Lights flickered in the air and tears were held back as hundreds of students, faculty and members of the community gathered at the Plinth on Feb. 12 for a candlelight vigil honoring the three Muslim students murdered in Raleigh, N.C.
Deah Barakat, 23, a University of North Carolina dental student, his wife of six weeks Yusor Abu-Salha, 21, and her sister, Razan Abu-Salha, 19, a student at North Carolina State University, were all shot and killed on Feb. 10 at the couples’ home about two miles from UNC Chapel Hill.
Police have charged their neighbor, Craig Stephen Hicks, 46, with murder. Investigators are looking into whether the crime was motivated by anti-Muslim sentiments.
News of the incident spread quickly around the Muslim community. Shaheer Ali, the president of UTD’s chapter of Alif Lam Meem, the nation’s first Muslim fraternity, said he heard about the shooting the night it happened. After going through Twitter, someone suggested to him to hold a vigil for the three victims.
“I said, ‘You know what? Let’s get on it, right now,’” Ali said. “We basically started organizing yesterday.”
He said several student organizations, including ALM, the Muslim Student Association, the Sikh Student Association and the Hindu Student Association all collaborated to set up the event.
The Plinth was filled to the brim with attendees, with every seat taken up and people lining the stairs and circling the main area just to get a view of the stage. Ali said he was not expecting the turnout to be that big.
“There were hundreds of people that said they were attending on Facebook, but I was assuming that there would be substantially less amount of people that came,” he said. “To me, that the entire Plinth got filled up, that there were people around us, that there were people standing in a circle, that was really touching.”
The night started with an introduction by Ali, who then held a short moment of silence for the three victims. Several speakers took the stage after him to share their thoughts on what happened.
Ali Mahmoud, one of the founders of ALM and a speaker at the event, said one of the factors that made the crime so shocking was how relatable students are to those who were killed.
“We’re in a college setting. Two of them were undergraduates. One of them was in a dental school, so that’s something that ‘s extremely relatable to us,” he said. “It’s a tangible goal to many of us…It’s scary and that’s why it hurts more than anything else, how relatable this is to us.”
Community leaders outside of UTD also took to the stage to deliver their thoughts to the crowd. Alia Salem, the executive director for the Dallas/Fort Worth chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, heard about the event from a student who invited her to speak.
She said she has never seen unity on a national level for one incident in the ten years she has worked as an activist.
“We have literally hundreds of activists from across the country from every major organization that is Muslim-centric news outlets, Muslims who are affiliated with major news outlets have coalesced into this one massive activist group to make this effort something that has really lasting impact and meaning going forward,” she said.
Ali said the biggest realization he had was that there are many who care deeply about what happened in North Carolina.
“It’s cold. People came without jackets. That love that people have for each other, it’s a good sign,” he said. “My takeaway was that we need to continue doing things like this and raise awareness for any injustice that’s going on, for anyone that’s treated unfairly, Muslim or non-Muslim. It’s about humans and about human lives that matter.”