Midtown Raleigh News

Slain students remembered fondly at their Raleigh schools

UNC School of Dentistry students light candles and spell out the name of their classmate in candle wax following a candlelight vigil on the campus of the UNC-Chapel Hill on Wednesday, February 11, 2015 in Chapel Hill, N.C.
UNC School of Dentistry students light candles and spell out the name of their classmate in candle wax following a candlelight vigil on the campus of the UNC-Chapel Hill on Wednesday, February 11, 2015 in Chapel Hill, N.C. newsobserver.com

The three people shot dead in Chapel Hill on Tuesday attended Raleigh high schools, where teachers and friends remember them as promising students who had bright futures.

Deah Shaddy Barakat, 23, graduated from Broughton High School in 2009. His wife, Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, 21, graduated from Athens Drive High School in 2011. Her sister, Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, 19, graduated from Athens Drive in 2013.

They were killed Tuesday at the Chapel Hill home where newlyweds Barakat and Yusor Abu-Salha lived.

A neighbor, Craig Stephen Hicks, was charged with three counts of first-degree murder. Police said the attack was preceded by a dispute about parking in the neighborhood of rented condominiums not far from UNC-Chapel Hill.

The news sparked a worldwide social media outcry of “Muslim Lives Matter.” Many people online didn’t believe the killer’s motive could be explained by an argument about parking. Relatives were quick to call the slayings of three American Muslims a hate crime.

On Wednesday, family and friends spoke out about the smart young people whose lives were cut short.

“These were very special kids,” said the women’s father, Dr. Mohammad Abu-Salha. “These were three angels.”

The women’s mother, Amira, was shattered, he said.

Their lone remaining child, Youssef Abu-Salha, a UNC graduate, was flying home Wednesday from the Caribbean, where he is in medical school.

The sisters had lived nearly all of their lives in Raleigh. Yusor was born in the family’s native Jordan but moved to the United States when she was 6 months old. Razan was born in Virginia Beach, Va., while her father was completing his psychiatric residency.

The family moved to North Carolina in 1998, and Mohammad Abu-Salha eventually opened a private practice in Clayton, Johnston Psychiatric Associates.

At Athens Drive High, the sisters worked on the Athens Oracle. English teacher Trish Hornick recalled the way they made time for their classmates by talking through ideas and stories whenever they were needed.

“They were always kind, generous and wonderful people,” Hornick said.

Barakat was born and raised in Raleigh, the son of Namee and Layla Barakat, with an older brother and sister and a large extended family in the area.

Namee Barakat said his son was “as pure as you could get.”

“He never had any arguments with anybody,” he said outside a news conference Wednesday. “Everybody loved him inside the community and outside the community.”

David Brooks, an International Baccalaureate program coordinator at Broughton, remembered Barakat as kind and encouraging with a friendly smile.

In Brooks’ IB psychology class, he said, Barakat was an engaged and nurturing presence.

“He had a way of bringing out the best in people and helping them to recognize good aspects of themselves that they maybe didn’t even see in themselves,” Brooks said.

Richard Matkins taught Barakat English his senior year. He said Barakat had a twinkle in his eye and was good-natured, always looking to support his classmates.

“He loved life and loved a laugh,” Matkins said.

Volunteer work

After high school, all three attended N.C. State University as undergraduates.

Barakat graduated magna cum laude with a degree in business in 2013, and Yusor Abu-Salha graduated last fall.

Razan Abu-Salha, a design student, made the dean’s list in her first semester in the fall. She hoped to one day start her own architectural firm in the Triangle, her father said.

Barakat was studying to be a dentist at UNC. Yusor Abu-Salha was to enroll at UNC’s dental school next fall. They planned to open a practice together, and both advocated for global dental health, providing care and supplies to people in the United States and the Middle East.

On Jan. 29, Barakat posted a Facebook photo of a Durham project that gave dental supplies and food to more than 75 homeless people this year.

He was scheduled to travel with 10 other dentists this summer to Reyhanli, Turkey. There, they planned to treat Syrian refugee children for urgent dental needs, pass out toothbrushes and toothpaste, and support Turkish dentists and clinics.

Barakat recorded a YouTube video to raise money for the trip.

“These kids don’t have access to the same health care as us, and their prolonged pain can easily be taken care of with the work that we do, but we need the proper funding,” he said, wearing a “Carolina Dentistry” T-shirt. “So let’s relieve their pain.”

By 6 p.m. Wednesday, the site had raised more than $120,000 – well surpassing the $20,000 goal.

Yusor and Razan also planned to go to Turkey this summer to take part in the volunteer effort. On Monday, Razan had asked her father to buy her an airline ticket.

That was just the latest of their efforts to help the poor, said Mohammad Abu-Salha.

On weekends, they often cooked and distributed food to the homeless in Raleigh, and they had done volunteer work with an outreach group called N.C. Missions of Mercy that’s affiliated with the N.C. Dental Society.

All three were volunteers for the charity group United Muslim Relief, and a notice about their deaths was displayed prominently on the group’s website Wednesday.

Barakat and Yusor, it said, had helped found UMR’s Triangle chapter. He was an active member of UMR’s dental relief team and had traveled on a dental relief mission to Palestinian territories to help children with special needs. She, meanwhile, was a current officer for UMR Triangle and organized monthly feedings for the homeless in downtown Raleigh.

Yusor had already been to the refugee camp in Turkey. Last year, she traveled there with her mother to work in the clinic and to deliver dental supplies that she had collected.

“She came back heartbroken from the poverty, misery, cold and suffering, starvation, the lack of medical supplies, everything,” her father said. “And she was planning another trip this summer with her husband.”

The sisters’ commitment to charity sprung from their religious beliefs, said their father.

“It’s our faith to help people of all kinds, anybody in need,” he said. “This is how we raised them, to be sincere citizens who belonged to their communities.”

Married 6 weeks

Barakat and Yusor Abu-Salha were married Dec. 27 in Raleigh. Their wedding photos circulated worldwide on social media on Wednesday – a poignant image of two lives at the beginning of a journey that turned out to be just six weeks long.

Yusor Abu Salha’s Facebook photo – posted just Monday – shows her smiling as her father twirls her around the wedding dance floor.

After dental school, the couple planned to start a family and stay in the area.

Sarena Triesh, 20, an Athens Drive graduate, grew up next door to the sisters.

“They were so young and they inspired us to be better Muslims and to do as much as we could to help instead of hate,” Triesh said.

Hornick, the Athens Drive teacher, recalled the sisters’ strong Islamic faith and the way they treated others with dignity and respect, regardless of faith. She said one way to honor them would be to strive to emulate them, “to try to be as good as they were every day.”

Staff writer Sarah Barr contributed.