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Razan And Yusor Abu-Salha Were All-American Sisters Who Loved Their Family, Service and The Beach

Photo: Yusor, left, and Razan Abu-Salha at the beach
Razan Abu-Salha/ Instagram
Yusor, left, and Razan Abu-Salha

Yusor and Razan Abu-Salha were like many young sisters. Yusor, 21, liked going to the beach. Razan, 19, liked recording five-second videos of her and friends and posting them on the Internet. And they were so close that in the first month after Yusor got married and moved from their family home, Razan drove 50 miles at least a half dozen times to visit.

Razan and Yusor were raised in Raleigh, N.C., by Palestinian Jordanian parents who had immigrated to the U.S. in the early 1990s. Their father, Mohammed Abu-Salha, had moved the family initially to Virginia for residency training as a psychiatrist, and Razan and Yusor were similarly following the promises of the American dream: Razan was a freshman at NC State University’s School of Design and aspired to be an architect, while Yusor had graduated from NC State and had been accepted to the University of North Carolina School of Dentistry.

Razan, Yusor and Yusor’s husband Deah, a 23-year-old who was also raised in Raleigh by immigrant parents, were killed Feb. 10 last year in Chapel Hill by a neighbor who barged into their apartment and shot each of them at point-blank range, according to police and autopsy reports. And while their relatives and friends say the neighbor targeted them because of the religion they  practiced, Islam, and that the murders were a hate crime, they want Razan, Yusor and Deah to be remembered not by how they died, but by how they lived.

“I realized after their passing that we raised giants,” Mohammed Abu-Salha said. “I was receiving emails and phone calls to go to different cities and speak for just two minutes about our children. I could not keep up with that. But I go for two reasons: I feel I owe to the legacy of our children. And it’s impossible to say no to such nice people.”

Razan, ‘Gwirls’ And A Design Student’s Sense Of Humor

Over the last year, Dr. Abu-Salha and his wife Amira have accepted invitations to scholarship banquets, awards ceremonies and a 5K race memorializing their daughters. And they’ve decorated Razan’s bedroom with her drawings and her designs. The soft pink walls are lined with a framed image of gray circles of varying sizes, obtuse shapes that form an abstract elephant and a black and white sketch of a woman’s bedroom. The parents like to sit in the room every day, even though it’s painful.

“It’s enjoyable and painful,” he says. “It’s not easy.”
Meanwhile, friends of Razan have eulogized her by organizing an art exhibit in honor of her, Yusor and Deah, and with plans to install a memorial in front of Leazar Hall, the building that houses the classrooms for first-year design students at NC State. Waad Husein and other classmates want to make a replica of this paper lamp Razan made in a class and posted on her Instagram:

A video posted by Zeez (@razanabusalha) on Nov 4, 2014 at 8:25pm PST

Doha Hindi, a childhood friend and a junior at NC State, says Razan loved designing things, and that she say Razan’s creativity and sense of humor flourish during her first year of design classes. She often shared photos of her work with her friends, and dropped vocabulary her and her classmates acquired, like the word ‘gwirl,’ which Husein explains “is a better way to say ‘girl.’”

“There was this sense of humor that I feel design students have that the rest of us don’t. Razan would come to us with these little jokes or different ways to pronounce words. And I would be like, ‘Where did you get that from?’” Hindi says.

Yusor On Being Open, Giving Compassionate

Across the hallway from Razan’s room is Yusor’s. In it, Dr. Abu-Salha picks up a painting covered in Arabic calligraphy of a verse from the Quaran that means, “With every hardship comes ease.” Dr. Abu-Salha explains: “Yusor’s name comes from this verse. Yusra.”

The Abu-Salhas gave their older daughter her name because of the hardship of emigrating from their native country of Jordan. At the time, it was very difficult to get a visa to the United States. But Dr. Abu-Salha says that on the day Yusor was born, he picked up the family’s visa so he could come and train as a psychiatrists. Yusor followed a similar path, doing pre-dental course work at NC State.

“She was tall and slim and handsome,” Dr. Abu-Salha says. “She had big hazel brown eyes that were beaming, she had brown curly hair. And you must have heard her interview on StoryCorps.”

Photo: Yusor Abu-Salha and her third grade teacher, Musarrat Jabeen
Credit StoryCorps
Yusor Abu-Salha and her third grade teacher, Musarrat Jabeen

Yusor visited the StoryCorps booth in Durham a few months after she and her family had become U.S. citizens. The following is a part of her interview with third-grade teacher Mussarut Jabeen.

“Yusor: Hey, hello. My name is Yusor Abu-Salha. I am 20 years old. We are in Durham, North Carolina, and today I will be interviewing my former teacher and principal.
Jabeen: Growing up in America has been such a blessing and although in some ways I do stand out …
Jabeen: Yes…
Yusor: Such as the hijab I wear on my head, the head covering. Um, there’s still so many ways that I feel so embedded in the fabric that is, you know, our culture. And here we’re all one.”

Jabeen says that what distinguished Yusor from other children was her sense of giving.

“Yusor: I still remember, in 3rd grade, when we asked for something, you used to say, 'Don’t put your hand like this.' You would have your hand facing downwards as if you’re taking something from someone.
Jabeen: Oh my god …
Yusor: Yeah.
Jabeen: You still remember?
Yusor: And then you’d flip your hand over and you’d open your hand upward as, you know, a giving gesture. You know, be giving, open, compassionate.”

The summer after the interview, Yusor traveled to southern Turkey, where she volunteered at a dental clinic for Syrian refugees. A few months later, she graduated and married a boy she had met in elementary school, Deah Barakat. Six weeks later she, Deah and Razan were killed in their apartment in Chapel Hill.

On the week of the one-year annivesary of the murder, the sisters’ father will be at several public events. He says he, his wife and their son are surviving.

“With three things we live with every day: faith, dignity and a lot of pain," he says. "Still a lot of pain.”

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.
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