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Scenes From The Vigil: 'It's On Us To Make This Change'

The UNC Chapel Hill vigil for three slain students. UNC Dental School students are in the center of the image. 2/11/15
Eric Hodge

People in Chapel Hill and across the Triangle are grieving. Last night was the first public gathering to honor the three Muslim students who were shot and killed this week. Deah Barakat, Yusor Abu-Salha and Razan Abu-Salha. Their neighbor has been charged with their murders.

wunc's Reema Khrais attended the vigil and filed this report for NPR:

WUNC's Jorge Valencia was also at the vigil. Here's what he saw:

It was cold when Ahmed Mossabeh started reading from the Quran. But from the stage where he was standing, he couldn't even see all of the people who were with him. People completely filled the heart of UNC Chapel Hill, listening to three verses. They amounted to this: Deah, Yusor and Razan are with God. And they are in peace.

But the Islamic scholar Omid Safi asked, like everyone else, asked why their lives had ended with violence.

"I've spent 25 years of my life studying philosophy and theology and there is not an answer that I have read in any book that can make sense out of this nonsense," said Safi.

Hundreds packed the vigil at UNC Chapel Hill.
Credit Eric Hodge
Hundreds packed the vigil at UNC Chapel Hill.

There were, however, a lot of answers for how people would remember the young people. Farris Barakat spoke about his younger brother Deah with a smile.

"Literally, I've laughed at how amazing it is for my brother to first get married before me. Right?"  

Deah was a student at the UNC dental school. He was 23 years old, and he'd recently gotten married to Yusor. Yusor was going to start at the dental school in the fall. They were happy they'd get to be together, and they both did a lot of volunteering.

Just as an example, Deah was raising money for refugees from the war in Syria. A friend of his, Omar Abdelbaky remembers the time Deah surprised him with a toy helicopter that he had said he wanted.

"With no, not me asking for nothing at all. I mentioned it in passing. He was just that type of person, so willing to make the people around him happy," Abdelbaky said.

As more friends started to speak, an image started to emerge of whom Deah and Yusor were. And of Razan, who was Yusor's younger sister.

"Sorry I'm trying to not cry," she said.

Yasmin Inaya remembered Razan as the best friend she could ask for. Razan was 19. She was studying graphic design at NC State. She had a project called "Optimism is the lesson of the prophet."

"She loved anything design," said Inaya. "She loved helping others. And she loved breakfast food, French toast being her favorite."

Nada Salam, a friend of Yusor's, said something that crystallized what all friends were saying about the three. She said she hopes people, instead of remembering them with tears, they'll remember them with laughter.  

"To laugh at how clumbsy Deah was at playing basketball, and how Yusor loved having pancakes for breakfast, dinner and lunch, and how Razan loved to read, and she was so geeky, but so cute."

Surrounding the stage at the vigil was a rim of close friends holding candles. Many of them cried and hugged each other. Behind them were rows and rows and rows of people who never met Deah, Yusor and Razan.

Joshua Rowsey was one of the many. He's a recent UNC graduate. He says he felt overwhelmed by the love at the vigil. But also by the violence behind it.

"And there's just like this one phrase that it's on us to make this change."

Chapel Hill police are still investigating the shootings. They're figuring out whether they were caused by hate or by a dispute between neighbors. For people like Rowsey, they hope that either way, this will make everyone more welcoming to people from backgrounds different than theirs.

Jorge Valencia has been with North Carolina Public Radio since 2012. A native of Bogotá, Colombia, Jorge studied journalism at the University of Maryland and reported for four years for the Roanoke Times in Virginia before joining the station. His reporting has also been published in the Wall Street Journal, the Miami Herald, and the Baltimore Sun.
Reema Khrais joined WUNC in 2013 to cover education in pre-kindergarten through high school. Previously, she won the prestigious Joan B. Kroc Fellowship. For the fellowship, she spent a year at NPR where she reported nationally, produced on Weekends on All Things Considered and edited on the digital desk. She also spent some time at New York Public Radio as an education reporter, covering the overhaul of vocational schools, the contentious closures of city schools and age-old high school rivalries.
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