A United Community of Faith Rising Above Our Differences: Reflections on the Chapel Hill Vigil

The tragic and sudden loss of Deah Shaddy Barakat, Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, and Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha startled the entire world. I was shocked when I received news of their deaths. I remember closing my eyes and opening them again to make sure I was awake. Who could kill such amazing and outstanding individuals? I remember16557991746_3381f90d36_zdiscussing their deaths with my roommates the following morning who shared my shock, grief, and outrage. It could have been me instead of Razan. I couldn’t stop thinking about how much they had to offer this world and contribute in making it a better place for future generations. Deah was raising funds to provide urgent dental care to displaced Syrian refugees in Turkey; preparing for a trip he wasn’t destined to attend. I couldn’t imagine the magnitude of immense pain and grief of their family members and close friends. They took part in monumental experiences in their lives and knew of their aspirations, dreams, and plans for the future. They were planning to schedule dinner dates, movie nights, visits, and trips for the following week, month, or holiday with them. But now they had to make abrupt funeral arrangements and notify relatives, friends, co-workers, and colleagues of their tragic passing. Every parent’s worst nightmare was their sudden reality.

16396955770_766fd00fe0_zI remember the conversation I had with my mother on the phone the morning after the shooting. I had missed three calls; two from my mother and one from my father. I knew my mother was worried so I decided to call her back first. I don’t even remember if the phone rang as she quickly accepted my call. She yelled at me asking why I had not picked up her calls. As I apologized, she quickly interrupted me asking if I had checked the news this morning. I remember saying yes and she then said, “today is a day every parent dreads”. I sighed and realized she knew about the shooting. I couldn’t manage to utter anything to my mother. I didn’t know what to say. What could I say? I was still in shock. My mother and I remained on the phone for five minutes without saying anything to each other. She let out a deep sigh and asked God to have mercy on Deah, Yusor, and Razan. She asked if I was okay but I couldn’t manage to respond. She asked if I went to class that morning and I remember giving some sort of reply. She told me to take things easy and to call back when I got the chance. I assured her I would and ended the call.

I continued to receive calls, texts, and voicemails from concerned family members, relatives, and friends asking if I knew what had happened and to make sure I stayed safe. Meanwhile, I was in a state of shock and denial despite the number of times I read headlines stating, “Three Muslim Students Killed in North Carolina”. I kept asking myself what if that had been me? What if I had been in Razan’s place? What would become of my family and friends? I asked myself these questions but refused to address them. The16396956020_0617af70fa_zMuslim Students Association was listed as a co-sponsor for an event scheduled that evening welcoming Congressman Keith Ellison to Georgetown. The first Muslim sworn-in to Congress spoke to a crowd of students about the importance of civic and public engagement as board members of the Muslim Students Association were frantically preparing for a vigil in red square honoring the three lives we lost. I was given the task of representing the Muslim Students Association at Congressman Keith Ellison’s event while other board members grabbed candles and other supplies for the vigil. Congressman Keith Ellison spoke about the importance of civic and public engagement to promote issues and concerns that affect our lives and the lives of our fellow American citizens. He urged us to contact our elected government officials and make them aware of the important issues. Congressman Ellison discussed his efforts to ensure Somali-Americans in his state can continue to send money back home to family members and relatives who have no other source of expected income. If the remittance crisis is not addressed, countries like Somalia will experience a devastating humanitarian crisis. But one point in his speech, his voice softened as he prepared to address what had been on our minds the entire day: the Chapel Hill shooting. “We lost three Americans lives”. Congressman Ellison emphasized Deah, Yusor, and Razan were three outstanding individuals and American citizens that served their community and abroad. It didn’t matter that they were Muslim. What happened resulted in the loss of three innocent Americans. America, as one collective family, should mourn the loss of three of its members.

Congressman Ellison’s words ran through my mind as I scrolled through the news apps on my phone that covered what occurred in North Carolina as the loss of “three Muslim students”. Congressman Ellison made an important point. Whether or not these three individuals were Muslim did not matter. We lost three Americans. I couldn’t help but wonder why so much emphasis was placed on their religious beliefs and practices. The fact that Deah, Yusor, and Razan were Muslim cannot justify the unjust actions that were taken against them. Murder is murder. There is no justification for an unjust killing.

I quickly exited the auditorium to assist setting up for the vigil. As we prepared the candles, people gradually began to gather around us. Once it was time to light the candles, I was surrounded by a hundred members of the Georgetown community. As I passed out candles to the vigil attendees, more and more people raised their hands to receive a candle. As we waited for Imam Hendi and the other university chaplains to join our circle, those present wore a somber expression on their face indicative of grief and shock. Several students embraced one another and others greeted each other with warm gestures of15964209683_fcc61ed650_z (1)support. I never felt so honored and respected as a member of the Georgetown community until I witnessed with my own eyes the large gathering that attended the vigil. The president of the Muslim Students Association, Zahid Syed, gave the opening remarks welcoming all who came to support the Muslim community during this difficult time. Representatives of the Protestant, Jewish, and Catholic community spoke at the vigil in addition to reflections from Imam Hendi and Congressman Keith Ellison. As I scanned the crowd, I couldn’t help but notice the number of individuals in tears. One student of the Muslim community noted “it could have been me instead of Deah. It could have been anyone of us”. I shook in acknowledgement of the truth of what he had said. It could have been me. It could have been me. But looking at the crowd of people around me, I realized I wasn’t alone. The people that stood with me that night identified with races, nationalities, backgrounds, and faith traditions apart from my own. We stood together as collective people of faith united in grief and suffering at such a loss. I witnessed true sisterhood and brotherhood as the children of Adam gathered together to comfort one another in their shared loss. So many of members of the Muslim community were sincerely touched by the warm embraces we received and words of reassurance that American Muslims were members of the American family.

After the vigil, we gathered into the Copley Muslim prayer room to perform the funeral prayers for Deah, Yusor, and Razan led by Imam Hendi. It was the first time some members of the Muslim community had even seen each other since news of Deah, Yusor, and Razan’s deaths made mainstream headlines. Some students had friends that were close friends to Deah, Yusor, and Razan; sharing information about how the community was coping and how their families were dealing with this devastating tragedy. We told one another where and when we were when we heard about their deaths; expressing the pain and grief that overwhelmed our hearts. We smiled over how beautiful Deah and Yusor’s wedding pictures were and felt overjoyed hearing about the incredible service they made towards their community. We were delighted to hear Deah’s project to raise funds for a trip providing urgent medical care to Syrian refugees was receiving an overwhelming amount of support from the Muslim community worldwide within hours after his passing. But we would return to silence in between these fleeting moments of happiness at the reality of what had happened. None of us could avoid the tempting question of why? Why would a human being kill three innocent human beings in such a manner? It was beyond our comprehension.

But every single person in that room was deeply moved by the overwhelming support members of the Georgetown community showed us that evening. The fact they were outraged and saddened by the tragedy that occurred made us forget about Islamophobia and the difficulties the American Muslim community faces. There was so much love in one gathering our hearts were simply overwhelmed. We were in shock at the fact that it could have been anyway one of us, but our community showed us that they cared and sympathized with the challenges of acceptance and tolerance we face. I felt I was in a gathering of sisters and brothers united by a firm belief in tolerance, coexistence, and compassion. Faith-inspired acts of compassion are truly beautiful and memorable experiences. That vigil demonstrated our ability to heal our communities and reconcile our differences by faith-inspired actions of compassion and tolerance. The sea of individuals that congregated on red square that evening identified with a variety of faith traditions and acted with compassion to demonstrate their wavering support of an inclusive and united America.

16557992056_24cccca990_zDeah, Yusor, and Razan please know that we keep you in our prayers and thoughts. Your legacies of faith-inspired acts of service are encouraging and motivating people from all over the world to engage with their local communities in ways they never could have imagined. May God have mercy on your souls and reward you for the mercy you have been to your family, friends, and community. May we continue to learn from your efforts and strive to make a difference in this world for years to come. May we rid our communities of bigotry and hate towards all and spread messages of love, peace, compassion, and understanding. Ameen.

Khadija Mohamud, SFS’17