One of the three young Americans killed in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, on Tuesday, was a humanitarian who had been planning a trip to Turkey this summer to help provide dental care to Syrian refugees.
Deah Shaddy Barakat, 23, was a dental student raising money for a project called Refugee Smiles. In a video posted to the fundraising website YouCaring recently, he asked for donations for dental supplies and equipment. Barakat was planning to travel to Turkey along with others from the UNC School of Dentistry.
But he was killed alongside his wife, Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, 21, and and her sister, Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, 19, in a quiet neighborhood around 5 p.m. on Tuesday. A neighbor has been charged with the murders. Police say in an initial investigation that it might have happened over a parking dispute, but acknowledged speculation that this was a hate crime.
Craig Stephen Hicks, the suspect, allegedly posted a photo of his loaded gun on Facebook last month, along with posts declaring himself a “militant atheist.” The Council of American Islamic Relations has called for law enforcement to “quickly address speculation of a possible bias motive.”
In the YouCaring video, Barakat explained how and why he was trying to help those affected by the war in Syria.
“We’ll be doing extractions, fillings, root canals and oral hygiene instructions for those most in need,” he said. “We’ll also focus on prevention, we’ll be passing out toothbrushes and toothpaste within refugee camps, so we can eliminate the problem before it begins.”
As of early afternoon on Wednesday, more than $60,000 has been donated to the project — $40,000 more than his Barakat’s stated goal, and with about six months left before the deadline. That figure is more than twice what it was in the morning. According to the YouCaring site, all donations will go to the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS), a non-profit with the stated mission of “sav[ing] lives and work to ensure a healthier future for all through medical relief and healthcare development on behalf of Syrian American healthcare professionals.” It supports medical and dental clinics across Syria and neighboring countries, including six dental clinics in Turkey.
Project Refugee Smile focuses specifically on the al Salam School, located on the Turkish-Syrian border. Last year, NBC News profiled al Salam, describing it as a haven of normalcy for refugee children. “When I see the smile on these faces, when I see that my children, Syrian children, are living a normal life, only for one or two hours, that’s enough,” said school founder Hazar Mahayni. That mission, of providing a space for refugee children to experience life outside of war, includes offering students courses in art, sports, storytelling, and what one volunteer describes as “a full dental mission.”
Dental care is especially important for those from war-torn regions. Back in 2012, one American dentist working with SAMS described the type of urgent care relief refugees needed:
“Medical relief for Syrians is generally very good. But there is not enough dental care. At first, volunteers were concentrating on war injuries — thoracic and head and neck problems — as well as emergency dental care that was mostly extractions.”
He continued: “There were people with broken or infected teeth — this I expected. But that’s not all. There were people who had been injured by having soldiers push the end of a rifle into their teeth; people with broken jaws. People with injuries to the face. So many people. Some of these were children.”
Barakat’s commitment to supporting Syrian refugees appears to have been a long one.
As was his devotion to peace, demonstrated by a recent tweet that has also gone viral:
If donations continue to increase at the rapid pace they have been since Barakat was killed, SAMS Foundation could see a significant windfall. You can visit the YouCaring page here.