Chapel Hill Shooting: Friends Want Tragedy To Change How America Sees Islam

Feb 16, 2015

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.

Deah Barakat, Yusor Abu-Salha and Razan Abu-Salha
Credit Our Three Winners

“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.

Hussein Ahmad, a friend of Deah Barakat, says it's insulting to say the murders were motivated by a parking dispute. 'As if that's a valid reason to take away three lives just like that.'

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.”

Nida Allam, center, a friend of Yusor Abu-Salha and Deah Barakat
Credit Nida Allam

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?

Deah Barakat (bottom left) Yusor Abu-Salha (center bottom) and Razan Abu-Salha (center) at an N.C. State basketball game with friend Nada Salem (back right corner).
Credit Nada Salem

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.

'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.' - Mohamed Eltilib, friend of Deah Barakat