What a difficult week it has been. When I first heard the news that three Muslim students were brutally murdered in Chapel Hill, North Carolina – I was finishing an assignment/onFacebook (the lines are blurry) late at night. First came the stream of tweets from local community members, demanding media attention. By morning, #ChapelHillShooting had become a trending topic and by then – we knew the gruesome details. Three students – shot in the back of the head, execution style in their own homes. When I heard this, my heart sank. When I saw the images of the victims, I was devastated.
Here were three bright young individuals, who had made contributions not just to the Muslim community but to their country and the world at large. They volunteered at home and abroad, they were successful students and they were active members of the Muslim community, always giving back. This is what the friends and family of Deah Barakat, Yusor Abu Salha and Razan Abu Salha have to say about them. Every interview, every facebook post, every tweet is a testimony to their kindness and generosity.
As a Muslim student around their age, this tragedy affected me deeply and more than I expected it to. Many in the community, myself included have expressed a sense of loss akin to when one loses a close friend. We all feel like we’ve lost someone we’ve known. When I look into the faces of the victims, I see my friends and my family. I see young Muslims, from the MSA, from the mosque living life to the fullest and giving back to their communities. I thought of my brothers friends’, who like Yusor and Deah, are young Muslim professionals, who just got married in December – I had the privilege of being at their wedding. But, most of all – we see ourselves. And then we ask why – why were these beautiful individuals, murdered so senselessly? And if it can happen to them – can it happen to me?
Prior to the shooting, recent events and conversations that I had in my life dealt with the omnipresence of Islamophobia. One of my friends was terrified after somebody started to repeatedly threaten them, remarking that they were a “terrorist” who rejected those who did not practice Islam. Following the tragic shootings at Charlie Hebdo, many took the internet to offer supposed critiques of Islamic theology. In reality, they questioned the intelligence of “blind savages” who were following an 8th century text. Hate justified under the auspices of “academic critique of religion”. This spread to the U of T Confessions page, shortly thereafter and I soon saw comment and flame wars. I brought this up to my two friends (who happened to be Muslim) as were leaving class one night, headed to the subway station. One of my friends soon told us, that her mother who can often pass for white, got comments one day when buying curry leaves at the grocery store. A woman approached her and asked “why are you buying that? It smells. Only those dirty brown people buy that.” We had that conversation – Tuesday night.
Later that night, I would find out that Deah, Yusor and Razan had gone back to God. All of Wednesday, I was emotional and consistently on the verge of tears. Three people had been brutally murdered in their homes and people rushed to clarify that “it wasn’t a hate crime, it was over a parking dispute”. The wife of the accused came on TV, again saying it was over a parking dispute. She neglected to mention that the spot in question was a visitor parking’s spot but that’s besides the point. I’m not here to provide evidence that this was a hate crime – any interview given by members of the Barakat and Abu Salha families makes it clear what happened and why. Rather, I want to tell you what was going through my head that day.
I was angry, I was sad, I was on the verge of tears. Sad at the loss of their lives, angry at the lost potential and the refusal of some to acknowledge their deaths as a hate crime. Being constantly on the verge of tears is a weird feeling – because you feel like you have to cry, but the tears never come out. So there I was, on the train headed to class, in class, in the ASSU office – with this void. At times, you see the images of the innocent victims. Other times, you see the door being broken down, the gun in hand. It is with these feelings in mind, that ASSU released its statement that Wednesday morning.
I know there are some students who disagree with students unions’ putting out statements like this, arguing that they are political. I disagree – when we put statements out like this, we do it in solidarity with the students on our campus who may be going through a tough time and experiencing thoughts like the ones I did after a major tragedy. It’s never to “look activist or be edgy”. Having been through this week, I can tell you the best thing that helps lessen the pain is knowing that there are people who care, who are listening. The worst feeling – is wondering if anyone is listening at all.
Before I end off, I want to touch on something else. Lately, student societies and the U of T administration have been talking about mental health. This is a positive first step – though we have a long way to go. We have to remember that mental health isn’t just about having a lot of stress, having a tough time with academics or even dealing with traditional mental illness. Students lived experiences can often intersect with how they are feeling mentally. Racism, islamophobia, sexual violence, financial issues are just a handful of things that can cause students to experience mental trauma. We need to consider this and remember that because all students’ have a different lived experience, tackling this issue will require a variety of voices and it will require tackling difficult related equity issues – like race. But I’m confident we can do it.
Deah, Yusor and Razan lived beautiful lives and have left us with their legacy. I like to think that they are saying “Asslamalikum” to my friend Ali Saeed right now. In honour of their legacy, I hope we can take steps to inshallah make our campus a safer, more positive place for all students.