RALEIGH, N.C. — Shortly before they were gunned down, a young Muslim couple was eating out with relatives when the conversation turned to anti-Islamic attitudes in the United States.
It was January 2015, months before the massacres in Chattanooga, Paris and San Bernardino. Deah Barakat and Yusor Abu-Salha had just gotten married and started living together in an apartment near the University of North Carolina.
When Barakat’s mother worried aloud that the family could be harmed because of their religion, “we were all laughing it off, like: ‘Nothing bad is going to happen. This is America,'” said Deah’s brother, Farris.
“‘Watch it happen,'” Farris Barakat recalled his sister-in-law saying. “‘You guys won’t be laughing.'”
About 10 days later, the couple was killed in their apartment along with Yusor’s younger sister, Razan. A white neighbor, who described himself as an atheist and expressed disdain for religion, has been charged with capital murder.
The families believe the three were targeted because of their faith; the sisters’ father says federal prosecutors recently told him they are still considering charging the defendant, Craig Hicks, with a hate crime.
The deaths of the three young Muslims lie at the intersection of themes that have gripped the American psyche in recent months: gun violence, attitudes toward Islam and the justice system’s handling of racially charged slayings.
Yet as the anniversary of the killings draw near, the victims’ families are channeling their grief elsewhere, into deeply personal philanthropic projects meant to honor them.
“Deah, Yusor and Razan were very good representatives of Muslim-Americans,” said Farris Barakat. “We’re not scary. We’re not ‘the other.’ And I think people should see that.”
The families see the charitable projects as a continuation of volunteer work the three victims were passionate about. It’s work that’s needed all the more, the grieving relatives say, since terror attacks in the U.S. and Europe have ratcheted up anti-Muslim rhetoric, including calls to turn away Syrian refugees.
“There’s this concept in Islam called a continuous charity,” Farris Barakat said. “The idea is that your good deeds don’t have to end when you die.”
In August, Farris Barakat and his father, Namee, traveled to Turkey to complete a project that 23-year-old Deah Barakat had launched before his death: a dental clinic for Syrian refugees. Fifteen dentists and 40 or so other volunteers treated about 800 refugees, most of them children.
“These kids are in so much need, and it’s not by choice,” said Namee Barakat, a native of Syria who came to the U.S. in the 1980s. “I cannot believe anyone would refuse these refugees” entry to the U.S.
Reshaping negative attitudes about Muslims is a key goal of Farris Barakat’s charity, The Light House Project. He is renovating a house his brother owned in Raleigh to serve as a community center, host after-school programs and provide office space for charities including United Muslim Relief, which tackles poverty and related conditions in developing countries.
Scholarships have been created to honor the victims at North Carolina State University, and at the UNC School of Dentistry, which held a day of service in their honor. Deah Barakat was a student at UNC’s dental school; Yusor Abu-Salha, 21, had been accepted to study there. Razan Abu-Salha was a 19-year-old student at N.C. State who had stopped by her sister and brother-in-law’s apartment for dinner the night all three were killed.
Razan Abu-Salha volunteered alongside her sister and brother-in-law at dentistry clinics in rural North Carolina, her father has said.
Yusor Abu-Salha met her husband while the two helped run the Muslim Student Association at N.C. State, and she had planned to travel with him to Turkey for the free dental clinic.
She discussed growing up as a Muslim in the U.S. in an interview recorded in 2014 as part of the StoryCorps oral history project and broadcast by North Carolina Public Radio.
“Although in some ways I do stand out, such as the hijab I wear on my head, the head covering, there’s still so many ways I feel so embedded in the fabric that is our culture. … There are so many people from so many different places, of different backgrounds and religions. But here we’re all one — one culture,” she said.
Hicks, the defendant, had been brazen in Facebook rants about his disdain for Islam, Judaism and Christianity. His attorneys didn’t return messages seeking comment.
No trial date has been set in the state case.
Authorities initially noted that Hicks had been in a parking dispute with some of the victims, and prosecutors have raised that issue in court. But Chapel Hill Police Chief Chris Blue later said he may have overemphasized that in discussing a possible motive.
The slain women’s father, psychiatrist Mohammad Abu-Salha, addressed members of Congress at a public forum on violence against Muslims in October. Such advocacy is important, he said, even if it means pushing aside the raw grief.
“You have to just block your feelings and be professional or appropriate or calculated or natural in those occasions,” Abu-Salha said. “But you just go back home at night and you sit down and you grieve again.
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