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By Anne Blythe

On the first floor of the UNC-Chapel Hill dental school, a display case holds two white coats, folded and framed in remembrance of Deah Shaddy Barakat and Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha.

Several awards dedicated to their lives are prominently exhibited inside the case, too.

Deah Barakat’s white dental jacket. Photo credit: Anne Blythe

Deah was midway through his second year at the dental school, brimming with plans to provide oral health care to Syrian refugees in Turkey and setting up practice with Yusor, 21, his bride of six weeks, when a neighbor stormed into their condominium firing shot after shot from a .357-caliber handgun.

Yusor’s younger sister, Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, 19, an aspiring architect at N.C. State and advocate for the homeless, also was inside the couple’s home and the three were shot to death at near point-blank range on Feb. 10, 2015.

Their killer, Craig Stephen Hicks, 50, pleaded guilty on Wednesday in Durham County Superior County Court to three counts of first-degree murder and one count of firing a weapon into an occupied dwelling. Judge Orlando Hudson sentenced Hicks to life in prison with no possibility for parole, bringing a close to the legal proceedings, and once again highlighting how the humanitarian and giving spirits of the three young Muslim students live on.

‘Live Like Deah’’

At the UNC-CH dental school, they have an expression that they pass from class to class. “Live Like Deah,” they say, encouraging dental students who might not ever have encountered the affable, athletic and playful, but serious, student to think big, think about others and give back, locally and globally, as Barakat did in his 23 years.

Yusor Abu-Salha’s white dental jacket. Photo credit: Anne Blythe

Yusor had been admitted to the UNC dental school just weeks before her death, and the couple already had bandied about the idea of hanging a shingle out somewhere together. The summer before her death, Yusor went to southern Turkey with her mother and volunteered at a dental clinic for Syrian refugees, where they encountered women and children whose front teeth had been knocked out by the butt of a soldier’s gun. That experience, Yusor’s friends recalled, pushed the N.C. State biology major toward dentistry.

Though Yusor had not started dental school and earned a white coat as her husband had, the folded coat with her name stitched above the pocket serves as a reminder of what could have been.

“We really do feel a responsibility to pass on their legacy,” said Tiffany Brannan, a dental school spokesperson.

A recording on Deah’s cell phone captured the killing and was played in Durham County court on Wednesday. Hicks ended the lives of Deah, Yusor and Razan in their eastern Chapel Hill condominium in just 36 seconds, according to the testimony.

But those who loved the three have spent the past four years doing what they can to create projects and develop relief trips for people struggling abroad.

They’ve remembered them with service projects and social media campaigns with such hashtags as #OurThreeWinners.

In the fall of 2015, and every year since, hundreds of UNC dental school students, faculty and staff gather for DEAH DAY, an annual community service event designed to bring light out of the darkness that many felt when they heard the news.

This plaque hangs on the wall in the first floor of the UNC dental school. Photo credit: Anne Blythe

DEAH DAY stands for Directing Efforts and Honoring Deah and Yusor.

In 2018, according to Brannan, 432 volunteers fanned out across the Triangle region and worked on projects, some with an oral health element but the bulk of which connected the students, staff and faculty with community-minded organizations.

They painted walls, worked on Habitat for Humanity homes, helped animals, planted crops, collected and donated books, gathered and sorted food donations and distributed dental supplies and care kits for pediatric hospital patients.

In all, the organizers estimated, the volunteers contributed 1,624 hours of service to food banks, schools and 31 different sites.

At the end of DEAH DAY, there also is a talent show that raises money for Dental SHAC, or Student Health Action Committee, a student-run clinic for people with difficulties accessing oral health care.

Robbed of their plans

Suzanne Barakat, Deah’s older sister, shared moving and emotional recollections on Wednesday of conversations with her brother and sister-in-law in the weeks after their wedding launched their lives together and just weeks before Hicks ended them in what were described as hate crimes at the plea and sentencing hearing.

“The last evening I spent with Deah and Yusor was in Deah’s childhood bedroom on a quick visit home in January 2015,” Suzanne Barakat recalled from the witness stand on Wednesday.

Her parents and brother Farris trickled into the room as the newlyweds shared “their aspirations and goals as future dentists who would be training at the same incredible dental school,” she continued. “Should they open a clinic together? Should one or both specialize in pediatric dentistry or orthodontics? Or maybe they would inadvertently end up competing if they were in the same specialties so one should remain a general dentist and the other should sub-specialize to receive all the referrals.

Some students from the UNC School of Dentistry spent DEAH DAY working with Habitat for Humanity. Others spent the day at the Chapel Hill/ Carrboro Meals-on-Wheels program, driving meals to hungry homebound folks, cleaned houses for homebound patients, worked at an animal shelter, in food pantries and clothing distribution programs. Photo courtesy: UNC Dental School Facebook page

“We all laughed and giggled as they explored their bright futures together,” Suzanne continued.  “They gave us updates about a dental relief trip they were planning and orchestrating for Syrian children who were refugees in Turkey and how they were selling toothbrushes out of laundry baskets outside our local mosque to gather the funds they needed for supplies and equipment, a trip they were never able to go on.”

Lewis Lampiris, assistant dean for community engagement and outreach at UNC-CH dental school, recalled this week how Deah had popped in to his office to discuss that trip.

Lampiris teaches a first-year course on social and ethical issues in dental practice, and Deah had been one of his students. Barakat clearly wanted to help others, Lampiris said this week, and his enthusiasm was contagious.

“He always had that amazing smile,” Lampiris recalled this week.

Taking up the mantle

Though Barakat and Abu-Salha were not able to continue to Turkey as they had planned, UNC and the Dental Foundation of North Carolina established a memorial award in their honor in June 2015 that provides support to a UNC dental student or group of students who plan a service project at the local, national or international level to help the neediest of communities.

For Lampiris and others, the news of the guilty pleas this week and the close of the criminal case brought a wave of emotions.

Initially, the trauma of that day resurfaces, then a sense of “finally” that was a long time coming and then pride in what they accomplished in their short time on earth and a renewed ambition to honor Barakat and the Abu-Salha sisters by trying to live as they did.

“I still can’t process looking down into Deah’s casket, his lips blue, front tooth chipped from a bullet, and giving him the last kiss on his cold, lifeless forehead,” his sister Suzanne said in her closing remarks in court. “The irony that this fatal shot to the mouth was what he had dedicated his life’s work towards, giving people, young and old, rich or poor, the gift of a beautiful smile.”

His smile, his wife’s and her sister’s, and their hearts continue to inspire those who knew them and those who hear about them at orientation sessions and community events inspired by them.

That’s the message that DEAH DAY organizers at UNC hope generations of dental students take with them for years to come.

“It’s important, I think, that when they leave, they’re not just hanging a shingle on the wall or punching in and out,” Brannon said this week. “They’re part of the community. As a profession, it makes sense.”

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Anne Blythe

Anne Blythe, a reporter in North Carolina for more than three decades, writes about oral health care, children's health and other topics for North Carolina Health News.

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