In the raw February days after Deah Shaddy Barakat, his wife, Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, and her sister, Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, were shot to death in Chapel Hill, mourners grieved not only the loss of their friends and family members, but the theft from this world of all the good the three young people promised to do during their lives.
And although no amount of altruism will bring them back, their passion for service will live on.
▪ Earlier this month, volunteers traveled to Turkey to hold two dental clinics for Syrian refugees, taking the place of Barakat and his wife, who were planning a mission trip when they were killed. More than 800 patients got treatment, and a foundation established with money given to the cause will fund such clinics for years to come.
▪ When classes start next week, seven students – six at N.C. State University and one at UNC-Chapel Hill – will attend school with part of the cost paid by scholarship funds raised in honor of the shooting victims.
▪ Later this year, a nonprofit launched by the Barakat family plans to open a community resource center in a home in east Raleigh that once belonged to Deah Barakat. The Light House Group – named for Deah, whose name in Arabic means “light” – plans to offer youth services, conduct Muslim outreach and incubate service organizations that need a place from which to launch.
These efforts and others, including the gathering of more than 15,000 cans of food for the Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina, have been a collective response by people in and outside of the victims’ Muslim community who heard about the shootings and felt moved to respond.
At times, Deah’s older brother, Farris, has struggled to balance the good that has come from the publicity that followed the shootings with what it has cost his and the Abu-Salha families.
“It is too high a price,” he said, walking through the two-story home on North Tarboro Street that is being renovated to become The Light House, which Farris plans to run. “I would rather have my brother back. But I know he is in a better place.”
For those who remain, he said, “Life is a test. Now we’re given an opportunity to do something good. We have to take it.”
Farris Barakat said it has been helpful to be occupied with meaningful work as the triple-murder case against Craig Stephen Hicks works its way through the court system.
Hicks was a neighbor of newlyweds Deah and Yusor in the Finley Forest condominium complex near the border of Chapel Hill and Durham. Other residents of the complex have told police that Hicks, 46, who was enrolled in community college courses aimed at becoming a paralegal, was obsessed with parking matters at the complex, sometimes leaving notes on windshields or summoning tow trucks when he felt people had violated the rules. Through social media, he also professed to be “anti-theist” and regarded religion as “delusions and lies.”
On Feb. 10, police say, he went to Deah Barakat’s condo, knocked on the door and shot Deah when he answered. Investigators said Hicks then went inside and shot each of the women in the head at close range. Before leaving, he shot Barakat again, according to police.
Hicks’ case is due before a Superior Court judge in Durham County the first week of November. No trial date has been set.
At the time of his death, Deah, 23, who was studying dentistry at UNC, was planning a trip to Turkey for a mission he called Project Refugee Smiles. He was using a crowdfunding site to try to raise $20,000 to pay for dental supplies to help children and adults who had fled the fighting in Syria, many of whom had never had proper dental care even when they lived in their own country.
He modeled the project loosely on one his wife, Yusor, 21, who would have begun dental school at UNC this fall, had participated in about year earlier.
Weeks after the shootings, Project Refugee Smiles had raised more than half a million dollars. Farris Barakat said about $400,000 came from the nonprofit United Muslim Relief. It’s enough money to start an endowment that could provide ongoing funding for annual trips.
Ali Heydari, a rising dental student who was close friends with Deah, helped take over planning for the mission trip. With the additional funding, extra volunteers, material donations and help from the Syrian American Medical Society Foundation, the group was able to organize two clinics at a Turkish school between July 29 and Aug. 2.
“It was amazing,” Heydari said a few days after returning. “We did a lot of fillings, a lot of extractions, a lot of root canals and fluoride varnishes. Some of the people were in a lot of pain, and we were able to help them. Some of the children were pretty scared at first, because they had never had dental treatment before. But afterward, they were so happy; they were hugging us.”
UNC officials and the Dental Foundation honored Deah and Yusor’s memories by creating a scholarship at the School of Dentistry in their names. The school says the award will provide support to a student or students who plan a local, national or international service project that serves a community in need. The school plans to award the scholarship this fall, but has not yet named a recipient.
This week, NCSU notified six incoming students that they would receive renewable $2,000 scholarships this year. Deah and Yusor had undergraduate degrees from NCSU, and Razan was an architecture student there.
The money comes from a fund that has raised nearly $300,000 so far, which also will be used to create an endowment. The school said the recipients were chosen “for their commitment to leadership, service and creativity, attributes that distinguished the lives of the three lost members of the Wolfpack community.” The scholarships will be for two students each in the Poole College of Management, the College of Sciences and the College of Design.
The first scholarships will go to Olivia Kehoe of Charlotte, Charles Eaton of Raleigh, Nicole Adam of Hickory, Wajeha Barakat of Raleigh, who is no relation to Deah Barakat, Sarah McCain Grant of Oak Island and another recipient whose name has not been released.
Kehoe, 19, who plans to attend the College of Science on her way to becoming a neurologist, said the gift was a welcome surprise. She was aware of the shootings, she said, but did not know about the scholarships until she was told she had won one.
Kehoe has spent many nights over the past three years volunteering at Levine Children’s Hospital in Charlotte, and has worked for years with children with autism.
“I sort of hope to keep the memory (of Barakat and the Abu-Salha sisters) alive through my volunteer work,” Kehoe said.
Farris Barakat, who is still working on a plan for his Light House Group, said it’s fitting for his brother’s death to help inspire good works by others. One of the most grievous ironies, he said, is that one of the shots that killed Deah – whose plan was to open a practice with his wife and to provide dental care to people here and in places where it might be considered a luxury – was in mouth. The bullet shattered his teeth.
“And his legacy,” Farris said, “is making other people smile.”