the group had recently started donning the Muslim head-covering, or hijab, and the topic of discussion among the girls was how empowered they felt making the choice to wear it.

Abrahim, who moved to Seattle three years ago, and is a graduate student of international studies at the University of Washington, said she never realized this “simple memory” of just hanging out would be the last time she would see her friend, Yusor.

It is now a topic of speculation whether Abu-Salha’s headscarf might have had something to do with the Feb. 10 murder of the 21-year old University of North Carolina student, her sister, Razan Abu-Salha, and husband, Deah Barakat. While Barakat, who may not have appeared as visibly Muslim, lived at the apartment, problems with the neighbor and alleged shooter, Craig Stephen Hicks, were minimal.

It was only after Barakat and Yusor married five weeks before the shooting and she moved, that Hicks made threats over a parking spot.

When Abrahim was a senior at the North Carolina State University in 2009, she was involved with the school’s Muslim Student Association which was hosting a homeless shelter volunteering event in Raleigh, N.C. She now remembers this was the last time she saw Barakat, who was a freshman at the time.

According to her, this memory depicts Barakat’s character perfectly.

“They were kind, genuine talented, bright and selfless.”

family photo
The Abu-Salha-Barakat family during Razan Abu-Salha’s graduation, with Deah Barakat on the second from the left and Yusor Abu-Salha on the second from the right. (Photo from Deah Barakat’s remembrance Facebook page)

Barakat was a first-year dental student at UNC, Yusor had just been admitted to the dental school and Razan was an undergraduate architecture student at UNC. Barakat’s last Facebook post, dated Jan. 29, was of an evening where he and others gave food and free dental supplies to more than 75 homeless people.

For Abrahim, and other North Carolina transplants in Seattle who knew the families, it was difficult believing that something this violent and hateful could happen a few blocks from the UNC at Chapel Hill campus.

When news broke out that there was a shooting at the same complex Barakat lived in, both Adnan Mustafa and Sophia Malik, received a flurry of text messages from their families living in North Carolina.

Malik, who is a resident physician at Group Health said both her and her husband Mustafa, a physician at Sea Mar Community Health Centers, were speaking on a health professional panel that day at the University of Washington.

While at the talk and on the ride home, Mustafa told his wife not to look at her phone; he later broke the tragic news to her.

Husband and wife Deah Barakat and Yusor Abu-Salha hold up Barakat’s acceptance letter to dental school. (Photo from Deah Barakat’s remembrance Facebook page)

Similarly, Abrahim’s younger brother was waiting at the apartment and sending his family updates, after the sound of eight gunshots and girls screaming were heard by neighbors. According to all three, it was difficult being away from their North Carolina community when hearing of the tragedy, but said they were consoled after an outpouring of grief at a vigil in Seattle last month.

“It was really moving that people who I never met before were cutting out photos, making posters, bringing flowers and crying for them,” said Malik. “I knew from the internet that this was reaching people on a global level but seeing it in person — people wanting to grieve and honor them — was very powerful.”

In the few months surrounding the shootings, several incidents affecting Muslim Americans have occurred. In Seattle, a series of alleged hate crimes against Muslim Americans or those perceived as Muslim have taken headlines. Around the nation, a 15-year old Somali boy in Kansas City was killed in a hit-and-run car crash that is being investigated as a hate crime, an Iraqi immigrant in Dallas was fatally shot while photographing his first snowfall, and while police are thinking it was related to gang activity, social media has decried it as a racially-motivated. 

“The incidences need to be portrayed accurately,” said Abrahim, in reference to the spike in hate crimes toward Muslims. “Further investigation should be carried out, which it is, and I think we’re really valid for asking that.”

According to a report from the New York Times, Hicks was “obsessed” with a parking dispute, specifically one with Abu-Salha, who wore a head scarf. While Hicks’ ex-wife argued he would have spats over parking with many neighbors regardless of their religious background, Hicks’ Facebook was full of anti-religion and extremist atheist content. Early this month, prosecutors announced they would seek the death penalty for Hicks in the ongoing case.

For Abrahim, Malik and Mustafa, it is important people know “the kind of young adults they were.”

“A lot of people see themselves in [the victims], but at the same time, see them as the best examples of what this generation of American Muslims are doing,” said Malik. “Everybody feels that loss,”

Following the day of the shooting, she said it was easy to feel hopeless in light of the senseless act of hate, but was inspired by Barakat’s words about finding something to do in situations that seem hopeless like the situation in Syria.

Barakat was planning a trip to provide services to Syrian refugees in Turkey and was collecting dental-care supplies to distribute. Inspired by these acts of selflessness, the #ourthreewinners hashtag has been used to promote their legacy of giving taught to them by their Islamic faith. A fund has been established in their name, accumulating more than $840,000 in donations.

Their lives also inspired a can food drive called Feed Their Legacy, which has donated more than 10,000 cans nationally in the victims’ memory. The Al-Iman School, which is an Islamic school that the victims’ and Abrahim attended as elementary students and volunteered their time at later, also held a fundraiser two weeks ago, raising a total of $272,000 in donations and pledges toward the school.

According to Malik, people in the community want to keep the momentum going by supporting the type of community programs and education that goes into creating people like Deah, Yusor and Razan.

For Malik, “losing these precious gems that represented all the best in our community” inspired her to continue with a youth mentorship program that was launching the day after the shooting. The Healers of Tomorrow program connects health professionals with 10 young students and mentor them toward careers in health career.

“We want them to think about healing in general at an early age and to see the world in a way Deah did as a global citizen who wanted to heal the world.”

This story has been updated since its original publication. 

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