By Christopher Leelum
The three smiling faces projected on a screen who looked out among the hundreds of Stony Brook students during the vigil on Tuesday for the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill shooting did not belong to just the victims of a heinous crime.
The vigil, held in the SAC auditorium, was a response to last week’s killing of Deah Barakat, his wife Yusor Abu-Salha and her younger sister, Razan Abu-Salha, who was just 19. Forty-six-year-old suspect Craig Stephen Hicks has been charged with murder, and questions still remain as to the motive.
Sister Sanaa Nadim, chaplain for the Stony Brook Muslim Students Association and organizer of the event, said they are more than casualties, but symbols.
“We are all Deah, Yusor and Razan,” Nadim said. “We are all the 21 Egyptian men killed some days ago. We are the French who mourned, those in Copenhagen, and the Jordanian pilot who burned to death.”
Though there were mentions of hate crimes and religious intolerance, the main message was community. The focus took a broad, unified, and somber tone.
“And we are standing, together, for all the good that we can find in each other,” Nadim said as her voice wavered.
Stony Brook’s large Muslim contingent came in support, but both the audience and the guest speakers had hints of black, white, and Asian, Christian and Jewish, and more.
“We must look beyond yarmulke,” Rabbi Joseph Topek, chaplain and director of the Hillel Foundation for Jewish Life, said. “We must look beyond the hijab, beyond the long skirt, or the turban, or the beard and know the individual.”
Assistant Dean of Students Ellen Driscoll cited the Stony Brook University Community Pledge to reinforce the sense of diversity and unity of the student body.
“Ours is a community that promotes equality, civility, caring, responsibility, accountability, and respect,” Driscoll said.
While incidents like these may evoke fear in other Muslim students across the nation, freshman biology major Shinchita Hassan said she has no real fear for her life.
“I’m not really that scared,” Hassan said. “I’ve lived in New York my whole life and have never been personally persecuted.”
Her friend Emily Gaines, also a freshman biology major, was a bit more morose.
“It’s sad there’s still so much hate in the world,” Gaines said.
But Chief of Police and Assistant Vice President for Campus Safety Robert Lenahan was there to quell any trepidation.
“While we are an extremely safe campus, we want to respond and we want to be there and address any concerns students may have,” Lenahan said. He also mentioned a “zero-tolerance policy” for hate crimes of any crimes on campus.
Yoseph Saleh, a close friend to victim Barakat, was supposed to be a special guest speaker, but traffic held up his appearance. Stony Brook’s Muslim Student Association’s President Mudassir Syed read his statement in his place.
Saleh’s message began with an anecdote about the “tall, immature, pale kid” he first met while playing basketball at the university.
After a game, Saleh said, “I was seriously confused about how genuine and nice he was to me compared to how he was acting on the court. At one point I thought something was wrong with him because of how nice he was.”
At the end of his message, the audience grew silent when Saleh wrote about not being able to attend Deah and Yusor’s wedding this past December and wishing he’d see them around spring break time.
“Now I can’t see him ever again, and I didn’t even have a chance to give him his wedding gift,” Saleh wrote.
At the end of the vigil, Nadim took the stage again for a special request.
With Terry Jacks’ “Seasons in the Sun” played out to accompany the multitude of tiny lights in the auditorium, Nadim asked everyone stand with a candle or a cellphone light.
“We are lighting the flame of hope tonight,” she said.
Photos by Heather Khalifa.