What It's Like When The Shooting Happens At Your School

Photo: Raleigh News & Observer/Getty Images.
On the evening of February 10, three students were murdered in Chapel Hill, N.C. Deah Shaddy Barakat, 23, his wife Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, 21, and her younger sister Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, 19, were each shot, execution-style, by Deah and Yusor’s neighbor. Craig Hicks, 46, turned himself in that night, and has been charged with first-degree murder.

Hicks and his wife have both said the killings had nothing to do with the victims’ faith, blaming the violence on a dispute over a parking space. But, for many of the students' friends, family, and classmates, that explanation doesn't suffice. The FBI and local police are currently investigating to see if there are grounds to charge Hicks with a hate crime. 

We spoke to three students at the University of North Carolina, where Deah attended dental school, and Yusor was set to join in the fall: Shamira Lukomwa, 21, who’s the president of the UNC Muslim Students Association; Aribah Shah, 19, a sophomore and friend of the victims, and Brittany Tart, also a 19-year-old sophomore. They told us about the night of the crime, how UNC has felt in the week since, and what everyone is doing to heal. 

They spoke separately; conversations were edited together and condensed for clarity.

Tell me about the night of the shooting. How'd you find out? 
Shamira Lukomwa: "On Tuesday night, I had just left a meeting and was heading towards the Muslim Students Association [MSA] prayer room. As I approached, I saw a couple of girls from MSA crying. I asked someone what was going on, and they told me. I was in complete shock. I was shaking. I saw one of Yusor’s best friends just bawling and I didn’t even know what to do. I always like to fix things and make people feel better, but I didn’t know how to fix this." 

Aribah Shah: ​"As I was going to bed on Tuesday night, I received a campus-wide alert email that there had been a shooting near campus. I'm studying abroad, so currently my time zone is ahead of Chapel Hill's by five hours. I disregarded it, but texted my mom. 'It's probably not a student,' I told her, and then I went to sleep.

"On Wednesday morning, I got an an email from the school and, when I opened it, felt like my vision must be blurring. 'Deah Barakat' was the first thing I read. I read the sentence over and over again. I’d been at Deah's wedding just a few weeks earlier, full of joy. My next thought was, What was Yusor, his wife, going through? Then, I scrolled down and saw Yusor's name, and then the third name, Razan, her younger sister. 

"All over social media, friends and acquaintances poured their hearts out. At UNC, Deah was the guy everyone looked up to, everyone played basketball with. Yusor and Razan were some of the sweetest girls we had ever met. It’s an indescribable loss." 

Brittany Tart: "At first, all I heard was that three people had been shot and killed, three people that none of us knew of. Honestly, my first response was that it was probably something random. Never did I imagine that the victims would be who they were. That next morning, I checked my email and saw the news: One of them was in the school of dentistry, another planning on going, and the other a sophomore at [N.C.] State.

"I was heartbroken. I was on the verge of tears literally the entire day. Once I put faces to the names, it hit me even harder. I was sitting in the dining hall on Facebook and someone posted a picture on the UNC webpage, and I started to read about who these people were and all the amazing things they had done." 
What were the memorial services like?
SL: "Honestly, the vigil was a blur. I facilitated the event and, when I wasn’t on stage introducing the next speaker, I would look up at the huge projection of images of Deah, Yusor, and Razan. I couldn’t help but break down every time I saw an image of them."

BT: "I couldn't believe how many people came to the Chapel Hill vigil on Wednesday night. I heard it was thousands. Just seeing people from various schools, religions, and races all come together over such a tragic event was really moving. The vigil was sad — heartbreaking, for a lack of better words. All we heard about was how amazing Deah, Yusor, and Razan were and what they had planned for the future. I know it was meant to be a celebration of their lives, but honestly, it just felt sad."

How does it feel on campus now, a week later?
SL: "It’s hard for me to fully understand how the whole campus is reacting because I have been surrounding myself with people who knew Deah, Yusor, and Razan. It seems to me that everyone else is worrying about the Duke-UNC game, or their club meetings or what have you. I wear hijab, and I feel like people just stare at me while on campus — not knowing what to say, I guess. For those of us who knew Deah, Yusor, and Razan — I think our feelings come in waves. One minute you can be smiling, and the next you see a photo of them and start crying. It’s been tough." 

AS: "This incident was such a shock. UNC always seemed like an open-minded and accepting environment. I know Muslims are discriminated against all over the world, but I never, ever thought it would hit in a place as liberal as Chapel Hill, where I felt so protected. 

"I felt angry. Was this story going to be swept under the rug? Would they receive the recognition they deserved? I also felt a wave of fear. Was the only reason I wasn't being targeted because my name was ethnically ambiguous? Or because I didn't wear a hijab?"

BT: "In light of recent events, many minority students — whether Black students fighting to remove KKK-affiliated historical titles from campus, or Muslim students dealing with anti-Islamic sentiments all over the media — have been feeling marginalized. But, this managed to bring our entire campus together. In the end, it was a beautiful reminder of the importance of love in a community."

What are people saying about the investigation into whether the crime was a hate crime? 
SL: "I can’t lie, I think the greater Islamophobic narrative that is perpetuated through the media (from Fox News to American Sniper) is at least in part responsible for this. Muslims get a bad rap in the media and for people who don’t know Muslims personally, I guess it would be easy to buy into this ‘Muslim = terrorist' narrative.

"This was not a simple parking dispute — and it's a slap in the face to the community to label it as such. Just look at what has happened in Copenhagen: similar story, but since the killer was Muslim, he is a terrorist. Why isn’t Hicks labeled as such? He terrorized Deah, Yusor, and Razan, their families and friends, our community, and millions of Muslims around the world who no longer feel safe."

AS: "I think the most important part is the families and the friends of the victims are focusing less on how the person who did this is going to be punished and more recognizing this for what it is. This is the result of hatred and ignorance. 

"It certainly wasn't parking that triggered it. A parking dispute is not a fair reason to execute three people. It doesn't add up to any of us here, and it's demeaning to suggest that it would. Why is [Hicks] being referred to like he's some troublemaker? Had the roles been reversed, they'd call him a terrorist. It's like we're being told, "Close your eyes. Don't worry about it.

"We're not trying to pin this on any group of people — the whole point is that you can't pin something like this on a group of people. I'm not going to blame all atheists for this." 

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