RALEIGH, N.C. (RNS) Wrapped around the porch molding of a blue clapboard house in this capital city is a saying inscribed on thin sheets of red oak:
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness. Only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate. Only love can do that. — Martin Luther King Jr.”
The saying is a fitting tribute to three young Muslims whose lives were cut short by a Chapel Hill gunman two years ago Friday (Feb. 10), and it graces the Light House Project, a new community center and incubator for faith-based social entrepreneurship dedicated in their memory last week.
The Light House Project is one more testament to the legacy of the Chapel Hill shootings, as they’ve come to be known.
The slayings shocked the greater Triangle region of North Carolina — the progressive-minded area anchored by Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill — and more than any other event it awakened Muslims to the dangers of life in America.
Two years later, the scab still festers, the parents still cry and and the community still grapples with what, in hindsight, looks like an early portent of the anti-Muslim sentiment that has grown more virulent with the rise of Donald Trump and his followers.
“The current political climate rubs salt on the wounds,” said Imam Abdullah Antepli, the chief representative of Muslim affairs at Duke University. “This isn’t a problem of the past but of the present and the future.”
For the parents in particular, healing is elusive.
“Nowadays, I can never say I’m doing great,” said Mohammad Abu-Salha, the father of Yusor and Razan Abu-Salha, sisters who were killed that day. “But given the circumstances, it’s miraculous we are functioning at a high level. Our dignity propels us to keep going.”
But there’s another factor that propels these Muslims forward: furthering the legacy of the students whom the community nicknamed “Our Three Winners.”
Across the Research Triangle region, the shootings have spurred a wave of good deeds by Muslim youth.
On Friday, for example, at a planned “Day of Light” event to remember the lives of Deah Barakat, 23; his wife, Yusor 21; and her sister, Razan, 19, Triangle mourners will be asked to ponder “How can I be the light?”
Since the slayings, some local Muslims, alongside their interfaith partners, traveled twice to Turkey’s border with Syria to deliver dental care to refugees. Two universities — North Carolina State and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill — have endowed a scholarship and an award in the names of the victims. Two Habitat for Humanity homes have been built with Muslim and interfaith labor, adding to the three built before the killings.
More recently, land for a new mosque, to be called the Winners Masjid, has been bought in North Raleigh, and the three streets surrounding the complex will be named after the slain students.
“To have young people so passionate about service and giving back to the community is refreshing,” said Justine Hollingshead, chief of staff for the vice chancellor and dean of N.C. State University in Raleigh, and a member of the Light House board.
‘That year was horrible’
It was a little after 5 p.m. on a Tuesday two years ago when multiple gunshots rang out at a condominium complex near the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. By the time police arrived, they found Deah, Yusor and Razan lying in pools of blood, shot execution-style in the head.
Authorities quickly arrested a neighbor, Craig Stephen Hicks, 48, and charged him with murder. The former car parts salesman, who was studying to be a paralegal, had been enraged with his neighbors in a dispute over parking, police initially said. It is a claim the victims’ families reject; they maintain he singled out the three students because they were Muslim. Both women wore a hijab.
Hicks faces the possibility of being sentenced to death. No date for the trial has been announced.
The funeral for the three students, held on the soccer field at N.C. State, was attended by thousands. News media from all over the world wrote about it. A rabbi in Raleigh presented the families with a book containing thousands of letters of condolences.
“That year was horrible,” said Somia Youssef, who graduated from N.C. State and was friends with the Abu-Salha sisters. “It shook our community and made people frightened. I heard a lot of, ‘It could have been us; it could have been me.’”
A record of good deeds
The three victims were all bright, high-achieving university students: Deah, in his second year at the UNC School of Dentistry; Yusor, about to enter the same dental school; and Razan, an N.C. State architecture and environmental design major.
But the three were also known for their charitable activities. Deah worked with a nonprofit that provided dental supplies to the poor. Shortly before he died, he was raising money to travel to Turkey to provide dental care to refugees fleeing the brutal civil war in Syria.
He, Yusor and his brother, Farris, volunteered for half a dozen causes. They were active in the Muslim Students Association on campus and spoke frequently of their desire to give back to the community.
Razan tweeted the famous quote: “Live in such a way that if someone spoke badly of you, no one would believe it.”
"Live in such a way that if someone spoke badly of you, no one would believe it."
— Razan Abu-Salha (@realmoneyrazan) September 3, 2014
In a similar vein, Deah tweeted: “I have a dream one day to have a unified and structured community.”
I have a dream one day, to have a unified and structured community. Have a voice in our society and support the youth with their projects
— Deah Barakat (@arabprodigy30) July 24, 2014
It was that particular tweet that provided the vision for the Light House Project.
After his death, Deah’s parents inherited a bungalow he owned in a mostly African-American neighborhood close to downtown Raleigh. Wanting to realize his vision for the future and continue his record of good deeds, they decided to convert it to a community center.
“Since Day No. 1, we’re trying to fight the hate and sadness with doing good and being positive,” said Namee Barakat, Deah’s father. “That makes us feel better and it makes our wounds a little easier.”
Last weekend, more than 100 young people trooped into the clapboard home on Tarboro Road to celebrate the official opening with a blessing from a Raleigh imam and a table laden with Middle Eastern treats.
Two organizations, Triangle Muslim Aid and Triangle Muslim Professionals, now share office space in the Light House, but the board would like to encourage other groups to use the house as a kind of incubator for faith-based programs assisting youth.
Civic organizers have marveled at the willingness of these young people to engage.
“They’re amazing young people already making a difference in the community,” said Rick Beech, vice president of faith relations at Habitat for Humanity of Wake County. “They’ve profoundly impacted our organization.”
Just this week, Light House members and others pledged to work on 11 affordable townhouses on Friday and Saturday. And they have undertaken a monthlong interfaith food drive.
Yet for these young Muslims, a cloud still hangs over their community.
“Two years ago we had to convince people Muslims felt threatened,” said Farris Barakat, Deah’s brother. “Today, if you don’t know that Islamophobia is a real thing, you’re not following the news.”
Still, these young Muslims, inspired by their faith as well as by their American values, are forging a better future.
“Now, whenever calamity hits,” said Fatima Hedadji, 23, “we’re able to handle it through unity and through service rather than becoming negative.”