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After tragedy, honoring North Carolina shooting victims through charity

March 20, 2015

By Kimber Solana

Deah Barakat hands out oral hygiene products to a child
Volunteer: Deah Barakat, a dental student who was killed in a Feb. 10 shooting in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, hands out oral hygiene products to a child during a December 2012 dental relief trip in the West Bank.
Provided by Dr. Saleha Rehman

Voluntering at three dental clinics in the West Bank, Dr. Saleha Rehman witnessed how easily Deah Barakat helped pediatric patients, many of whom with special needs, feel at ease with their visit to a dentist.

“He was a natural. He knew how to make a child smile and laugh,” she said of Mr. Barakat, who was one of three young Muslims killed in a Feb. 10 shooting in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

Dr. Rehman met Mr. Barakat in December 2012 while volunteering in a two-week dental relief trip in the Middle East. At the time, Mr. Barakat had just been accepted to attend the University of North Carolina’s School of Dentistry.

“He spoke Arabic and helped translate. He helped managed patient flow, organized oral hygiene kits and gave oral hygiene instructions,” said Dr. Rehman, a general dentist in Houston, Texas.

“Patients traveled for hours to receive services, but there often would be long waits in the morning,” she added. “Deah would sometimes gather the children and teach them how to play basketball, show them how to dribble, while they waited.”

Deah Barakat flashes the peace sign
Peace: Deah Barakat flashes the peace sign while posing for a photo with two children and two fellow Miswak Foundation volunteers at a dental clinic’s waiting area during a December 2012 dental relief trip in the West Bank.
Provided by Dr. Saleha Rehman

Two years later, Dr. Saleha said, Mr. Barakat contacted her to join him in another dental relief trip he was organizing. This time, their team was planning to treat Syrian refugees in Reyhanli, a small town in southern Turkey, near the border with Syria.

“He was a humanitarian. He had a passion for doing something greater than himself. ” Dr. Saleha said. “I was exchanging emails with Deah about the upcoming trip this summer just a week prior to the incident. I just couldn’t believe it.”

On the evening of Feb. 10, Mr. Barakat, 23, his wife Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, 21, and his 19-year-old sister-in-law Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha were fatally shot in their Chapel Hill, North Carolina, apartment. Police officers arrested their neighbor, Craig Stephen Hicks, 46, for the shooting.

Since then, in response to the tragedy, Muslim-Americans around the country, along with the dental community, have organized various efforts — from launching food drives and creating scholarship funds — to help ensure the humanitarian causes the three young victims championed continue to live long after their tragic deaths.

Prior to the shooting, Mr. Barakat started an online fundraising campaign for the Syrian dental relief trip with a goal to raise $20,000. Today, the campaign has raised over $500,000.

“We were supposed to be a group of five dentists and volunteers going,” Dr. Rehman said. The trip was organized in collaboration with the Miswak Foundation, formed in 2011 by a group of American Muslim dentists and dental students to promote the oral health of underserved populations through education, prevention and service. The foundation has made dental relief trips to Haiti and Sierra Leone and established dental clinics in Syria, in cooperation with the Syrian American Medical Society.

“Now, I believe the plan is to take two separate trips; each trip consisting of 10 dentists and 10 volunteers. Because of people’s generosity, we’re now able to serve Syrian refugees at a larger scale,” Dr. Rehman said.

About 48 hours after the shooting, a group of Muslim activist leaders assembled on a conference call to discuss ways to respond to the tragedy.

Students  from Athens Drive High School in Raleigh, N.C.
Alma mater: Students  from Athens Drive High School in Raleigh, N.C., pose for a photograph along with the canned goods they collected during a Feed Their Legacy food drive. The national food drive launched as a response to the deaths of Deah Barakat, Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha and Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha. Both Yusor and Razan attended Athens Drive High School.
Provided by Feed Their Legacy
“The shooting really hit home for many us. Like them, many of us are children of immigrant Muslim-Americans,” said Tarek El-Messidi, co-founder of Feed Their Legacy, a grassroots nationwide campaign to feed the homeless.  “They were killed by a neighbor, but in our response, we decided we wanted to feed our neighbors.”

Mr. El-Messidi, who previously met Mr. Barakat at a conference, visited Mr. Barakat’s Facebook page and saw that one of the last photos Mr. Barakat posted in January was of volunteers handing out dental supplies and food to over 75 homeless people in Durham, North Carolina.

“We thought we needed to try to replicate what we saw on the photo nationwide,” Mr. El-Messidi said.

Feed Their Legacy launched in late February with a goal of collecting 100,000 cans of food by March 28. As of March 19, 220 food drives from 28 states have collected nearly 60,000 cans.

Participating groups, which so far includes over 180 mosques, and high school, university and faith-based groups, can register online at FeedTheirLegacy.com and update their food drive results.

“The response has really surprised me,” said Mr. El-Messidi. “I knew North Carolina would come out strong (more than 21,000 cans have been collected in the state), but even states that don’t have a big Muslim population, like Nevada and Utah, are participating.”

Those who can’t find a food drive nearby can also make monetary donations through the website. The money collected will be split between the state that collected the most cans and the top individual food drives in the country. They will use the money to purchase additional canned goods to be distributed among local food pantries selected by the participating groups.

Members of the Islamic Center of Raleigh in North Carolina
Donating food: Members of the Islamic Center of Raleigh in North Carolina deliver donations collected from a Feed Their Legacy food drive to a local food bank. Their food drive, launched to honor the lives of the three young Muslims killed in Chapel Hill, collected over 20,000 canned goods.
Provided by Feed Their Legacy
“Because of the caring and altruistic way he lived his life, Deah touched more people than he likely knew. Likewise, his passing moved and inspired more people than we ever could have imagined,” said Dr. Jane Weintraub, UNC School of Dentistry dean. “We are incredibly grateful for the outpouring of support, love and solidarity from the local, national and international dental community, the UNC community, the Muslim community, North Carolina universities and beyond. It is humbling to think that so many people across the country are invested in seeing their legacy of service continue now that their lives have been cut short.”

Scholarship funds have been created to honor the three victims.

North Carolina State University, where Mr. Barakat graduated with honors in 2013 and where Ms. Razan Abu-Salha was a sophomore in the College of Design, announced Feb. 20 the creation of the “Our Three Winners” scholarship endowment.

The endowment, which has been created with insights and advice from family members, will provide annual support to students in NC State’s Poole College of Management, College of Sciences and College of Design. To donate, visit go.ncsu.edu/ourthreewinners. Checks can be made out to Our Three Winners fund and sent to: Our Three Winners, Campus Box 7474, Raleigh, NC 27695-7474.

UNC at Chapel Hill also created a fund to honor Mr. Barakat, a second-year dental student, and his wife, who was to enter as a first-year dental student in August. The purposes for the fund will be determined after conferring with the victims’ family and friends. To donate, visit giving.unc.edu.

“Deah wanted to get into dentistry to give back,” said Dr. Rehman. “If people can try to positively impact someone else’s life, that would be the greatest honor we can give to these three amazing people.”