On the house that Farris Barakat built, the words of Martin Luther King Jr. wrap around the porch overhang, as though they were protection from the outside world: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
It took his brother’s death for Farris to fully embrace those words.
In February 2015, Deah Barakat was gunned down along with his wife of six weeks, Yusor Abu-Salha, and her sister Razan.
News of the triple slaying at a Chapel Hill apartment complex reverberated here and around the world as another instance of hatred toward Muslims. A neighbor was charged with three counts of murder but not a hate crime – sparking further outrage.
The deaths yanked Farris from his life’s trajectory and set him on one he had not anticipated.
At 24, he abandoned his courier business and everything else to speak out against hate. He devoted much of his time to renovating a 105-year-old rental house his brother had owned in a rundown neighborhood east of downtown Raleigh.
Farris named it for his brother. Deah means “light” in Arabic, and The Light House now serves as a center for youth, a gathering place Farris hopes will further Deah’s dreams for a more tolerant America.
Here, at this house, Farris hopes to find the light that was so cruelly snuffed out.
Farris and Deah, sons of Syrian immigrants, were only 18 months apart in age, a grade apart in school and an inch apart in height. Farris feels his brother’s presence most strongly in The Light House – not through things Deah left behind or memories they shared, but through the ideals espoused here.
Farris was certain Deah would be alive today had it not been for his faith, and he felt a religious duty to parlay his brother’s story into easing the nation’s fears. Strangers probably would never sit and listen to Farris talk about Islam, but they were willing to pay attention in the context of tragedy.
Farris focused on turning his grief and anger into something positive. He needed to see a sapling sprout from fire-scorched earth. He allowed The Light House to consume him.
Three years passed in this way.
All around him, Farris saw his community shattered by the tragedy. He saw the consequences of hatred haunt his Muslim neighbors. But he also saw hope in a city that was proud of its diversity and in people struggling to heal. He found new friends along the way. One, in particular, was most unexpected.
Our Three Winners
One spring afternoon, when it is neither hot nor cold, neither dark nor light, Farris and his mother, Layla, climb into his minivan to make the drive westward to Chapel Hill. It’s graduation weekend, and the University of North Carolina School of Dentistry is holding its commencement ceremonies this evening. Deah would have been marching today with the Class of 2017.
Farris and Layla agonized over whether to attend. Farris worried their presence would cast a pall on the joy of others; Layla feared it would be too much to bear. In the end, Layla decided she had to go. For Deah.
In the afternoon, as she does every Friday, she’d driven to a mosque in Deah’s old Honda Accord, his black-and-white checkered keffiyeh still draped over the driver’s seat. Then, as she does every Friday, she visited Deah’s grave, No. 429, at the Muslim Cemetery in nearby Wendell, and sat, deep in prayer, with her youngest child.
“Someone was there to visit him today. There were fresh flowers there,” she tells Farris as he merges onto Interstate 40.
It’s after 5 p.m. and Farris concentrates on driving amid a sea of red taillights. Layla stares at the raindrops on the windshield, rivers shrieking across glass. God’s tears.
In the morning, she had taken Farris to a Men’s Warehouse to shop for suits. He had gained weight in the aftermath of Deah’s death and needed a size 46. He had aged on the inside and out.
“Did you wear a tie?” Layla asks. She had asked him to wear school colors. That’s what Deah would have done.
Farris whips out a dotted tie he’s wearing with a crisp blue shirt. Some might call it United Nations blue. But around these parts, there’s only one descriptor: Carolina blue. Layla nods in approval.
They drive past the road they’d turned onto so many times to visit Deah. Layla’s husband, Namee, had bought 272 Summerwalk Circle, a ground-level, two-bedroom, two-bathroom condominium in the Finley Forest complex, for his son to live in while he attended dental school.
Layla studied architectural engineering as a young woman in Aleppo and had taken great pride in designing her home. After Deah married Yusor, she helped them set up theirs. Just a week before they died, they’d installed a sparkling new stainless-steel sink in their black granite countertop. They beamed with pride like parents with their firstborn.
Deah and Yusor’s families had worked hard to make it in America. Deah’s father, Namee, owns real estate and several small businesses including a convenience store. Layla raised their three children and went back to school at North Carolina State University to earn a master’s degree in computer science.
Yusor and Razan’s parents, Mohammad and Amira Abu-Salha, were Palestinians who lived in Jordan and Kuwait before coming to America. He was a psychiatrist and she, a pharmacist by training, helped him run his practice.
Farris, Deah and their older sister Suzanne had attended Al-Iman, the Islamic grade school at their mosque. So did the Abu-Salha children. Deah and Yusor met as kids and became a couple when they were at North Carolina State. Everyone was delighted when they got engaged.
In February 2015, Deah was 23 and a second-year star student at the UNC dental school. He dazzled people with his charm. He loved basketball, watched “SportsCenter” and was such a huge fan of Steph Curry that following Deah’s death, the Golden State star wore a special pair of sneakers honoring him at the NBA All-Star Game.
Yusor, fine-boned with curly hair and big hazel eyes, shared her husband’s love of basketball, hung out with her girlfriends and obsessed over playing the video game “Call of Duty.” At 21, she was preparing to follow in her husband’s footsteps at the dental school and had just received her letter of admission.
Razan, 19, was a runner and the creative one, an aspiring student of design and architecture. Her Twitter profile said, “I like buildings and other stuff,” and her posts were typical of a bleary-eyed college student downing venti coffees to study.
All three were popular and high achievers, known in the Raleigh area for their charitable work with the poor and homeless. Deah traveled to Jordan to provide dental services for Syrian refugees and was raising money for future clinics. Yusor, too, had flown to Turkey on a volunteer mission to help Syrians and was planning to join her husband on a future trip.
They were all-American kids who were keenly aware of their Muslim identities.
They lived their lives in accordance with Islam. They avoided alcohol and, when they came of age, the women chose to cover their heads. Before they were married, Yusor often visited Deah at his condo. Razan was always with her sister as a chaperone – it was not deemed proper for Yusor and Deah to be alone together.
Yusor looked like a fairy-tale princess in her beaded white gown at her December wedding to Deah. They flew to Mexico for a honeymoon and after they returned home as a married couple, they often invited friends and family over. Just days before they died, Yusor’s parents had come over to watch the movie “Selma.”
The 1980s condo complex was filled with graduate students and young professionals and for the most part, life was quiet in the shade of tall Carolina trees. But Deah and Yusor quickly became aware of the man living above them in No. 270.
Craig Hicks was a burly 46-year-old white man who was studying to become a paralegal at Durham Technical Community College.
His Facebook page revealed a man out of the ordinary. He did not specifically bash Muslims but held organized religion in contempt. A quote he posted said, “People say nothing can solve the Middle East problem. Not mediation, not arms, not financial aid. I say there is something. Atheism.”
Hicks harbored a deep love for guns, and neighbors said he showed “equal opportunity anger.” He frequently complained to Deah that visitors to the complex had usurped parking spaces reserved for him and his wife. Deah checked with the management to make sure he was not violating the rules and even sketched out the parking lot for his friends to make sure they never parked in reserved spaces.
On occasion, Hicks revealed a gun in his holster. Yusor grew scared.
She texted Deah about her fears: Our neighbor is always walking around us with a gun. He’s always looking at me. Would he be doing this if we were white? I feel unsafe.
They discussed whether they should tell the police about Hicks. But they didn’t want to provoke him in any way. Deah assured his wife that their disgruntled neighbor was smart enough not to use his gun.
He was wrong.
On February 10, a little after 5 p.m., Hicks allegedly found a car belonging to one of the victims in what he claimed was his parking space and went into a blind rage. According to the prosecutor’s account, Hicks armed himself with a .357-caliber handgun and walked to Deah and Yusor’s condo. When Deah opened the door, Hicks pulled out the gun and shot him multiple times.
Yusor and Razan began screaming for their lives. Both were shot in the head, according to the state medical examiner’s autopsies. On his way out, Hicks pointed his gun at Deah again and shot him a final time in the mouth. The man who was studying to become a dentist died with his teeth missing and his mouth disfigured.
Before the sun had set that Tuesday evening, Deah, Yusor and Razan lay cold in pools of blood. They had been killed execution style.
A little while later, Hicks turned himself into law enforcement and was subsequently charged with three counts of first-degree murder. His trial is expected this year, and if convicted, he faces the death penalty.
The events of that night burn brightly in Farris’ and Layla’s minds. They remember receiving texts about a shooting at UNC. Layla called Yusor’s father, Mohammad. She was frantic. She’d heard three people had died and that Deah might have been involved. They dialed their children’s cell phones. No one answered.
They got in their cars and raced to the Finley Forest complex. Mohammad remembers almost crashing his car on the way. By the time they got there, the police were everywhere.
They were told by police to wait in the community center. Five and a half hours later, they knew their gravest fears were true.
“Deah took the bus home from UNC at 4:50,” Layla recalls. “He and a friend took a photo on the bus. At 5:08, it was done.”
These are the kinds of details Layla can never forget.
In a news conference, police said the three students had been shot because of a parking space dispute, a claim that incensed the families. They felt it trivialized the true nature of what they saw as a heinous act against Muslims: a hate crime. They could not accept that their loved ones, who had been previously taunted by Hicks, were gunned down over a small piece of asphalt.
The FBI and Department of Justice launched investigations into whether this was indeed a hate crime, though no determination has yet been made. But for the families and the greater Muslim community here in America and abroad, the official classification didn’t matter. They saw the killings as manifestation of a disturbing and rising trend: Islamophobia.
Farris had spent nearly half his childhood in a post-9/11 world and had grown accustomed to phobias, as much as anyone can ever get used to them. He was no longer surprised by the vitriol hurled at Muslims, especially in the aftermath of terrorist attacks perpetrated in the name of Islam. Or by the mosque vandalisms, or by the polls that showed nearly 40% of Americans held an unfavorable view of the religion.
But nothing could cushion the shock of his brother’s slaying.
He returned home that awful night and, still in a state of utter devastation, launched a Facebook page. He offered friends and strangers alike an outlet, a place where they could feel connected to the families. He wanted a space where he could try to control the spread of what he saw as rumors and misinformation. Most of all, he felt compelled to talk peace and faith to drown out the loud, offensive chorus against Islam.
He called the page Our Three Winners.
A trying day
Farris and Layla approach the Carolina campus for what should have been a celebration. Deah had wanted to be adentist for so long. Today would have been the fruition of his wishes.
Instead, Farris and Layla walk into a crowd of people who struggle to find the right words. Some of the students have adorned their tassels with charms bearing the logo of the Three Winners, a silhouetted illustration of Deah, Yusor and Razan.
After he buried his brother before a crowd of more than 5,000 people, Farris launched headlong into establishing the Our Three Winners Foundation, which funds humanitarian missions that reflect the ideals of the fallen three. Farris dedicated himself to honoring their legacy by improving relations between Muslims and the community at large.
He began speaking publicly and returned to the house that Deah owned in east Raleigh. He put up new drywall, installed modern kitchen appliances and outfitted the bathrooms with bidets. He purchased a Sonos system so that the sounds from an upstairs prayer room could be heard throughout. There’s even a 3-D printer in the office.
He hoped people would see The Light House as an example of how to respond to hate; he even dared to hope it would become a symbol for all of America in dealing with the fear and bloodshed that consumed the nation after 9/11.
The Our Three Winners Foundation joined a project started by activist and CNN commentator Van Jones to launch a #LoveThyNeighbor campaign.
Deah, Yusor and Razan had all attended North Carolina State, and their alma mater set up scholarships in their names. It also sponsored a Run for Razan to raise money and inspire young people. Razan was training for the Raleigh Rock ‘N’ Roll half-marathon when she was killed.
At UNC, Deah’s dental classmates set up DEAH DAY, short for Directing Efforts And Honoring Deah And Yusor. Once a year, the school canceled classes for a day of dental and nondental charitable work.
At the commencement ceremony, Deah’s classmate Kaushal Gandhi, one of the founders of DEAH DAY, shows Layla and Farris her tassel charm. On the stage is a framed portrait of Deah and a mortarboard and sash.
Layla stares at them from her seat up in the stands of Carmichael Arena. Pride and grief begin to churn as one.
She fiddles with her phone when the emotions become overwhelming. Sometimes, she feels she has nothing left in this life anymore. She dreams of being reunited with all her children again and counts the seconds, minutes, hours, days, months, years. Time feels like a treadmill to nowhere.
She watched from afar as her beloved Syria descended into intractable civil war that ripped apart family back home and razed the places she held dear. Then she lost Deah. And in the months that followed, she felt strain in her marriage – it’s not uncommon for relationships to suffer in the aftermath of trauma.
Layla lost the one thing human beings need to feel grounded. She lost her sense of belonging. She tries to find inner peace by surrendering to God. But in moments like this, the rawness takes over.
In the middle of the commencement ceremony, Brian Swift, president of the Class of 2017, says a few words about his fallen classmate.
“Our class is forever bonded by the tragic and untimely death of Deah,” Swift begins. “He led by example and he led by heart. We miss him every day. He is a part of the fabric of our lives.”
Swift notes the presence of Deah’s family and asks Layla to identify herself. Everyone stands as they applaud her. Layla does not know where to look or how to act in that moment. Or how to hold herself together.
When the processional ends, she makes a frantic dash for the stage to collect Deah’s mortarboard and sash. She accepts a bouquet of roses from the university and clutches her son’s photograph. She can no longer keep up the charade or keep her eyes dry.
Farris hugs his mother. He had decided long ago that his happiness meant not letting himself feel vulnerable. After Deah died, Farris quit playing basketball for a while because he found it was too easy to explode in a competitive situation. He kept his anger and public grief in check by living the words of Martin Luther King Jr., by doing right by his brother.
Tomorrow would test him again. Deah and Yusor had married six short weeks before they were killed, and their wedding would always be indelibly etched in Farris’ and Layla’s memories.
The next evening, Farris and Layla were planning to attend the wedding of Yusor and Razan’s brother, Yousef.
No matter how hard Farris tried, he knew that sometimes, nothing, not even his honorable actions, and maybe not even his faith, could protect him from grief. The UNC graduation ceremony was one of those moments.
Amid the laughter and joy resounding in the convocation hall, mother and son find solace in one another. Together, they let torrents of tears flow.
In another part of Raleigh, Hanadi Asad pulls back her long dark hair and dons an apron advertising Cajun Joe’s, the chicken franchise her father once owned. She is decorating macaroons and boxing up baklava and other butter and honey-soaked Mediterranean deserts for the weekend farmer’s markets. She’s also baking a four-tier wedding cake and manages the tasks at hand like a master juggler.
Yousef Abu-Salha is getting married, and Hanadi knows the cake, the flowers, the ambience – everything – has to be perfect. The Muslim community in the Raleigh area is fairly close-knit, and Hanadi knows both families of the shooting victims.
“It’s a big deal because it’s the Abu-Salha family,” she says. “You see the happiness and you see broken hearts in their eyes. I wanted to take away some of their stress and let them enjoy their son’s wedding.”
Deah had tapped Hanadi to do the décor for his wedding, and in her smartphone, Hanadi still keeps the last texts she exchanged with him. She told him her daughter Julann had asked for blankets to donate to Syrian refugees in lieu of presents for her sixth birthday.
“That’s beautiful,” Deah texted Hanadi.
Hours later, he was dead.
On this Saturday morning, the texts are from Yousef. He wants to make sure the cream-cheese icing is just right.
At first, the Abu-Salha family was not sure whether a celebration would be appropriate so soon after their daughters’ deaths. Would people think they were crazy to wear fine attire, eat scrumptious food and dance the night away?
But Hanadi understood. How could they allow tragedy to stop their lives? How could they deny their son his moment of joy?
Like the Abu-Salhas, Hanadi’s family is Palestinian. She was born in Kuwait and was 8 when she arrived in America in 1985 with her parents and siblings.
Raleigh was a small Southern city then, still healing from the scars of segregation. There wasn’t even a mosque nearby; Muslim families congregated in private homes to pray. But as Hanadi grew, so did the city around her.
Immigration soared in the 1990s – fueled in part by agriculture, universities and the tech companies of the Research Triangle – and people from all parts of the planet were lured to the greater Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill area.
For decades, Muslim immigrant families settled here largely without incident.
Although they only form about 1% of the 2 million-plus population here, as their numbers grew, they established mosques and schools and became a part of the social fabric. Residents took pride in the area’s growing diversity and boasted about its inclusivity.
These days, signs that say, “Welcome to Raleigh, y’all” in 17 languages plaster walls, bulletin boards and store windows. The campaign was launched by a nonprofit organization called Come Out and Show Them, which previously advocated on behalf of LGBTQ rights after a controversial “bathroom bill” required people to use public restrooms matching the gender on their birth certificates.
Come Out and Show Them chose to focus on immigration after it became such a hot-button issue in the 2016 presidential campaign.
By then, after Deah, Yusor and Razan were killed, Muslims here were already feeling the same anxiety that threatened to overtake their lives after the terrorist attacks of 9/11. That anxiety heightened with the election of Donald Trump, a president they viewed as being anti-Muslim.
One of the most visible signs of discomfort: Some women began uncovering their heads.
But others refused to surrender their faith.
Shortly before she was married, Yusor had tweeted: “Hijab is my constant reminder that we aren’t living for this world…#Perseverance”
Those became words to live by for Muslim women like Hanadi. They drew strength, too, from the Our Three Winners logo that sported the hijabs of Yusor and Razan. It’s wrong to uncover in public once a woman has committed herself to doing so, Hanadi believed.