'We will forever carry on their legacy'

By Paige Parvin | Emory Report | July 12, 2016

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As the Emory community mourns the loss of students Abinta Kabir and Faraaz Hossain, friends and professors reflect on their kindness, intelligence, generosity and leadership. Abinta Kabir photo via Facebook; Faraaz Hossain photo by Emory Photo/Video.

In the wake of the brutal terrorist attack on a popular café in Dhaka, Bangladesh, many in the Emory community have struggled to come to terms with the shattering loss of students Faraaz Hossain and Abinta Kabir.

Hossain, an Oxford College graduate and junior in Goizueta Business School (GBS), and Kabir, a rising sophomore at Oxford, were visiting Dhaka this summer to spend time with family and friends. On the evening of July 1, excited to reconnect in their home city, they met at the Holey Artisan Bakery — also joined by another friend, Tarishi Jain, a sophomore at the University of California, Berkeley. All three were among the 20 people killed when armed militants stormed the café, taking patrons hostage.

Both Emory students are described as bright, warm and modest young leaders who served as shining examples to all who knew them. They also were close friends who shared a dream of returning to Dhaka after earning business degrees to help make life better for their families and the people there.

As memories of Hossain and Kabir come to light in the expressions of their friends and professors, the authenticity is unshakeable, the communal heartbreak is profound, and the resolve to honor their legacies is a source of comfort and hope.

At an interfaith vigil held in Cannon Chapel last week, Rifat Mursalin 16C, also a native of Dhaka, noted that “the only two places I have ever called home — Dhaka and Emory — have collided in a brutal, unexpected and tremendously tragic way."

"Beautiful, young, precious lives were cut short by this monstrosity, but we will forever carry on their legacy," Mursalin pledged. "May we all continue in unity, in compassion and in our shared humanity.”

'She was always smiling'

Kabir and Hossain met and became friends in Bangladesh, where both attended the American International School of Dhaka. Although Kabir’s family immigrated to Miami, Florida, when she was young, she returned to Dhaka for high school; that’s when she and Hossain met Jain as well. According to Kabir’s Oxford friends, as the past school year drew to a close, she spoke often of how eager she was to return to Dhaka for a visit.

Hossain came to Oxford College in 2014, following in the footsteps of his older brother, Zaraif Hossain 14OX 16C; Kabir arrived as a freshman the following year. Both students had expressed interest in pursuing business careers.

As members of Oxford’s Student Activities Committee (SAC), the epicenter of social event planning on the Oxford campus, Hossain and Kabir had an early opportunity to test their leadership wings. Both served as chair of the programming subcommittee, a key role in the organization. But their event planning skills are not what their fellow members remember most about them.

“Abinta was a really great person — compassionate, understanding and very driven,” says Salma Soliman, a rising sophomore and co-president of the Muslim Student Association at Oxford, who served with Kabir on the SAC. “She was just always checking on people. She would always make the conversation about you."

To her friends, Kabir was a boundless source of support, advice and cheer — effortlessly creating a natural center for the impromptu gatherings and late-night conversations that make up the fabric of college life outside the classroom.

“People said that if they needed help in their room at 2 a.m., she would show up and help them,” Soliman says. “She went out of her way when she didn’t have to. And she was always smiling.”

As a student, Kabir’s dedication, discipline and thoughtfulness quickly earned the respect of her professors — including David Leinweber, associate professor of history at Oxford, who taught Kabir in a European history course earlier this summer. Because there were just five students in the class, the group got to know one another unusually well.

“Abinta was a stellar student in my class,” Leinweber says. “First of all, she was just plain really smart. You could just see the innate intelligence in her eyes and hear it in the way she spoke. She was also really disciplined. To say she always came to class prepared would be an understatement.”

He notes that it was not just Kabir’s academic promise that stood out. “Beyond being smart and disciplined, she seemed like such a friendly, decent and kind young person,” Leinweber says. “She was really respected and liked by the other students in the class. You could tell she was raised to be polite, respectful, thoughtful of others and friendly.”

On the night of the final exam, Leinweber wrote to Kabir to tell her how well she had done. “I hope she was able to read that email,” he says. He plans to send Kabir’s final exam to her parents.

For Molly McGehee, associate professor of American Studies, Kabir’s written work in her women’s literature course last fall was a window into the young woman’s mind and heart. The day that McGehee learned of Kabir’s death, she re-read all of the student’s papers and emails. “It was the closest I could get to hearing her voice,” she says.

“Abinta was a hard-working, engaged and focused student, a strong writer and thinker,” McGehee adds. “She wasn't willing to settle for less than she was capable of, and I found her a true joy to work with and to be around.”

'His heart was bigger than anyone else’s I knew'

Hossain, too, leaves behind words that offer a sense of who he was — such as a handwritten note, scrawled on a loose piece of notebook paper, that was part of an assignment that he participated in last year for the International Admission Leadership Group, a student advisory board that he served on at Oxford.

Asked to articulate why he’d chosen to attend Oxford, Hossain had scribbled several quick thoughts, praising the benefits of a small, close-knit community where students worked closely with professors and had a chance to move quickly into campus leadership roles.

But it was his final point that was perhaps the most revealing: “Oxford is a place where everyone has a distinct personality or story, yet the most incredible thing is how accepting everyone is of each other’s values or beliefs,” he wrote.

Faculty and friends who knew him best say that captures Hossain’s optimistic nature, affirming outlook and generous spirit — a student leader who fully enjoyed the diversity of the world around him and worked hard to bring people together.

Hossain earned a campus-wide reputation for his dependability — stable, responsible and dedicated to the task at hand, be it a fancy formal at the Fox Theatre or the silliness of Spirit Week. Whatever the occasion, Hossain led with a calm, steady hand.

Soliman remembers a fall retreat where she participated in an icebreaker that involved negotiating an obstacle course while blindfolded. She still recalls Hossain’s soft laughter and calming influence as he guided her. “When you met him, you just knew he was a good and kind person," she says.

At a University-wide vigil honoring the lives of those lost in the Dhaka attack, Oxford classmates lauded Hossain’s selfless spirit and his dedication to working for the greater good.

In a letter read during the service, Chase Jackson 16OX wrote that he had heard of Hossain’s kind and loving character before he ever met him. “Students grew to appreciate thoughtful conversations with him, his ability to provide wise advice in tough situations, his characteristic smile even in the toughest circumstances, for the sake of others,” he wrote.

“As I got to know Faraaz even better, I realized that his heart was bigger than anyone else’s I knew,” Jackson recalled, praising both Hossain and Kabir for their “God-given trait of servant leadership.”

To Boris Nikolaev, a former Oxford assistant professor of economics who taught Hossain in an intermediate microeconomics class, the news of Hossain’s death was heartbreaking.

“Faraaz was one of the most respectful students that I’ve ever had,” recalls Nikolaev. “His attitude was amazing — very focused, very driven, always smiling, always motivated, never complaining, never negative for a second.”

“He was probably in my office every other week asking questions, always striving to do better,” he adds. “But more than his academic ambition, he left an impression with his kindness.”

Hossain graduated from Oxford a semester early to begin studies in January at Goizueta Business School, where he was “starting to get his feet under him” and exploring academic avenues, says Valerie Molyneaux, GBS director of international programs, who served as his academic adviser.

As a new business student, Hossain had participated in an intensive orientation event and coaching session designed to help advisers get to know their students. During that time, Molyneaux recalls Hossain talking about plans to study abroad — he was already exploring internship opportunities — and thinking about the transition from college to a career.

“When I asked him what he wanted out of his experience at Emory, he told me he definitely wanted to maximize his time with his friends,” she says.

Aaron Stutz, an associate professor of anthropology who taught Hossain at Oxford, praised the young man's commitment to both his education and his ethics.

“As a student, he was earnest and honest and hard-working — there was a remarkable integrity within him,” says Stutz, who was also preparing to teach Kabir in a class this fall. “This touches so many of us so deeply.”