In a tragic shooting on February 10, 2015 in Chapel Hill, NC, three young Muslim Americans were murdered over what the media had initially called a “parking dispute” with a neighbor. The victims, Deah Shaddy Barakat, 23; his wife, Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, 21; and her sister Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, 19, were shot in their home by a neighbor who had previously threatened them and had made offensive comments about the two sisters wearing a headscarf in public.
In the immediate aftermath of this shooting, friends, family members and others who were moved by the lives of these three individuals circulated images and quotes from the victims’ social media feeds in an attempt to shift the media narrative. Partly because of this online advocacy, the mainstream media outlets began to report on this event as a possible hate crime and family members were interviewed on national news outlets about the positive work that these three young people contributed to American society. In a previous blog post, I discuss the online advocacy in the immediate days and weeks after the tragic shooting.
Over the last two years since the murders occurred, the work being done to honor the legacy of Deah, Yusor and Razan has only grown. The family and friends of the victims started an organization called Our Three Winners that is currently raising money for an endowment that will provide funds for various humanitarian projects.
The family and friends are also working to refurbish a home that Deah owned and opening a community center, called Project Light House, which will feature a prayer room, study space and meeting rooms for various local groups. The family stated that one of the goals of this house is that it will be a place to educate visitors about Islam and the positive contributions of Muslims. These projects are ways to remember how engaged Deah, Yusor and Razan were in their communities.
In addition to setting up these formal organizations, individuals have also produced creative works to honor Deah, Yusor and Razan. Graphic designer Mohammad Alsalti did not personally know the victims, but he was so moved by what happened that he created a graphic image of the victims that has since been used throughout social media, as promotion for various fundraising campaigns, on T-shirts, and in a public art display on the campus of NC State, where the victims attended. Within less than an hour, Alsalti created the black silhouette image based off a photo of the victims that had been circulating. He posted this image on his Instagram page the morning after the shooting, and within hours the image was being posted throughout social media and various websites.
Alsalti explained that he thinks the authenticity and simplicity of the image allowed it to connect with viewers, and the image circulated quickly through social media because of these feelings of connection. “I feel like it just resonated with people. Like I said, it being so simple but sending a message. That’s a lot of the feedback I got. When people say that man, it’s just so simple, it’s a silhouette, it’s black and white. But each person just has, I’ve heard so many different interpretations of it,” Alsalti said. “I think that’s the big thing too. When you have artwork or design, when you leave it up to interpretation and people have their own interpretation, they create their own story behind it. And it resonates with them.”
Alsalti hopes that his artwork will allow people to connect with the victims and understand a little bit better their life stories. He explains that the circulation of his image and others after the murders “gave a voice to the voiceless. I would hope that me and the other content creators depicted who they were as people. … Just showing a face doesn’t mean that you are really going to connect with them but when people see the picture now, there’s a whole underlying story, issue, everything that goes on, if you see one of their faces.” The hope is that viewers of these images, both Muslims and non-Muslims, will feel a connection to the victims, who were no different than any other young American.
One of Deah’s close friends, Mohammad Moussa, created a multimedia spoken word performance piece, entitled Shattered Glass, to remember the lives of Deah, Yusor and Razan. He hopes that his piece will call attention to larger issues of racism and Islamophobia that Muslims and others minorities face in America. Moussa performed his piece for the one-year anniversary events in February 2016 at both NC State and UNC-Chapel Hill, and he also gives performances at colleges throughout the country.
Moussa’s incorporates his poetry with images and videos of the victims because, as he said, “images are so powerful and they give a very tangible feeling to events and people.” He wants this performance to humanize the victims by sharing their stories and images with viewers. “I think my goal for this piece is to give a glimpse of the loss and pain that the community suffered in an attempt to make people understand that pain,” Moussa said. “If you as an audience member understand that pain and hopefully you will try to do everything in your power to make sure that no one feels that type of pain again.” Moussa points to the power that images and storytelling have to create feelings of empathy in the viewers.
Tarek Albaba was also moved by the tragic shootings in Chapel Hill and felt called to use his creative talents as a filmmaker to raise awareness of the challenges that Muslim Americans face. Albaba is currently developing a documentary series about the lives of Deah, Yusor and Razan and the aftermath of their deaths. Albaba believes that the documentary is a particularly appropriate medium for viewers both to learn about a new topic and to relate to people from different backgrounds.
“And for me, my main goal for our country and for other Americans who might not necessarily have had the opportunity to learn about Islam or to meet their Muslim neighbors or Arab American neighbors, I want to invite them into the room and into the discussion and show just how American we are,” Albaba stated. “And that 99.9% of Muslim Americans pay their taxes, go to school, want to raise their kids in a safe environment and take them to the park. And the only way that we break down these unfortunate hate crimes and barriers is by putting out good information and relatability. It’s all about relatability. We have to see each other as equals, treat each other as equals.”
He hopes that this documentary might even shift the extreme opinions of some Americans who see Muslims as enemies and want to ban Muslim immigrants. “When you honestly look at the facts, when you take an honest moment and look at what these kids did, their impact, their legacy; there is no way that you can look me in the eye and say these people are evil, that these people are associated with some sort of terrorism. There is just no way,” Albaba explained. “I think more Americans need to act like Deah, Yusor and Razan. Imagine if they did? We would be more selfless, more involved in community service, trying to achieve higher learning, trying to help others in need. That’s the America that I want to live in. That’s the American that I identify with.”
By producing creative works, such as documentaries, spoken word pieces, and graphic images, these three young men are working to shift assumptions about Muslims, but they are also doing something greater by asserting the irreplaceable value of the lives that were lost on February 10, 2015, not only for Muslims but for America as a whole.