As the one-year anniversary of the murder of Deah Barakat, Yusor Abu Salah and Razan Abu Salha approaches, many in our community continue to mourn.
Yet, as we grieve, the courage, strength and hope emanating from the Barakat and Abu Salha families remains an inspiration. The legacy of Our Three Winners grows each day.
Last year, while reporting in the Middle East with North Carolina Public Radio, I had an opportunity to see this legacy in action.
“And god said, let there be light, and there was light.
God saw that the light was good, so he separated it, from the darkness.”
I’m standing on the edge of darkness. I’m standing on the Syrian border. The clouds are thick and the air holds your lungs tight in the chest. I’m standing on the edge, asking myself old and tired questions like, why do bad things happen to good people? Why him?
I’m standing in Reyhanli, Turkey, a stone throw from the Syrian civil war, and the sign in front of me reads Deah Barakat, Yusor Abu Salha, Razan Abu Salha Dental Clinic. There’s an 8.5 by 11 pixelated picture of their three smiling faces taped to the wall. I’ve seen this exact image on countless newspaper front pages and cable news shows. But the image hits home. Deah, Yusor and Razan were killed in my city. One mile from my house.
Some 6,000 miles away in Reyhanli, there’s a picture of his smile, his name on the wall, and a dental clinic.
I’m standing in Reyhanli looking for Deah. In the midst of so much darkness, where is the light? Where are the answers? So I boarded a plane and traveled to the other side of the world.
The airport is nicknamed “ISIS International.” It’s a nervous joke locals make. There’s one other American in the terminal when I land. She’s kind, lets me borrow her small old Turkish phone to make a quick call. She tells me “good luck,” gives me a worried glimpse, and travels in the opposite direction, quickly.
My taxicab windshield bears a deep jagged crack, perhaps a bullet’s kiss. Gunshots leave lipstick scars and stories to conceal. They are a dime a dozen here. U.S. warplanes strike Al Qaida linked fighters five miles to the left. Foreign jihadists are smuggling people and guns five miles to the right. Two years ago twin car bombs exploded near my hotel. Once able-bodied men are now pushed through the streets in wheelchairs.
And I’m standing in the crucible of it all, staring at a sign that bears his name, Deah. In the front entrance, there’s a black paper heart taped to the wall, in white Arabic script it says, we will not forget you.
About a month before Deah was killed, he started an online fundraising campaign to support the dental needs of the millions of Syrian refugees in Turkey. Deah, a young dentist himself, a Syrian-American himself, was planning to come and work here during the summer. When the people here heard about his murder, they felt they had to do something. A few days later, the new dental clinic was named in his honor.
The dentist on duty today, Dr. Mohammad, is examining a young student when I walk in. She has bright pink princess sneakers harnessing her fidgeting feet and wears a sharp smirk across her cheeks.
“You know most kids are afraid of the dentist,” he says.
Not here. He makes sure, not here. Many kids come by the dental clinic just to say hi, just for a handshake or a high five. I see this again and again. Dr. Mohammad tells me many kids have lost a mother, a father; have lost both. “They need to feel that someone cares about them,” he says.
“Our life cannot be defined by death,” he says.
Dr. Mohammad fills cavities and examines teeth, but his focus is on the heart. Later in the afternoon, he catches me staring at the photo of Deah on the wall. I ask him how he feels working below it each day. He stops, holds a long fragile pause and admits, “Me personally, I’m just always smiling.” And it’s true.
Dr. Mohammad’s smile is a thin line, a flickering light. Dr. Mohammad’s smile is a neatly pressed linen. His smile is a perfectly creased correspondence tucked between teeth. His smile is a slivering tail of steam and the rim of a simmering cup of tea.
His smile feels so familiar. His smile is the soft spot in your mother’s palm. His smile is your father’s handshake.
His smile is sayings spilt from your grandmother’s lips over long wooden dinner tables and watered down drinks. His smile is a watering can to your roots.
His smile is a repeating poem that persuades your pain out of existence.
His smile hides his own, very well. His smile is the memories of his wife and children still back in Syria, fragile and fading. His smile is an heirloom vessel packed with remembrance and strength. When I look him in the eyes, his smile feels so familiar.
His smile reminds me of Deah.
Deah’s fundraising campaign to support this dental clinic had around $16,000 the day he died. A few weeks after the world learned of his tragic murder, half a million dollars was donated. This clinic will be here for a long time to come. Dr. Mohammad will be working seven days a week for a long time to come, and it will all be done in Deah’s name.
Before I leave, the doctor pulls me aside and tells me.
“Asif Asif, Habib, Asif.”
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” he says. “There is no answer here.”
He points to the paper heart taped on the wall with white Arabic script.
“But I won’t forget. We work in his honor. So he lives. So we live.”
In Arabic, Deah means light. Darkness cannot defeat light, I tell myself. It cannot. Bad things happen to good people for no damn good reason. But legacy, legacy is life evolved. Legacy is life continued. I traveled 6,000 miles looking for Deah. I found a dental clinic. I found his legacy, alive.
I sat on a plane ride home and thought about the last time we talked. He told me keep writing. He smiled. And he told me, keep writing.
“And god said, let there be light,
and there was light.”
For you your legacy, for your life, continued. Thank you, Deah. I will.
You can reach Will McInerney at firstname.lastname@example.org