Vigils celebrate lives of 3 students slain a year ago

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A vigil at NC State reflects on the lives of three young students gunned down a year ago in Chapel Hill.

Hundreds of candles served as a glowing reminder of three Muslim college students whose lives were cut short by an act of violence.

A crowd is gathered Wednesday night outside Tally Student Union at NC State to celebrate the lives of three students who were gunned down in Chapel Hill a year ago.

One year ago today, Deah Barakat, Yusor Abu Salha and her sister Razan were gunned down in Chapel Hill. It happened in the condo where Deah and Yusor were living as newlyweds, and where Razan was visiting them.

To remember and celebrate their lives, several memorials are being held Wednesday and Thursday.

On Wednesday night, hundreds crowded outside of Talley Student Union at NC State.

As they did one year ago, they heard from chancellors of both UNC and NC State as well as the families of Yusor, Razan and Deah.

Yusor, who was 21 years old, was supposed to start dental school at UNC this past fall. Deah, 23, was already enrolled. In their honor, the school has put their dental coats on display at UNC to remind people of their career aspirations. Among many works of philanthropy, he and his new bride set out to create dental relief missions for Syrian refugees in Turkey.

Razan was just 19 years old and in her first year at NC State when she was killed. She was just like her sister and brother-in-law when it came to service work. For example she was studying architecture at NC State and would auction off pieces of work to raise money for victims in Gaza and around the world.

Earlier Wednesday, there was a memorial on the campus of UNC Chapel Hill.

A large crowd gathered inside the atrium of the school of dentistry to honor the victims. They included students, faculty, staff, city leaders and the victim's parents, all coming together to reflect on these three young lives.

"Deah was more than a colleague, more than a friend --he was our family," dental student Brian Swift said. "I hope that they know that we miss them every day and we still love them."

Students and staff talked about the couples' philanthropic endeavors in the community. Deah was described as having a lot of personality. He was fun, loved basketball and the dental program.

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Numerous events mark one year since three bright students were gunned down in Chapel Hill.

"Deah, to all of us was a brother," said dental student Zachery Carnevale. "Razan was a sister to all of us. It is really hard to describe what we do in Dental school, and the relationships that are created, other than to call them family. And that's what they feel like. I feel like I lost a brother and all I can continue to do is live like Deah did."

The families of the victims say they were pleased with Wednesday's event.

"Extremely honored and proud. This is how they were raised. We knew about them but we didn't know that good," said Namee Barakat, Deah's father.

In the year since they were killed, people have worked to emulate their message of service; even growing an endowment fund created in their name to almost $700,000.

RELATED: Click here to find out about the endowment fund, and how you can help

While the family continues to speak publicly of their loss to keep their children's legacy of giving alive and thriving, they are also working to have their murders legally identified as hate crimes.

"We have seen many times when people look at Muslims they look at them with hate and disgust but many times we work to win them over and we do. Especially someone who is our neighbor because in our religion we are taught to care for our neighbor," said Farris Barakat, Deah's brother, in a news conference just before Wednesday night's memorial at NC State.

Craig Hicks, Deah and Yusor's former neighbor, has been charged with three counts of first-degree murder and right now there is a federal investigation into whether authorities should also make this a hate crime. For a crime to be a hate crime, it has to meet certain criteria, which is what is being discussed.

In that news conference the family said there is evidence of a hate crime, but stopped short of elaborating because of the ongoing investigation. They did, however, share past instances where according to them, Hicks was aggressive toward Yusor and Deah, particularly because they were Muslim.

Authorities have said Hicks may have snapped over a parking dispute, but Yusor and Deah's families say it's more than that.

"If this was over a parking dispute then Rosa Park's struggle was over a continuing dispute over a bus seat," said Farris Barakat. "That's how we see it and that's why I think it's important to continue what we do in terms of pushing for hate crime laws on the state level."

They say Yusor and Deah did not argue about parking, and did what they could to accommodate Hicks' concerns over that.

So they will continue to push for hate-crime charges as well as asking the public to fight with them "in the light" and keep Deah's, Yusor's and Razan's message of giving and caring alive by being kind and helping those in need.

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