On Friday, Feb. 13, the Vassar Muslim Student Union (VMSU) hosted a candlelight vigil in honor of students Deah Barakat, 23, Yusor Abu-Salha, 21, and Razan Abu-Salha, 19, who were shot and killed on Tuesday, Feb. 10, near the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Over 80 students, faculty and other community members came to show their respect for the deceased. The vigil was one of many across campuses and cities around the country in the days following the shooting.
According to their mission statement, “The Vassar Muslim Student Union (VMSU) is an organization whose main purposes are to provide a supportive network, space, and community for Muslim students to enhance, maintain, and embody their faith to whatever degree they choose, as well as provide an environment that enables and encourages dialogue of issues pertinent to being Muslim in the 21st century. In addition, we also aim is to serve the needs of anyone, Muslim or non-Muslim, who is interested in learning more about Islam through the works of VMSU.”
The shooting occurred on Tuesday afternoon after what the police described as an ongoing parking dispute. After it was reported that shots had rung out in the condominium complex, the police arrived on the scene to find the three students; a newlywed couple and the bride’s sister.
Although the victims’ relatives have asserted that the killings, committed by the students’ white, middle-aged neighbor, were racially inspired, authorities have not yet acknowledged them as a hate crime. (The New York Times, “In Chapel Hill Shooting of 3 Muslims, a Question of Motive,” 02.11.15)
As soon as news of the students’ deaths broke, the VMSU set out to organize the vigil. According to VMSU president Farah Aziz ’16, the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life stepped in to ensure that the event would take place as soon as possible. She commented, “We had a lot of the backbone set, but our biggest fear was advertising in terms of how quickly the word would spread. With the help of the [Religious and Spiritual Life] Office, we were able to get the Administration to have an all-campus email sent out.”
She continued, “We had planned most of the details of the event, but the Religious and Spiritual Life Office just stepped in and said, ‘We’re going to get this done this week.’ Along with the ALANA and Women’s and LGBTQ Centers, as well as class representatives on [the] VSA, we were able to make advertising a success.”
At the event, the hosts encouraged a moment of silent reflection or prayer while candles were lit and passed around. After the silence was broken, many gathered around a small poster featuring pictures of the victims in their everyday lives.
Many were encouraged by the turnout, particularly on such short notice. VMSU Co-Vice President Nora Abdelrahman ’18 commented, in an emailed statement, “As a muslim student at Vassar College, I was overwhelmed by the amount of support from the student body, faculty, and administration. To have so many people show up at the vigil and be so supportive and have so much respect for the lives that were lost and to ask us, as VMSU, if we needed anything at the vigil was amazing and a really humbling experience.”
Many of those who attended the vigil had hopes that such events would promote greater solidarity between different communities at Vassar and would promote a more honest, open dialogue about issues facing Muslims on campus and across the country.
Aziz remarked, “We have a strong but vibrant community here on campus. Religious and spiritual things on campus are a little more underground at places that are more skeptical of such things like at Vassar, so it makes programming and campus awareness slightly more difficult. Going forward though, we have some really great programs and educational opportunities coming up.”
Abdelrahman also commented, “In light of this tragedy, people were united. It is extremely unfortunate that a tragedy of this magnitude brings people together but everyone at the end of the day is the same. No matter what you look like, what you believe in, everyone is the same and we as students especially, just want to live a happy and successful life. It is an issue that faces the global community in its entirely and no sort of discrimination should be tolerated.”
Such a sentiment is what many have encouraged members of the Vassar community, as well as across the country, to take to heart. “We’re here. We were your lab partner. We were your roommate. We were your neighbors,” said Aziz. “I think people still associate a lot of ‘otherness’ with something that’s not really so ‘other’ in the status quo anymore, and Vassar is not an exception to that. But the good news is that things have the potential to change. They are changing. The amount of support we got tonight was a sign of things going in the right direction.”