Vigil celebrates Muslim teen’s life more than her death

Nabra Hassanen

The hundreds of people who filled the main square at Lake Anne Plaza in Reston Wednesday night to remember Nabra Hassanen did so with flowers and heavy hearts, but also with the hope that others will lead a life with qualities similar to hers — kindness and unity.

The 17 year old was killed Sunday morning after leaving her mosque, the All Dulles Area Muslim Society (ADAMS), in Sterling, where she was observing Ramadan. Police have charged Darwin Martinez Torres with her murder, but said they believe it was a “road rage” incident and not a hate crime.

Wednesday night’s vigil was organized by the Muslim Student Association at South Lakes High School, and included speeches, songs and a spoken-word poem about Nabra. The vigil came after a funeral at the ADAMS center during the day, and featured remarks from religious leaders, family members and close friends.

The speakers included Rabbi Michael Holzman of Northern Virginia Hebrew Congregation, who said he arrived in Reston seven years ago and immediately knew it was a welcoming community. The vigil, he said, was yet another example of this unified spirit.

“How did this place get to be a place where people show up for a young girl that they did not know,” he said. “How did this community get to be a place where people show up like this in these numbers?”

Holzman said he did not know Nabra but had heard about her from others, and answered his own questions by telling the crowd that “people like Nabra” have helped shape the community.

“Nabra taught you how to lead, and we bear that legacy on our shoulders,” he said. “We bear the responsibility to make the rest of the world more like Reston. So that when some person with evil in his heart thinks of driving around with a baseball bat for no reason, he is confronted with the reality of love surrounding him, and that thought evaporates.”

Throughout the vigil, Nabra’s friends took the microphone one by one and said a word that described her personality, which included “kind,” “generous” and “brave.” This resonated strongly with Andra Baylus of the Greater Washington Muslim-Jewish Forum.

Northern Virginia Hebrew Congregation Rabbi Michael Holzman said Nabra Hassanen helped make Reston the accepting community that it is. Holzman was one of several faith leaders and friends who spoke during a vigil for the slain 17-year old Wednesday.

“I was especially happy to hear how good a friend she was and how inspiring she was and how thoughtful she was,” she said. “All these magnificent attributes that we think about all of our religions that she embodied and she brought forth.”

Baylus said she was shocked when she heard the news of Nabra’s death and immediately felt sympathy for both her family and the Muslim community.

“They [Muslims] call themselves an ummah,” she said. “An ummah is where you stand shoulder to shoulder and you support one another, you love one another. And I know that they would look at Nabra as being their own daughter, their own sister, their own friend.”

But Baylus, like many of the speakers, said she thinks Nabra’s death should be looked at not only as a tragedy, but as a call for more tolerance.

“Her life wasn’t just the life of one young person who was brutally killed,” she said. “Her life was the life of being a martyr to being better human beings and stop the divisiveness that is going on, because she wouldn’t want that. She wanted harmony.”

The tragedy hit close to home for Herndon resident Daoud Mohammed, a member of ADAMS.

“In suburbia, things like this don’t usually happen,” he said. “I’m a father myself of three girls and you’re nervous to hear something like that happen in your backyard … I feel like society has become very violent and I‘ve become very cautious of my children. I don’t want them to live in a state of fear. My family’s been here for generations, but they immigrated at some point and they immigrated because of fear. So I don’t want my kids to have that same fear.”

Similar sentiments came from Ken Sperber, a Jewish father of three who was visiting from Sharon, Mass.

“I have an 18-year old son, a 16-year old son and a 13-year old son [who are] walking out of synagogue on a Shabbos afternoon,” he said. “It’s just unimaginable.”

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