Editor's note: This story has been updated with additional context about the chancellor's recognition of Our Three Winner's Day this year.
This past February marked the 6th anniversary of the murders of UNC Dentistry student Deah Barakat, Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, an incoming dentistry student, and her younger sister, Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, then an undergraduate at North Carolina State University.
But as the clock ticked past midnight, many students found themselves disappointed that the University had once again neglected to publicly honor the memories of these three Chapel Hill community members — Our Three Winners — on the anniversary of the tragedy.
Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz did retweet and comment on a remembrance post from the UNC Muslim Students Association on Feb. 10 this year, which was then retweeted by UNC's main account.
But some students felt that a lone retweet wasn't enough and was emblematic of a broader lack of support and representation from the administration.
Barakat, Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha and Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha were proud Muslim Americans, and many feel that the shooter, Craig Stephen Hicks, had acted on anti-Muslim hostility when he killed the three students. Although he was not charged with a hate crime — because North Carolina’s hate crime statute only applies to misdemeanors — Hicks pled guilty to three charges of first-degree murder in 2019. However, the victims’ family members and many around the world were sure that given past interactions between Hicks and Barakat, Yusor and Razan, Hicks had acted from a place of hate and prejudice.
Anum Imran, president of the UNC Muslim Students Association and a senior studying statistics and political science, said that for herself and many other minority students, the 2015 murders have had a profound effect.
“It has a resounding impact on minority students in general, the fact that there was a very direct execution-style hate crime in the town of Chapel Hill,” Imran said. “The fact that three Muslims were killed in Chapel Hill — before deciding to go to this university it's something that I thought about. It's something that my peers and friends have thought about. That trauma extends beyond the Muslim community, and it also follows every Muslim who joins the community and Chapel Hill.”
The shock waves sent out by the murders both across the world and through time made it all the more disappointing that the University has not publicly acknowledged the shootings on Our Three Winners Day in recent years, Imran said.
“The reach that it will have for the next several years, the next several decades is unique, and is the very basis and reason for the University to acknowledge that it happened,” she said. “And do more than acknowledge. Support Muslim students directly, support Muslim leadership, especially those who actually have to be the shoulders that younger Muslims and the broader Muslim community in Chapel Hill lean on.”
Lack of UNC-wide recognition
Referencing UNC’s official Twitter feed, the University has not acknowledged the anniversary of the deaths of Barakat, Yusor and Razan since 2016. However, it has tweeted out multiple press releases in past years supporting the volunteer efforts of UNC Dentistry students as part of the Adams School of Dentistry's memorial day of service, DEAH Day, which occurs in September.
In February 2020, near the five-year anniversary of the murders, a UNC student brought up the University’s lack of public acknowledgment of the anniversary with Joel Curran, vice chancellor of communications, after he gave a guest lecture in her MEJO 101 class.
A University spokesperson said the vice chancellor discussed the impact of the tragic murders of Deah, Yusor and Razan and highlighted the need to support the Muslim community in the years ahead in the classroom.
But the student said that in response to her question, Curran told her the University simply couldn’t acknowledge every student who had died at the University, unlike individual schools like the School of Dentistry, because there would simply be too many people.
Although she appreciated his willingness to have a conversation, the student said, she was disappointed in his response.
“I mean, these students are Our Three Winners,” she said. “They didn't just die. They were murdered in what many people consider to be a hate crime.”
Curran said in a statement that the University and the community have come together every year since 2015 for the dental school’s annual event to honor Deah and Yuzor’s legacy of service and hope.
“While the dental school is the host of the annual DEAH DAY remembrance, the entire University leadership and community supports the effort to remember the legacy," he said.
A statement from UNC Media Relations also highlighted other past initiatives to honor Deah, Yusor and Razan including a vigil held the day after the shooting, the Deah Barakat and Yusor Abu-Salha Memorial Award — which the University and the Dental Foundation of North Carolina seeded in 2015 with $30,000 each — and the DYOR dental refugee clinic, which was set up by the Our Three Winners Foundation in partnership with the Dental School.
The Our Three Winners Foundation was founded to honor the lives of Deah, Yusor and Razan while developing solutions to combat bigotry and hate crimes.
The student who spoke with Curran said she would like to see the University itself, and not just the dental school do more, continuously, to help Muslim students and other students from marginalized communities feel like they’re being seen.
“I, and I would say many other Muslims at UNC, feel that N.C. State, for example, does more to honor Our Three Winners,” she said. “They usually put out a tweet or a video on the anniversary of their deaths. And even that small thing like it makes us feel more like they care and they're hearing and seeing the minorities who have felt really unsafe after this event.”
N.C. State, where Deah, Yusor and Razan went for their undergraduate education, created the Our Three Winners Scholarship Fund in 2015 in their memory. NCSU’s Media Relations told the DTH that 933 households had contributed nearly $200,000 to the scholarship as of this February.
NCSU’s Media Relations also informed the DTH that their social media team has posted remembrances every year.
Imran said that in addition to more public recognition, she wishes the University would reach out to the Muslim Students Association and offer support around Feb. 10 each year.
“I feel like that's the best communication from the administration — ‘We know this is the anniversary, and we're here to support you, please, let us know what we can do.’ To me that feels like bare minimum,” she said. “I've never really seen anything consistent in my four years at UNC, of the university acknowledging Feb. 10, and recognizing the fact that it's a difficult day for a lot of us.”
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