After A Horrible Hate Crime, How Do You Not Hate Back?

Dec 16, 2016

Part 3 of the TED Radio Hour episode Reconciliation

About Suzanne Barakat's TED Talk

Suzanne Barakat speaks about the challenge of reconciling shock, anger and acceptance after her brother and sisters-in-law were murdered in an anti-Muslim hate crime.

About Suzanne Barakat

Suzanne Barakat is a resident physician at University of California, San Francisco. She was raised in North Carolina, and attended UNC Chapel Hill. Since the devastating news of her family members being killed in Chapel Hill, NC, Barakat's mission has been to counter Islamophobia with her message of inclusivity, while sounding the alarm that unless we can stem the tide of hate, anyone labeled as "other" faces the risk of violence.

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GUY RAZ, HOST:

On today's show, From Conflict To Reconciliation, ideas about coming together when it all seems so impossible.

Do you like what you do?

SUZANNE BARAKAT: I love what I do.

RAZ: This is Suzanne Barakat.

BARAKAT: I'm currently a family medicine resident physician at University of California, San Francisco.

RAZ: And like she said, she loves her job.

BARAKAT: I live for my patients. They inspire me to be kind and compassionate and understanding of our differences.

RAZ: And one of those differences between Suzanne and her patients is that Suzanne wears a headscarf because she's Muslim. And most of the time, she even forgets that she looks different at all.

BARAKAT: But there are other times when patients refuse to shake my hand and refuse treatment by me because of my faith. I get cussed at, or I've had patients literally yell at me in front of my attendings and nursing staff and other patients without anyone saying a word. And for the longest time, my approach was to smile and assure them that my only interest is in seeing them feel better.

RAZ: But a few years ago, it became much, much harder for Suzanne to just smile and keep quiet because something horrific happened - not at work, but to Suzanne's family. And just a warning, if you're listening with kids, you might want to turn down the volume for this next part.

BARAKAT: My baby brother, his wife and her baby sister were murdered in their home in Chapel Hill because of their faith. In an instant, I realized that smiling wasn't going to do it anymore and that I had to speak up because no one else was going to do it for me.

RAZ: Suzanne recounts the story of her 23-year-old brother Deah, his wife Yusor and her sister Razan on the TED stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

BARAKAT: Investigation autopsy reports reveal the sequence of events. Deah had just gotten off the bus from class. Razan was visiting for dinner, already at home with Yusor. As they began to eat, they heard a knock on the door. When Deah opened it, their neighbor proceeded to fire multiple shots at him. According to 911 calls, the girls were heard screaming. The man turned towards the kitchen and fired a single shot into Yusor's hip, immobilizing her. He then approached her from behind, pressed the barrel of his gun against her head and, with a single bullet, lacerated her midbrain.

(Sobbing) He then turned towards Razan, who was screaming for her life, and execution-style with a single bullet (sighing) to the back of the head, killed her. On his way out, he shot Deah one last time, a bullet in the mouth, for a total of eight bullets - two lodged in the head, two in his chest and the rest in his extremities. Deah, Yusor and Razan were executed in a place that was meant to be safe, their home.

For months, this man had been harassing them, knocking on their door, brandishing his gun on a couple of occasions. His Facebook was cluttered with anti-religion posts. Yusor felt particularly threatened by him. As she was moving in, he told Yusor and her mom that he didn't like the way they looked. In response, Yusor's mom told her to be kind to her neighbor - that as he got to know them, he'd see them for who they were. I guess we've all become so numb to the hatred that we couldn't have ever imagined it turning into fatal violence.

The man who murdered my brother turned himself in to the police shortly after the murders, saying he killed three kids execution-style over a parking dispute. The police issued a premature public statement that morning, echoing his claims without bothering to question it or further investigate. It turns out there was no parking dispute. They were murdered by their neighbor because of their faith, because of a piece of cloth they chose to don on their heads, because they were visibly Muslim.

RAZ: I just wanted to say that I'm really sorry. I'm so sorry about what happened. I don't even know what to say.

BARAKAT: Thank you. I think it's appropriate to not have words to say to something like that. I appreciate it.

RAZ: You know, I don't want to ask you about those days. I don't want to ask you to relive those moments because I imagine it's so hard to talk about.

BARAKAT: Thank you, Guy.

RAZ: But what I want to ask you about, Suzanne, is this moment that we're living in, you know? This - the anger and the conflict and the hatred that seems to be so prevalent not just here in the U.S. but all around the world. I mean, what do you think is driving that?

BARAKAT: I think a big part of it is instigating fear. Fear is one of the most powerful human emotions known to mankind. We as humans fear the unknown. And when we have candidates running their platforms on bigotry, hatred and racism and xenophobia, then you're fueling hatred. And it creates a very dangerous place in society for all people.

RAZ: So let's assume, Suzanne, you know, that there's a portion of people in the U.S. and around the world that this kind of language appeals to. You know, that hold views that would be hurtful to Muslims. Having gone through everything you've been through with your family, would you even be willing to sit down and talk, to have - like, to have a dialogue with some of these people?

BARAKAT: I do it every day as a doctor. You know, you - absolutely. You have to - I mean, this is life. We have to find ways to communicate with other people who don't always agree with us all the time. And I keep coming back to my work as a physician because I feel like for me, at least, it has taught me so many invaluable skills of communicating to find our common ground, to better be able to speak to one another instead of on top of one another.

RAZ: How do we begin to - as a culture to move toward regular dialogue? How would we - how do we do that?

BARAKAT: I think it starts by having conversations like the one you and I are having. The first thing to realize and just to accept is that as human beings, we all carry implicit biases. I don't care who you are, how accepting you think you may be. And then once we're aware of it, we're better able to tackle it and move forward with that understanding.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

BARAKAT: Not long after coming back to work - I'm the senior on rounds in the hospital - when one of my patients looks over at my colleague, gestures around her face and says, San Bernardino, referencing a recent terrorist attack. Days later, rounding on the same patient, she looks at me and says, your people are killing people in Los Angeles. I sit on her bed and gently ask her - have I ever done anything but treat you with respect and kindness? Have I done anything but give you compassionate care? She looks down and realizes what she said was wrong. And in front of the entire team, she apologizes and says, I should know better. I'm Mexican-American. I receive this kind of treatment all the time.

RAZ: Wow. I mean, moments like that must really feel, like, kind of strangely like small victories, like the dialogue actually worked. You know, you were able to reach somebody who was openly hostile towards you. But I'm just wondering, with the political climate right now, isn't it hard to be optimistic?

BARAKAT: Guy, I'm not one to sugarcoat things. And I will tell you that it feels like hate is winning and is getting the louder voice. It does feel crippling at times. And it's heartbreaking, to say the least. If anything, for me, I'm still grieving. I'm still mourning their loss. I'm still traumatized by the gruesome way that they were taken away from us. For me, my fight has been to try and make sure that this doesn't happen again to any other family.

So when I see the platform that our president-elect used to get elected into office is one of bigotry and hate, particularly inciting fear of the American-Muslim community, to know that that voice won was very scary. It knocked me off my feet. But the next day, you have to dust yourself off and stand up and get back to the fight and speak up.

RAZ: When you're at your best, when you're at those moments where you're most hopeful, where do you find that hope and strength? What's the thing that inspires that?

BARAKAT: You know, Guy, I think the only way to move forward is to have hope. Otherwise, I would've given up a long time ago. But it is actually in the encounters with my patients that gives me the fuel to recognize that if we were to peel away all of our layers, and peel away the layers of fear and hatred, and peel them back until we're able to see eye to eye and recognize that we're actually all the same, we want the same things. We want to be loved. We want to belong. We want to live our lives and provide for our children. And the only things that actually matter are kindness, compassion and love. And if we can all peel away all the other layers and get to that, where we can treat all others with that, then I think we'd have a very different world.

RAZ: Suzanne Barakat is a resident physician at the University of California in San Francisco. You can see her entire talk at ted.com. On today's show, ideas about how to get from conflict to reconciliation. I'm Guy Raz, and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.