On a campus that typically bustles with vitality and talk among youthful dreamers about life ahead, thousands gathered at nightfall Wednesday to mourn inexplicable loss.
With laden hearts and deep questions, students, faculty and busloads of Triangle Muslims crowded around The Pit, a central gathering place on the UNC-Chapel Hill campus, to grieve and celebrate three lives ended by a lone gunman on Tuesday.
In the light of candles that flickered in the gentle breeze, they laughed and cried for Deah Shaddy Barakat, a 23-year-old dental student with a love for basketball and strong, warm bear hugs. They remembered his wife, Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, 21, a biology student who planned to enroll in dental school in the fall. And they shared stories about Abu-Salha’s sister, Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, 19, a design student who could be “goofy, but cute” sometimes, but always helped others around her.
The killings that police say are rooted in an explosive argument over a parking space sparked a global explosion on social media with a hashtag #MuslimLivesMatter.
Chancellors from three Triangle campuses – UNC, N.C. State University and N.C. Central University – came together to rally in support of a Muslim community and broader university system, vowing to fight for hope, love and understanding.
“Tragedies like this aren’t easy to understand,” N.C. State Chancellor Randy Woodson said earlier in the day. “Senseless acts like this go against all our beliefs.”
Administrators talked about universities and college campuses being among the most diverse places and promised to “stand shoulder to shoulder” as they grieved, became angry and tried to find some sanity in the insanity of an action.
Students, faculty and many from the larger community spoke on Wednesday evening of three who made a difference in their lives in far fewer years than many.
“I don’t know of anything that’s more difficult to experience than the loss of a young life, because there is so much hope and so many dreams” lost with them, UNC system President Tom Ross said at a news conference before the vigil.
As administrators and others urged the crowds to let the justice system investigate whether religion played a role in the crime, Muslims who stood in unity talked about feeling exposed and vulnerable and often targeted as a group for the actions of a few.
The brother of Barakat brought a message from his mother, calling for love.
Farris Barakat, a year and a half older than his brother Deah, said all day he had reached for his phone to text the sibling with whom he played basketball, cherished Saturday family breakfasts and watched with pride marry before him.
He looked out among the thousands, looking up to the stage where he stood and said he wished his brother, sister-in-law and her sister could see them all gathered to celebrate their lives.
“That’s what hurts the most,” Farris Barakat said of his brother. “I only wish he could see this.”