Chris Keane / Reuters

Family and friends remember Chapel Hill shooting victims as heroes

Loved ones recount how the young shooting victims did charity work for war victims abroad and homeless in the US

Family, friends and community members of the three college students shot dead in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, remembered the young victims Wednesday as heroes and role models whose selfless lives are already inspiring others.

“The true tribute that we can pay to them is — not only to pray for them — but also to continue with the good work that they initiated, the spirit of volunteerism that they established and created," said Azhar Azeez, president of the Islamic Society of North America. He said he had met the three students on numerous occasions in Raleigh, North Carolina.

"These are our heroes. These are our role models," he added.

More than a dozen vigils across the country are being organized to honor the three victims: Deah Barakat, 23; his wife, Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, 21; and her sister Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, 19.

A Facebook page titled Our Three Winners, which said it intended to “carry on their legacy of service, great character and joy for life,” garnered tens of thousands of likes within hours. Hashtags #ChapelHillShooting, #MuslimLivesMatter and #OurThreeWinners quickly began trending on Twitter.

Barakat, a Syrian-American dental student at UNC-Chapel Hill, demonstrated his altruism until the end, posting a photo on Facebook on Jan. 29 with the caption: “Tonight we provided free dental supplies and food to over 75 homeless people in downtown Durham! ‪#‎DowntownSmiles.” The photo has been shared more than 4,000 times.

Barakat had planned to take his expertise beyond North Carolina. He had already traveled to Jerusalem on a dental charity mission with United Muslim Relief, and at the time of his death he was raising funds to travel to Turkey in the summer to provide free dental care to Syrian refugees and support Syrian dentists who risk their lives in war to perform services, his fundraising website said. He has raised more than $120,000, a full $100,000 more than his goal — most of that money came after his death, according to the website.

Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, a Palestinian-American, graduated from North Carolina State University in human biology and wanted to be a dentist. She and her mother last year collected dental supplies from the Muslim community in Raleigh and delivered them to the Turkey-Syria border for Syria's victims of war, Nida Allam, one of Mohammad Abu-Salha’s closest friends, told Al Jazeera.

Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha and Barakat moved into their apartment just one month ago after returning their honeymoon. They were scheduled to receive their wedding photos this week, Allam said.

Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, Allam said, “was just so excited to start her life, and she was going to dental school in August.”

Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha texted Allam asking her to join her at the couple’s apartment the day the three were killed.

Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha studied architecture and environmental design at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. “I always thought she was the coolest girl because she’s always posting pictures of her project that she was doing,” Allam said.

On Jan. 29, Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha won the university’s weekly #ThinkAndDo competition for a time-lapse video capturing 3-D model making.

Aya Zouhri, 22, a childhood friend of Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha’s, told Al Jazeera that she “had the kindest soul.”

When the two were in third grade, they made BFF bracelets together and promised each other they “be best friends forever” and “go to each other’s weddings and be neighbors,” Zouhri said.

“I still have the BFF necklace,” she said. “I don’t know how to come to terms with that.”

Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha participated in fundraisers for Palestinian relief and volunteered with Global Deaf Muslims, a nonprofit dedicated to accommodating the deaf in mosques and other Islamic organizations.

Islamic Relief, the largest Muslim charity organization in the U.S., said in a statement that the three victims were “dedicated to humanitarian causes and volunteered regularly with humanitarian organizations, including Islamic Relief USA.”

After the shooting, family and friends of the three victims gathered near the scene of the crime. “Looking at Yusor’s dad, he just looked like he was in complete shock,” Allam said. “Her parents couldn’t even cry because they’re just in complete shock.”

Khalilah Sabra, the executive director of the Muslim American Society, who knew the three victims, told WNCN that their deaths are “a big loss” to the Muslim community.

“There’s no way to define how the absence of Deah and his family will be felt,” Sabra said.

With additional reporting by Tom Maxwell in Chapel Hill.

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