Senseless

Chapel Hill shooting: My best friend was killed and I don’t know why

Courtesy of Amira Ata

21-year-old Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha was shot in the head alongside her husband and her sister in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, on Tuesday. A preliminary police investigation suggests that the fatal shootings were the result of a parking dispute, but the possibility that it was a hate crime has not been ruled out. A 46-year-old neighbor, Craig Stephen Hicks, has been arrested and charged.

Here, Yusor’s friend, Amira Ata, a teacher, tries to make sense of the tragedy—and recalls an evening when the alleged shooter arrived at the victims’ apartment because he thought they were making too much noise playing a board game. He came to the door with a rifle, Yusor told her.

As told to Latoya Peterson.

Yusor Abu-Salha was like a sister to me.

We’ve always been together. Starting in third grade, we went through elementary school, middle school, high school, undergrad in Raleigh, North Carolina. We were inseparable.

I’ve never felt anything like this before. There’s always trends on Facebook and Instagram because of loss. You feel something, but you still scroll past because it doesn’t affect you. This time feels different. I still remember every outfit, where everything is in her room. It’s shocking. I almost don’t believe it happened. I can’t text her anymore. We were planning a trip for spring break. We were thinking about D.C. but we weren’t sure. It just doesn’t seem real. Even though it’s everywhere, it’s on the news, I still can’t quite believe it.

Words can’t really describe who she was. She’s such an amazing person. I feel like people always say that after they lose someone. This isn’t to boost her after her death—she really was a good person.

She always put others ahead of herself, just like her husband, Deah Barakat. I am the person I am today because of her. She’s a really sweet person, you never catch her angry. She’s patient, very loving, like her mom, she’s caring. She’s a good person. She was newly married and getting used to that life transition. She had just been accepted at Chapel Hill for dentistry.

Over the summer, Yusor went to Turkey. I’m a teacher at a small private school in Raleigh, and my school ran a collection drive for Project Refugee Smiles. My students were so excited to help. They collected so many toothbrushes and packages of dental floss that Yusor couldn’t carry it—she had to pay extra bag fees. She went with her mom to assist.

150211-shooting3Amira Ata, front left, with Yusor Abu-Salha, front right. Courtesy of Amira Ata

When Yusor came back, she brought cupcakes to say thank you. It was raining, and it was a wonderful treat. The kids left cupcake icing all over my dress. Everyone was happy. Yusor was always interested in the helping side of medicine. She’s been on the same career path since we were little, it’s what we grew up around. Her dad is a psychiatrist, her mom helps with the practice and in the home. I want to be a psychiatrist like her father, he’s been my inspiration since we were kids.

I feel sad, but I also feel happy because she didn’t die alone. I’m not really sure how I feel exactly. I wish I could see her again—last time I saw her was Sunday. We were just talking about pictures she had posted from her surprise bridal shower in the mountains. I was planning on seeing her tomorrow, just to hang out. It’s just very unreal. It doesn’t make sense. I’m trying to stay faithful.

I don’t know if I believe she was targeted for her beliefs. I don’t think so – I think the shooter, Craig Steven Hicks, is just an angry person. I know Yusor didn’t do anything to him – there’s no way she could have said even one thing wrong to him because she doesn’t get mad. She never says anything back even if someone yells at her. Her husband is even nicer, her sister is even nicer – none of them would have said anything to make someone that angry.

Three lives literally are gone just to justify…whatever he was thinking.

I understand people look down on our religion. They think a lot of things, like we are terrorists. People don’t understand us Muslims are embarrassed of these people who are using Islam in bad ways to justify being cruel. Yusor and Deah represented a big part of our community—they were two good Muslims. Yusor believes in her religion. She is peaceful and she was raised well. She chose a healthy way of life. We weren’t extreme. We are the middle path. We aren’t strict on stuff outside of the head covering. I think there is a lot of misinterpretation of what Islam is.

I can’t understand why someone would hate them enough to kill them.

I read articles about this guy and they say he’s an atheist, but I don’t really know if that’s the connection the media makes it out to be. I’m not really sure if he thinks his act is justified.

Honestly, I don’t want to say, “Why her?” because I don’t want this to happen to anyone. What we’ve been feeling over the last 12 hours I don’t want anyone to ever feel.

150211-shooting-1Amira Ata, left, with Yusor Abu-Salha. Courtesy of Amira Ata

I have so many questions for Hicks.

I know that he’s an aggressive man. That’s not the first we’ve heard from him. Hicks was their neighbor.

In October or November, we went to dinner at Yusor and Deah’s house. Right after we left, Yusor heard a knock at the door and it was Hicks. She told us he was angry and said we were noisy and there were two extra cars in the neighborhood. We used visitor parking but he was still mad. He said we woke up his wife. It wasn’t that dark yet. It wasn’t late. And it wasn’t that loud. We were playing a board game called Risk. I mean, I know I was mad because they were beating me at the game, but that was it. While he was at the door talking to Yusor, he was holding a rifle, she told me later. He didn’t point it at anyone, but he still had it. Yusor called to check on us after we left, to make sure he hadn’t approached us. We thought that was so weird—our neighbors don’t come to the door with guns! So when I heard the news it was shocking, but it wasn’t a surprise that it was the neighbor.

When I heard the news report and drove down there from Raleigh, I hoped it wasn’t anyone I knew. But I saw the apartment on the news and it was his apartment. If it wasn’t a hate crime, what was it? If you have a problem with your neighbors, you write a letter; you don’t shoot people. I think they were targeted because they were different. He was always so annoyed with them for little things. They are talking about a parking dispute online—that’s definitely not true. There’s plenty of space, and Deah had just gotten off the bus. I wonder if he just thought Deah was some white guy before his wife moved in.

150211-shooting-2Amira Ata, left, with Yusor Abu-Salha. (Courtesy of Amira Ata)

Deep down everyone in this community knows it was a hate crime. But how do you prove it?

I have so many questions for him.

She’s so young. Would you not let her blossom a bit more? What went through your mind? I mean, as you pulled the trigger you clearly killed people. You killed one, then you killed a second time, a third time. And you walked away from the scene. You took three young people. I don’t know if he has kids but how could you do that to someone’s child? And then just walk away. What is his motive? I wonder what would have happened if we were there? Would he have killed us all, since we were a bunch of hijabis? I can’t imagine. I have so many questions I don’t know how to word them all. And I want to know exactly what happened, all the details. I need to know.

I used to speak to her every day, we won’t be able to do that anymore. He took so much—from me, from this family, from this community. You saw the people coming out [for the vigils]. You see how loved, how respected they were. We all have to suffer this loss, and for what? If the roles were reversed you would have a huge terrorist problem in the headline. That’s the funny thing.

We’re just taking it slow. Looking at pictures, remembering her. Tonight, there’s something at seven o’clock. I know the funeral isn’t today.

I can’t believe it’s only 11 o’ clock. I don’t know what I’m going to do.

Condensed and edited for clarity.

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