John Drescher

Remembering the voice of a departed friend

Yusor Abu-Salha, right, who was killed in the Chapel Hill shooting in February, and her friend and former NCSU classmate Rahma Elkamhawy of Cary.
Yusor Abu-Salha, right, who was killed in the Chapel Hill shooting in February, and her friend and former NCSU classmate Rahma Elkamhawy of Cary. Courtesy of Rahma Elkamhawy

Yusor Abu-Salha, 21, was one of the three students killed in the February shooting in Chapel Hill, along with her newlywed husband and her sister.

Rahma Elkamhawy had been friends with Abu-Salha since they were in middle school. About a week after the violence, Elkamhawy, still shocked by the deaths of her friends, was in bed at her home in Cary with her laptop when she came across a recorded interview of her friend.

About nine months earlier, Abu-Salha had recorded a conversation with StoryCorps, a national project to archive the stories of everyday people.

Shortly after the students were killed, WUNC radio posted a link on its website to Abu-Salha’s interview, in which she talked with one of her elementary school teachers.

“As soon as I heard her voice,” Elkamhawy, 22, told me, “I started crying. It was so real.”

In the StoryCorps conversation, Abu-Salha said how grateful she was to live in this country.

“Growing up in America has been such a blessing,” she said. “And although in some ways I do stand out, such as the hijab I wear on my head, the head covering, there are still so many ways that I feel so embedded in the fabric that is, you know, our culture.

“And that’s the beautiful thing here, is that it doesn’t matter where you come from. There’s so many different people from so many different places, of different backgrounds and religions — but here we’re all one, one culture. And it’s beautiful to see people of different areas interacting and being family. Being, you know, one community.”

Yusor Abu-Salha loved the United States and embraced its diversity.

In the recording, Abu-Salha’s voice is clear, her tone warm, her diction polished. It’s a beautiful voice. “It’s exactly her,” Elkamhawy said. “Her little giggle. It’s so her. It’s so cute.”

Abu-Salha loved the United States and embraced its diversity. She had a wide circle of friends from various backgrounds. Her favorite food was Mexican. She playfully spoke fragments of Spanish. She was born in Jordan; Elkamhawy was born in Egypt. “We lived in this country more than we lived anywhere else,” Elkamhawy said. “We are Americans.”

Of her friend’s recorded words, Elkamhawy said: “The words she spoke are so true. It’s definitely a blessing living here, even after that happened.”

Elkamhawy and her friend were human biology majors at N.C. State and graduated together in December. Abu-Salha planned to go to dental school at UNC-Chapel Hill; Elkamhawy is a first-year dental student at Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tenn. When Elkamhawy was admitted to dental school, the first person she told was Abu-Salha.

For Elkamhawy, it’s painful to listen to the StoryCorps interview but, from time to time, she does. There’s something about hearing her friend’s voice that is more vivid to her than looking at a photograph.

As time passes, Elkamhawy said, memories of a person’s voice can fade. She’s determined not to let that happen, to click on the link and listen again to her friend, as if she were in the room with her, even if it aches to listen.

“It keeps her voice in me all the time,” she said. “I don’t want to ever lose her.”

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