Washington, D.C., grieves for slain Chapel Hill students

Although Samreen Anwar, 24, of Columbia, Md., never met Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, Deah Shaddy Barakat or Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, she feels like she knows them.

Anwar held a poster that read “we will never forget the legacy you left behind in your short time...” while standing in a crowd of about 300 to 400 people, all gathered in Dupont Circle in northwest Washington, D.C., late Thursday to honor the lives of three university students gunned down earlier this week.

As she spoke about the three students, her eyes teared up.

“Just thinking about what happened to them, the tragedy that happened to them, is really hard to deal with as a Muslim and as even as just as an individual in the community,” Anwar said. “I’m here to pray with our community, with everybody, pray for them, pray for their families.”

Biology student Yusor Abu-Salha, 21; her husband, Barakat, 23, a dental student; and her sister, Razan Abu-Salha, 19, a design student, were shot and killed Tuesday in Chapel Hill, N.C.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Muslim civil rights and advocacy organization, sponsored the vigil in Washington along with other community groups, such as the Jewish Voice for Peace, and friends of the three students. The deaths have drawn international attention, especially from the world’s Muslim community.

Zainab Chaudry, the Maryland outreach manager for CAIR, spoke to the crowd of people holding signs that said “Muslim Lives Matter,” “Remembering You Always” and “Stand Against Anti-Muslim Bigotry.”

“This has been a tremendous tragedy,” Chaudry said. “It’s affected not only the community in North Carolina, Chapel Hill, but people all across the nation and really all across the world.”

Vigil attendees held a moment of silence and prayed for the victims. After community leaders and friends spoke, people wrote letters to the family in North Carolina to express their grief and support.

“May their memory be a blessing,” Seth Morrison, a member of the D.C. metro chapter of the Jewish Voice for Peace, said at the vigil.

Nihad Awad, the executive director of CAIR, went to Raleigh for the funeral Thursday and could not make it to the D.C. vigil. Awad said he finds comfort knowing that people in Washington are gathering to remember the three students, over 250 miles away from the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill region known as the Triangle.

“People ... understand that it’s beyond Raleigh, it’s beyond what happened here,” Awad said in an interview. “It signals the rise of Islamophobia in our society.”

Police said the killings were a result of a heated argument over a parking space and are still determining religious hatred may have been a contributing factor in the shooting. A neighbor, Craig Stephen Hicks, is charged with murder in the deaths.

Cliff Smith, 75, of D.C., wrote “Islam is not the enemy” on a neon green poster in 2003 to protest the Iraq war. Now, over a decade later, Smith sat on a bench at the vigil, holding the same poster with an American flag bandana on his head.

“I feel this whole things against Islam has just gotta stop,” Smith said. “It’s a nationwide situation.”

Nadia Elsayed, 25, of Washington said she came to the vigil to show the family who lost their loved ones that “their loss is not in vain.”

“We are here and we support,” Elsayed said. “This is not getting as much coverage so we want to let the family know that we are here and our prayers are with them.”

Attendees used the hashtag #DC4ChapelHill to show their support on social media. The hashtag #MuslimLivesMatter, trending following the students’ deaths, is modeled after the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter. That hashtag trended last year after the deaths of two unarmed black men, Michael Brown and Eric Garner, at the hands of white police officers in separate incidents. Both hashtags quickly garnered international attention from people grieving for the minority communities.

“If all lives matters, then people are right to show sympathy and action,” Awad said.

The Our Three Winners Facebook page was created Wednesday to honor the three students. The page has over 136,000 likes so far and includes wedding pictures of Yusor Abu-Salha and Barakat.

The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and N.C. State University communities, where the three had studied as undergraduates, gathered at UNC Chapel Hill for a vigil Wednesday night.

Thousands more gathered at N.C. State on Thursday for the funeral and some people in the D.C. area plan to hold a prayer ceremony outside the White House on Friday.