As principal Mussarut Jabeen makes her way to the playground, two very young girls run to her, pleading for undivided attention. The first shows off a temporary henna tattoo.
“Oh look at your henna, it’s so pretty,” exclaims Jabeen, principal of Al-Iman, a private Islamic school in Raleigh.
The other girl has just fallen and scraped herself.
“Oh, my little,” Jabeen says. “How about we wash it?”
Years ago, Jabeen taught and tended the same way to Razan Abu-Salha, Yusor Abu-Salha and Deah Barakat. The three spent most of their elementary and middle school years at Al-Iman school.
“I could see the leadership skills in them at that young age,” Jabeen says. “They would accept any challenges.”
On Feb. 10th, the three family members were shot and killed in their Chapel Hill apartment. Razan, 19, was studying architecture and design at N.C. State. Her sister, Yusor, 21, married 23-year-old Barakat in December; the two were studying to become dentists.
Yusor and Barakat’s neighbor, Craig Hicks, is charged in their killings. Recently, a Durham judge said Hicks would be eligible to receive the death penalty if convicted. The FBI is still looking into whether any hate crimes of other federal laws were violated.
Principal Jabeen says the days following the incident were tough for everyone, even the youngest students.
“Some parents asked me to come and talk to them because they [children] were having nightmares,” she says. “They were scared their brothers and sisters would not come back home in the evening when it’s too late.”
Jabeen told the students not to worry and that the three are in a good place.
“’And you keep doing what you’re doing, and feel proud about yourself,’” she says.
Wrapped loosely around Jabeen’s wrists are three bright green bands with the names of Deah, Yusor and Razan. Many of the students in the school wear them, including sixth-graders Suhailaah Boukarfi and Noor Asfour.
“It basically shows the date they passed away,” Boukarfi says. “It shows we actually cared about what happened.”
“There are also shirts,” Asfour adds.
Along with other students, the two close friends have spent time lately packing toothbrushes, deodorant and other hygiene products for the homeless. It’s part of a school service project inspired by the three former students.
“This is what the used to do in the time they were here, so we want to continue on doing what they were doing,” Boukarfi says.
Al-Iman has always had a strong culture of community service, but now students are looking to do more in honor of the three.
For many, the deaths have also changed how they perceive themselves. Twelve-year-old Boukarfi says she’s proud to wear a headscarf, but that sometimes it makes her feel nervous.
“When I wear the hijab outside it makes me feel like I’m different than everyone,” she explains. “For instance, when I went to the park, I was scared to even go on the swing because I felt like I was not like them.”
But now she said after seeing how many Muslims and non-Muslims cared for the three, her self-confidence has grown.
“And so now I’m like okay I can walk out differently. It doesn’t matter, I’m one of them,” she says.
A few rooms over, a group of eighth graders said the killings – regardless of the shooter’s motives – have brought up questions about what it means to be Muslim in America today.
Angelycia Bogart says she notices people staring at her because of the way she dresses.
“Like we try to explain that we wear it out of modesty,” she says. “And they think we’re oppressed. We choose to wear what we wear. We don’t have to wear it, but I choose what to wear it.”
Bogart says she wants to show people that Muslims are good.
For example, "We have to volunteer more,” she explains. “We have to show who Muslims truly are, not how they’re perceived."
Sitting next to her is Naasir Jordan, the only 8th grade boy. He’s shy, but speaks up to share how their deaths have brought him closer to his mom.
“Whenever I get home I usually like to sit in her room and talk to her about stuff,” he says. “Before I used to spend my whole day doing nothing except playing on the computer and doing electronics. “
Now, he and his mom attend lectures and volunteer at food banks. They’re the kind of activities the three former students participated in, says Principal Jabeen, as she pulls out big binders filled with class photos from her office bookshelf.
“You can see how they grew over time,” she says. “These are my assets, my treasure.”
As she flips through the young faces of Deah, Yusor, Razan, she says she wants to instill their values into her students today and make sure they hold on to them.
“There’s not been a moment in which they are not in my thoughts. Usually you get inspired by your elders, but I got inspired by my children,” Jabeen explains.
She tucks the albums away near a large white poster with three black silhouettes and the words, “Our Three Winners.”