Op-Ed

In wake of UNC-CH losses, honoring lives well-lived

Suzanne Askar rests her head on Safam Mahate as they stand next to Nida Allam, far left, during a candlelight vigil for Deah Barakat, 23, his wife Yusor Abu-Salha, 21, and Abu-Salha's sister, Razan Abu-Salha, 19, in Chapel Hill.
Suzanne Askar rests her head on Safam Mahate as they stand next to Nida Allam, far left, during a candlelight vigil for Deah Barakat, 23, his wife Yusor Abu-Salha, 21, and Abu-Salha's sister, Razan Abu-Salha, 19, in Chapel Hill. TNS

We heard about the shooting from news outlets first, not the university. We read tweets starting just before 5:30 p.m. Tuesday that were shared widely and grew more upsetting as we read. Three people had been shot, the reporters were saying; all had been killed, a suspect was in custody. They were saying it happened in Chapel Hill, but this is Chapel Hill, where things like this don’t happen.

We found out before the police told us that this was a classmate of ours, with his new wife and her sister. All three of them, we learned through photos and tributes, were friends of our friends, because this is a tight-knit campus and all of us are linked inextricably, somehow, to one another.

We saw that the three victims were Muslim. We whispered late-night in the library about how we hoped this wasn’t a racial hate crime or an act of terror – because it couldn’t be, not on our ground. Condolences and remembrances flooded our social media feeds, signs of this community helping itself heal before word had yet spread beyond our small network. We knew we still had to find out what happened. We didn’t know the rest of the world would want to find out, too.

We woke up Wednesday under the harsh glare of an international spotlight, finding ourselves at the unlikely center of an unwelcome debate on oppression, exclusivity and hate. We heard the cops tell us and tell the world that this was a dispute over a parking space, but this community disregarded that statement on its face. Disputes over parking don’t end in three deaths.

The shooter’s true motive beneath his crime is still unconfirmed, and maybe it will always be that way. But to brush this tragedy off as a single incident – one angry man with three powerful bullets – is to ignore the larger, pressing tale that surrounds it: the story of religion in America. For Deah Barakat, Yusor Abu-Salha and Razan Abu-Salha, not to acknowledge their Muslim beliefs, and the hatred they faced from their outspoken atheist neighbor because of them, would be not to wholly acknowledge them at all.

Because this is Chapel Hill, where yarmulkes and hijabs mix in lecture halls and even the restrooms aren’t divided by gender. Chapel Hill, where thousands of men and women, black and white, Christian and Jewish and Muslim spent an hour in the cold at a vigil Wednesday night to honor three students because we knew they represented the best in us all, while their murders represented the worst in our country. On this campus we’ll band together and move on because we have to, but we’ll push ourselves toward further acceptance of one another because it is what we do.

Earlier this week, the UNC community lost Coach Dean Smith, a man renowned for his empathy and dedication to equal rights and opportunities. Earlier this month, we lost Stuart Scott, a man admired for his perseverance, his strength and his drive. Now, with three new losses heavy on our hearts, we have five legacies to honor as Tar Heels. And we will honor each one by living as they lived: compassionately, and with only each other’s best interests in mind – hoping, along the way, to create a community where Deah, Yusor and Razan would still be with us.

Megan Cassella is a senior majoring in journalism at UNC-Chapel Hill.

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