Chapel Hill murders: Do not reply ignorance with ignorance, urges victims' brother at vigil

Namee Barakat (centre) and his wife Layla Barakat (centre, rear), parents of shooting victim Deah Shaddy Barakat, during a vigil in Chapel Hill. -- PHOTO: JONATHAN DRAKE FOR THE STRAITS TIMES
Namee Barakat (centre) and his wife Layla Barakat (centre, rear), parents of shooting victim Deah Shaddy Barakat, during a vigil in Chapel Hill. -- PHOTO: JONATHAN DRAKE FOR THE STRAITS TIMES
Family, friends and well-wishers at a vigil for the victims. -- PHOTO: JONATHAN DRAKE FOR THE STRAITS TIMES
Family, friends and well-wishers at a vigil for the victims. -- PHOTO: JONATHAN DRAKE FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

CHAPEL HILL, North Carolina - When the Barakat family were first told, late on Tuesday, that their son, Deah Shaddy Barakat, his wife and her sister had been caught up in an incident on campus, Mr Barakat's mother believed nothing bad would happen to them.

She had a good feeling in her heart, Mr Barakat's older brother, Farris, recounted to more than 2,000 friends and well-wishers who gathered at a vigil on Wednesday night.

After a "roller coaster ride", he said, the family learnt that Mr Barakat, a 23-year-old dental student at the University of North Carolina, his wife Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, 21, who was also to start there in the autumn, and his sister Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, 19, an undergraduate at North Carolina State University, had been shot dead in the couple's home, allegedly by a neighbour.

Investigations are still ongoing as to the motive of the 46-year-old suspect, Craig Stephen Hicks. Police say it may have been linked to a longstanding dispute over parking in their apartment complex, while many believe it was a hate crime against the young Syrian Americans because of their faith.

Hicks is being held in a Durham County jail without bond. And he was but a shadowy presence at the UNC campus on Wednesday night, when thousands turned out to remember instead the love and humanity demonstrated by the victims.

Among them was Mr Taufik Raharjo, 20, a third-year student in materials science engineering at NCSU, who made the 40-minute trip from Raleigh for the remembrance. He met Mr Barakat when he came to North Carolina from Louisiana more than two years ago.

"He was a leader in the Muslim Students' Association, but he made it a point to introduce himself and answer questions," recalled Mr Taufik, whose family is originally from Indonesia. "He was the nicest person I've ever met and I was in shock and disbelief that someone who made such a big impact on me was gone so quickly."

The young couple, who had married just six weeks ago, were active volunteers in their local community as well as farther afield. Mr Barakat, an energetic young man with an infectious grin and an amazing bear hug, was raising funds for a humanitarian mission to bring dental supplies and services to Syrian refugees in Turkey.

Friends and relatives, some in tears, told stories about them, while their grieving parents could barely watch the slide show of photographs of their smiling children.

The politics of race and religion took a back seat while the speakers, who included Muslim student leaders, the chancellors of UNC and NCSU, Chapel Hill mayor Mark Kleinschmidt, and Muslim leaders from Duke University, urged the audience to remember the victims by honouring their desire to do good for their fellowmen.

"Do not reply ignorance with ignorance," said Mr Farris Barakat, while Mr Barakat's older sister, Suzanne, told The Straits Times: "Deah, Yusor and Razan were loving and kindhearted people. In spite of this very tragic loss, we hope the memory of their love will inspire more love, break down ignorance and unite us all."

sharonl@sph.com.sg