“It was the dream come true, right?”
Deah Shaddy Barakat, born and bred in North Carolina, 23 years old, had just been accepted into dental school. He had also just gotten married, to Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, who was only 21. They had kicked off their honeymoon by going to a Los Angeles Lakers game — Deah loved basketball, was “extremely obsessed” with it, particularly Stephen Curry. They had moved in together in an apartment in Chapel Hill, and their lives had barely even begun. “They hadn’t even gotten their wedding photos back,” said Dr. Suzanne Barakat, Deah’s older sister, in conversation on Saturday with Katy Tur at the ninth annual Women of the World Summit.
On February 10, 2015, a neighbor knocked on their apartment in Finley Forest Condominiums. He had harassed them before, Barakat explained, and suggested they weren’t welcome in the building. Deah answered the door. The neighbor, a man named Craig Stephen Hicks, then pulled out a gun and started to fire.
“Let me preface this by saying that I have PTSD,” Barakat told Tur slowly. “It is traumatizing and re-triggering every single time I ever have to share this. But I think it is important to do so. Because it is the reality, and oftentimes we want to do away the sad, horrific facts of what happened.”
Hicks shot Deah. Then he shot Yusor in the hip, immobilizing her, before shooting her through the back of the head, execution-style. He also shot Yusor’s sister, Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, who was 19 years old. On his way out of the apartment, he shot Deah several more times — eight in total — including in the mouth.
Dr. Barakat was on call in San Francisco General Hospital when she began to receive “a barrage of texts messages” from friends sending condolences, Barakat recalled. It wasn’t until she sat down and Googled “Chapel Hill shooting” that she realized what was happening. “One article pops up: ‘Three people shot in the back of the head and confirmed dead on the scene.’” She flailed out of her chair onto the hospital floor. “But it took hours, actually, not until I was at the kiosk desk in the airport, that they confirmed the identities.” Her brother, sister-in-law and her sister-in-law’s sister were killed in cold blood.
Reading the autopsy reports of three close family members is incredibly difficult, Barakat said, but the difficulty made her determined to speak out and “reclaim the narrative” — particularly after police began suggesting that the triple murder may have been related to a parking dispute.
“In the aftermath, you did a number of television interviews,” Tur said. “You got out there, despite how painful and awful that experience was. You wanted to make sure people knew that this was a hate crime, and that you were not an ‘Other,’ as you were afraid of being labeled. Talk to me about the expectations that people have.”
Barakat soon turned the query back on Tur: “Why do you think that this story resonated so much, and why am I still here talking about this story?”
“I think it resonates because of what you just heard from the crowd — that gasp,” Tur replied, “talking about how they were killed. And this feeling that nobody deserves that. We’re living — especially in this moment, I think you agree — in a very heighted time. People are scared. There’s a real feel of division in this country.” That division is being exaggerated and used for political advantage, Tur said.
Barakat turned to the audience. “What is the one context we’re used to seeing Muslims on television?” she asked. “It’s in the context of terrorism and national security. And I can tell you, as an American Muslim, that I’ve been fed up with that narrative. After applause, she added, “The reason this story resonated so much with American Muslim community is that for once it was a story representing the ordinary American Muslim” — meaning “professional, college-educated, community service-orientated, loving, kind.”
This was a version that was absent from the popular narrative, so Barakat stepped up to make sure it was heard.
Inevitably, the conversation soon turned to Trump’s “total and complete” ban on Muslims entering the United States, which was first floated in December 2015 while Trump still a presidential candidate.
“What’s different today?” Tur asked.
Things are unfortunately worse, Barakat suggested: hate groups have surged in number across the country, as have hate crimes. Following Trump’s election, Barakat experienced discrimination firsthand: one woman refused to let her touch her baby in the hospital; in the wake of the deadly mass shooting in San Bernardino in December 2015, another suggested that Barakat’s people were responsible for killing people in Los Angeles.
When you can dehumanize people, you can justify violence against them, Barakat patiently explained. “We can all agree that bigotry is unacceptable. But when we see it, we’re silent, because it makes us uncomfortable. The onus is on all of us to stand up for one another. This isn’t just a Muslim-specific issue. This is a human issue.”
Additional reporting by Gina Kim.