Sisters Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, 19, and Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, 21, of Raleigh were just starting their adult lives in an exuberant rush of charity work and scholarship.
Yusor was recently married and had just been accepted to dental school at UNC-Chapel Hill. Razan had just made the dean’s list in her first semester at N.C. State University. And both were making plans to visit Turkey this summer to volunteer in a dental clinic at a camp for Syrian war refugees.
All of that ended abruptly Tuesday night in Chapel Hill when they and Yusor’s husband, UNC dental student Deah Barakat, 23, were killed in a shooting at the couple’s Chapel Hill apartment.
Razan just happened to be visiting when, police said, a neighbor shot them to death for reasons that are still unclear.
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Yusor and Barakat had been married only since Dec. 27. Her Facebook photo – posted just Monday – shows her smiling as her father twirls her around the wedding dance floor.
“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.
The sisters were mainly raised in Raleigh and graduated from Athens Drive High School – Yusor in 2011 and Razan in 2013.
Both worked on the Athens Oracle throughout their four years at the school. 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.
Hornick also 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.”
Sarena Triesh, 20, an Athens Drive graduate, grew up next door to the sisters in Raleigh. The three would play basketball and football with their older brothers and choreograph dance routines to show their parents.
Along with Barakat, the sisters were well-known in the Muslim community for the service projects and charity events they organized.
“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.
Doha Hindi, who graduated from Athens Drive with Razan and then attended NCSU with her, said her friend loved to dance and play soccer as a little girl, always with a smile on her face.
Hindi also got to know Yusor and Barakat better when she decided to pursue dentistry. They were generous mentors, sharing what they knew about dental school and their service projects.
When she distributed dental supplies with the couple to those in need in Raleigh, she said they were at ease, talking and making friends with those they helped.
“They loved it,” she said. “They looked like they were in the most comfortable place ever.”
On Monday, Razan had asked her father to buy her an airline ticket to Turkey. Her sister and brother-in-law were raising money to go there this summer to work in a dental clinic at a camp for Syrian war refugees. Never mind that she was studying to become an architect.
“She wanted to help and see and to feel and to empathize,” said her father. “It’s not related to her career, but she wanted to go and be part of it.”
The trio’s plans to visit Turkey this summer were 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.”
Yusor and Barakat met when both were undergraduates at N.C. State University. She graduated last fall – a semester early – cum laude with a degree in biological sciences.
And her sister, Razan, was on the dean’s list last fall in her first semester at NCSU and won a design school award for a project involving 3-D modeling. She had always been excited about visual art, be it photography, sculpture, drawing or painting, said her father.
She hoped one day to start her own architectural firm in the Triangle, he said.
Yusor and Barakat, meanwhile, planned to graduate from dental school, start a family and their own dental practice and also stay in the area.
“They wanted to live all their lives in Raleigh, and they were praying to establish a practice here in this community,” said Mohammad Abu-Salha. “And I know that they would have been a great addition to this community.” Staff writer Sarah Barr contributed.