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'Please remember them': father of murdered Muslim students testifies to U.S. House

our three winners
(From left) Deah Barakat, Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha and Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha lost their lives Feb. 10, 2015. (Courtesy of the Abu-Salha family)

The man charged with killing three Muslim students in 2015 will not face the death penalty, according to Durham County’s district attorney. If convicted, he will receive life in prison. 

Craig Hicks is charged with three counts of first-degree murder in the fatal shooting of Deah Barakat, 23, Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, 21, and Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, 19, at their Chapel Hill condo on Feb. 10, 2015. Hicks will go to trial this summer.

Mohammad Abu-Salha, the father of Yusor and Razan and father-in-law of Deah, testified before the U.S. House Judiciary Committee on April 9. Abu-Salha vividly recounted the scene and autopsy, the victims' humanitarian work and the violence targeted at the Muslim community. 

“Three beautiful young Americans were brutally murdered, and there is no question in our minds that this tragedy was born of bigotry and hate,” Abu-Salha said. “This has happened on too many occasions. Families like mine — regular Americans living regular lives — are left without hope that justice will truly be served.”

Lela Ali, a member of Raleigh-based organization Muslim Women For, said she was upset when U.S. Representative Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Tx, asked if Abu-Salha taught his daughters hatred. She said even though people claim it was a way for Abu-Salha to defend himself, she said he doesn’t need to defend himself and that the question itself was harmful.

“It really shows the type of collective guilt that is placed on the Muslim community and that has been historically placed on the Muslim community to always have to defend itself, to always have to prepare apology speeches, to always have to figure out who’s a terrorist and who's not,” she said. “This collective guilt that’s placed on our community has created fear in our communities, has created silence in our communities and it’s truly dangerous.” 

Ali said the United States needs to figure out what a hate crime constitutes, since the national definition, as well as some state statutes, are vague and leave out certain communities. 

“I truly believe that no particular punishment that this man will get will really kind of heal the pain that the families are kind of experiencing, or really that the whole community is experiencing — nothing will bring justice in this world,” she said. 

Ali said the Muslim community is more focused on seeing a trial happen than the punishment for Hicks, after having waited over two years.

“I don’t believe that the death penalty kind of creates this transformative justice that we’re all kind of working for," she said.

Zainab Baloch, a member of Young Americans Protest, said she believes what is more important than the decision of the death penalty is that the case is classified as a hate crime. She said listening to the hearing was very emotional, but is grateful to see her friends' stories being represented in a way that’s impacting the world. 

“I think people already know that they were very inspiring people, that they were working to better themselves but to change the world and not only that, they did more than any average person,” Baloch said. “It’s beautiful that their stories are being told right now and it's a very positive story, and from this I’d like to uplift their story, try to change that Muslim narrative that people have and to show that these were just really good kids who were born and raised in America, but really in Raleigh.”

Erin Kalbarczyk, a staff member at World Heritage Student Exchange Programs who participated in an annual food drive in honor of the victims, said the bigger question than what happens to Hicks is how to move forward. She said that Hicks' trial is a portrayal of two forces, one that wants to be a gentle presence in the world and not incite hatred and another that says “You don’t look like me, you don’t belong here.”

“I don’t know that we can speak ultimately to what justice is,” she said. “We have social constructs for that, we have legal constructs for that, we have ways that we like to frame that word as a country, as a state, as a community — I don't know ultimately what that means, though." 

Abu-Salha said in his testimony that at times, the pain he feels now is no different from what he felt immediately after the deaths. 

“Please remember them. Yusor, Deah and Razan," he said. "They are my children. And they are gone."

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