It was easy to pick Imad Ahmad out among the dozens of students laughing, flirting, and carrying on in the student union of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. He was sitting absolutely still, his gaze fixed on nothing and yet intensely focused. He had just lost his best friend. For a year and a half, Ahmad had been the roommate of Deah Shaddy Barakat, but he had moved out of their apartment in December 2014 to make room for Barakat’s new wife, Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha. Two months after that and thirteen days before he spoke with The Huffington Post, the couple and Yusor’s younger sister, Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, were murdered execution-style by their neighbor Craig Stephen Hicks.
The Chapel Hill Police Department has described the tragedy as an “ongoing neighbor dispute over parking,” but the case has come to stand for so much more. The Barakat and Abu-Salha families have argued that their children were killed for their Islamic faith — and the FBI has announced it is opening an inquiry into whether the incident was a hate crime.
Ahmad, for his part, believes the answer is clear.
"I just want to get this parking dispute thing out of the picture. I don’t want people to even consider it," he said. "It’s possible that the parking dispute was a channel that allowed him to release his rage about Islam. People won't call this terrorism because it was a non-Muslim killing three Muslims. But if it was vice versa, the terrorism accusation would come instantly."
In his first sit-down interview, conducted over six hours spanning a week, Ahmad described what it was like to live next to Hicks and how he's coping with the loss of his best friend.
When did you first encounter Hicks?
Imad Ahmad: When we were moving in [in August 2013.] At first it was just Deah and me carrying stuff, and Hicks was outside, walking around. He didn’t say anything to us for a good half hour. But then Deah’s mom came to help us, and she wears a headscarf, and as soon as she started to carry boxes of blankets and notebooks into the house, he came over to us, pointed at his parking spot, and said just one sentence: “Do not ever park here.” He never even introduced himself. Deah and I talked about it afterwards, and we were like, “He probably saw your mom’s headscarf and came and talked to us.” But in the end, Deah was like, “Don’t worry about it. He probably just wants to mark his territory."
Did you see Hicks again after that?
The next time we interacted with Hicks was in October. Farris [Barakat’s brother] came over. We were playing NBA 2K when we heard a knock on the door and opened it. Hicks said, “Your brother needs to move his car right now. He's in my spot.” He talked like this [growling], really loud and abrasive. Then he lifted his t-shirt to show his gun in his holster on his waist. Deah was like, “That’s fine. We understand.” Farris moved his car and I didn't think more of it — not until later, at least.
You didn’t think it was strange that Hicks threatened you with a gun over a parking space?
We thought he was just really anal and that he was trying to intimidate us. I blew Hicks off at the time because if Deah wasn't scared then there was no reason to be. There were just so many other things in our lives to pay attention to.
Like a wedding. At this point, Deah and Yusor were on their way to getting married. What was their relationship like?
Deah had known Yusor’s family for a long time, but it wasn’t until university that he started recognizing Yusor by her actions. He wouldn’t talk to her, though. He’d pass her and say as-salamu alaykum, but there’d be no further conversation. He had observed how shy she was in speaking to other men, and he was very respectful of that.
After Deah realized he was starting to fall in love with Yusor, he went to Palestine to do dental work as a volunteer for United Muslim Relief. At the Al-Aqsa Mosque, he would repeat the ayah, “Verily with hardship comes ease,” and that would give him solace from all his nervousness about not knowing if Yusor, her parents, and her brother were going to say yes if he asked her to marry him. When he found peace in his heart after praying, that’s when he decided to approach Yusor’s family.
First, Deah asked [her older brother] Yousef, who said yes, and then he went to her parents. Deah was very nervous, but Yusor's dad was like, “Don't worry, we already know how you are.” They completely accepted him because they knew he treated his parents and siblings with so much love, so they knew he would treat Yusor with the same amount of love.
When she would come over, Deah’s entire expression would change and he would smile throughout the time that she was there. She made him better. She had such gentleness within her that this gentleness became a part of everyone else. There was this time Deah had an intramural basketball game, and I told him, “Some of your teammates are ball hogs.” And he was like, “Yeah — wait, which one do you think is a ball hog?” I was about to say a name, and then he was like, “Nah, let's not backbite.” He said that because Yusor looked at him. You could see she was like, “Don't say anything.”
The type of relationship they had, that’s what I want. There were never any arguments between them. It was just like, “If you love that, I love it too.” I can’t exaggerate the number of other people who would go to Deah and ask, “How do you have a relationship like this?” The strength of their relationship was very well-known in the Muslim community here.
Did Hicks keep bothering you about parking spaces throughout the winter?
Hicks knocked on our door with a gun twice more in the winter of 2013-2014. But then in March or April 2014 this weird thing happened: he came to our apartment and told us Farris had to move his car from the road beside our building because it was a fire lane — which was really confusing, because it had been a fire lane in the past, but it wasn’t anymore. Honestly, the whole parking situation was really strange.
Deah and I thought Hicks had to spend the whole day sitting at the window and watching, because he could recognize everyone’s car and everyone in the neighborhood. When anything went wrong, he would nail you immediately. After my friend’s car got towed in January  one night, I realized Hicks must have been spying out his windows and memorized my friend’s face, because when my friend came back the next day Hicks came and confronted us all at the apartment.
At what point did you start to get worried about Hicks?
I didn’t really take Hicks seriously until about October of 2014. Yusor had come over with four of her friends to have dinner and play [the board game] Risk. Deah loved Risk. He loved to take over countries. He was very competitive. They were playing Risk and were a bit loud, and when the friends were leaving, they were really loud. Not long after they left, there was a knock on the door. Deah opened it, and Hicks started yelling, “You guys need to park correctly! Your friends are too loud! You woke up my wife!” He flashed his gun. We apologized.
Yusor and I were scared at that time. I told Deah, “Yo, I think he’s going to do something, like physically harm us.” Deah was like, “Nah, he’s just trying to scare us. Don’t worry about it. We're doing nothing wrong.” Later, we called our friends, and we were like, “Did you all park in Hicks’ spot?” And they were like, “No.” And then the altercation between Yusor and Hicks in January 2015 made me even more concerned.
What was that?
Yusor’s mom was helping her move into the apartment. It was them two alone. Both me and Deah had classes. Yusor told me, “I was outside, and Hicks came to me, and he said, ‘I don't like the way you guys look.’” That was the first thing he said to her, referring to her headscarf. Then he said, “You're only allowed one visitor parking spot and one reserved spot, so you're taking up too many parking spots.” [In addition to Yusor and her mother's cars, Ahmad’s car was also in the parking lot.] Yusor said that he flashed his gun. When she went inside to tell her mother, she told me that her mother said, “In Islam, what you do is treat your neighbor nicely, even if he's being disrespectful. No matter what, you always treat your neighbor nicely."
Did you or Deah do anything after that?
I actually think that Deah became a little bit worried for the first time. That's when he asked me to call [the management company for the apartment complex]. So I called and they were like, “If he comes over again, call the police.” They also told me visitor parking spots are for visitors, no matter how many people you have visiting — and that’s when it hit me: the whole time, what this guy had been complaining about wasn’t legitimate.
So you felt specifically targeted? Hicks called tow trucks on his neighbors, and one of them said he displayed "equal opportunity anger." Does the fact that he bothered other residents suggest it wasn't a hate crime?
Not at all. He never took the drastic action that he took against Deah, Yusor and Razan against the other neighbors, even though he lived beside them for much longer. When Yusor moved in, the harassment increased significantly, with a note left on her car and multiple visits to the apartment in a month. Before, he’d bothered us less than once a month, and he’d never left a note on our cars. It seems to me that he really was set off by headscarves, especially Yusor’s, in some way.
I just want to get this parking dispute thing out of the picture. I don’t want people to even consider it. After the funeral, I drove over there to see where everyone was parked: neither Deah, Yusor, nor Razan were in Hicks' spot. It’s possible that the parking dispute was a channel that allowed him to release his rage about Islam. People won't call this terrorism because it was a non-Muslim killing three Muslims. But if it was vice versa, the terrorism accusation would come instantly.
How did you hear about the shooting?
One of my friends called me and said, “There was a shooting at Finely Forest, do you know if Deah was there?” I was like, “It probably wasn't him, but I'll call.” Deah didn't pick up the phone, and I figured he’d just call me back. But later there was an update online saying the shooting was on Summerwalk Circle, the road we’d lived off of. That's when I got scared.
I asked one of my friends to drive me there, and when we arrived, we asked the police, “Can you please let us know what happened?” And they were like, “We can't let you go in, and we don't know any information.” And I was like, “Can you tell me the apartment number? If they were wearing headscarves? If it was a tall guy?” — because I knew Deah was the tallest one in the building. “Just tell me one tiny detail and I'll know.” And they were like, “We can't tell you anything.”
How did you find out it was Deah?
An hour later, around 7 p.m., the families came. The police told them, “We can’t tell you anything, but we can offer you [the community center at Finley Forest] to wait at.” So we went there and waited. An amazing amount of people came. Around 10 p.m., a police officer came in and went to the parents. He said, “We know the apartment number: it was [Deah’s apartment].” I was in such shock that I ran outside and exploded and started crying and swearing. I could hear all the guys and the girls inside breaking down and crying.
Deah's dad came outside, hugged me, and took me inside and sat me down. Then Yusor's dad came to me, and I didn't see one single tear in his eye, and he was like, “You know that they are in heaven, because they are the most innocent people that you know, so be strong for them.” I didn't go home at all that night. We stayed up all night and prayed for their souls.
When was the last time you saw Deah?
Even though I wasn't living with Deah anymore, we still did everything together. The night before the shooting, I went over there to play NBA 2K. While we were playing he realized my hair had gotten extremely long. I had a rattail and the front of my hair was very wavy, and Deah was like, “Yo, let me give you a haircut.”
We went outside in the cold. He sat me down on an exercise ball and got his razor and gave me a straight buzz cut. While he was cutting my hair, I noticed he was getting a belly, and so I started teasing him because I’d warned him that as soon as he got married he was going to get fat. While he was cutting my hair I was thinking, “Man, I miss living here with him. I miss being around him all the time.” After he cut my hair, we went inside and talked about life, how our families were doing and everything. Then he said he had to study. The last words between us were that we loved each other.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.