When Raquel Jeanette Solla learned two of her Emory University friends were being held hostage in a café in Bangladesh, she clung to the hope they would survive.
“I really believed they’d be okay because they’re such good people, and seemed too sweet to have something so horrible happen to them,” said Solla, a student at the Oxford campus, in an e-mail to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
She found out about the terror attack, about her friends, Abinta Kabir and Faraaz Hossain, being trapped inside a popular cafe in Dhaka, through a Facebook group message. When the stream of updates stopped, she feared the worst early Saturday morning. A Facebook post soon confirmed it.
Abinta and Faraaz were well-known in the tight-knit group of students at Emory University’s Oxford University campus, both sharing a reputation of being bright, enthusiastic, and really, really nice. Bengali students at Emory often get together for pickup soccer games, to talk about some cricket match or share news of home, a place they say rarely makes it into international headlines.
Till now, when Bangladesh was added to the the rapidly escalating list of places devastated by Islamic terrorism. Only days after the attack in Istanbul, and weeks away from the Orlando tragedy, this latest blood bath delivered an extra blow to the Atlanta region. It took the lives of two of our own.
Rifat Mursalin, who was friends with Faraaz at Emory, felt that emotional bridge keenly.
“The two places I consider home are Dhaka and Emory,” Mursalin said. “This has shaken both those worlds.”
For many of these students, still on the crest of adulthood, the massacre is teaching them some very personal lessons about terror in the world, and death.
“You hear about these attacks in Orlando and Istanbul,” but they seem somewhat distant, Mursalin said. “Until it’s someone you know.”
Abinta was a rising sophomore at Emory University’s Oxford College, about 35 miles southeast of Atlanta. She loved basketball and cheered on her hometown Miami Heat. Faraaz had just completed his second year at the Oxford campus and was headed to Emory’s business school in the fall. Both were in Bangladesh visiting family this summer.
The two friends decided to meet at Holey Artisan Bakery Friday evening. It was an upscale place popular with expatriates, diplomats and middle-class families, a place to catch up over croissants and cups of espresso by day or dinner by night.
The attack began Friday when assailants shouting “Allahu akbar” and armed with guns, swords and explosives stormed the café.
By the time security forces regained control, 20 civilians, two police officers and six militants were dead. Another 13 hostages had been freed.
The Islamic State – or ISIS – claimed credit for the grisly attacks.
The hostages were given a test: recite verses from the Quran, or be punished, according to a witness. Those who failed were tortured and slain. Officials said the victims were brutally hacked or stabbed to death.
Early Saturday morning, Emory University president James Wagner broke the news to the campus, posting a message about Abinta being taken hostage and murdered by terrorists in the attack in the capital city of Bangladesh. About an hour later, a second heartbreaking post: Hossain had also been taken hostage and was killed.
‘It scares me’
Solla was particularly close to Abinta. They were college hall-mates. At the end of last year, there were elections for committee heads of the Student Activity Center. Solla said she was “freaking out” over the prospect of giving a speech asking her peers to elect her. She went to see Abinta. Abinta brewed Solla a cup of mint tea, and gave her chocolates too.
“She calmed me down, and helped me write my speech… She was always full of joy, and a very bright light. She was an extremely dedicated student, and constantly boosted my confidence by reminding me I had the capability to get into Emory’s business school as well. She was truly a lovely person,” she said in an e-mail. (Solla ended up winning the election for to head the PR committee).
Solla said Faraaz was the outgoing head of a programming committee since he was heading to Emory business school in the fall; his role was going to be filled by Abinta, Solla said.
Anisha Pal, also friends with both victims, said Abinta and Faraaz were both active in the Student Activity Center at Oxford and helped plan many social events including the school dances, concerts and the Mr. & Mrs. Oxford pageant.
“They were kind souls, and passionate about everything they did,” said Pal.
And like many, Pal shuddered at what has become a steady drum beat of terror attacks that have now hit so close to home.
She learned about the killings through an e-mail from Emory University.
“The e-mail was the first thing I saw this morning and I am still shaking at the thought of it. I knew them. I’ve seen them, and now they are gone. It scares me.”
‘She was going somewhere’
David Leinweber was teaching Abinta just a few weeks ago in a summer history class at Emory. He got to know her well, as it was a small class with only a handful of students.
“She was disciplined, very smart and very reliable,” said Leinweber, an Emory associate professor of history. “You knew she was going somewhere.”
From the start of the six-week summer class, Abinta showed herself to be a “stellar” student, he said. She not only was a fast learner on the facts but she showed insight and perspective on the class topic of the foundations of modern Europe.
She often brought up Bangladesh.
“She loved Bangladesh,” he said. “She loved the people and the culture. That made the class a lot better.”
The class ended June 23, and Leinweber said he had just graded her final exam a few days ago. She wrote exemplary essays on Voltaire and John Maynard Keynes.
Sunday morning, he learned that she was among those killed.
“I had to look at the name a couple of times. It didn’t seem real,” he said.
He added, “It’s a horrible world, at times like this.”
He said she spoke of plans to go to Bangladesh.
Mursalin, who just graduated from Emory, came to know Faraaz in February after Faraaz offered to help him with a project on alleviating poverty in Bangladesh.
“That’s the kind of person he was,” he said. “He offered to help out of the sheer goodness of his heart.”
Faraaz’ older brother also attended Emory, and just graduated with economics degree.
Both Murzalin and Faraaz had grown up in Dhaka, the crowded, urban capital of Bangladesh and the place where this terror attack took place. The attack happened in a relatively affluent place, known as a gathering place for diplomats, prominent people and tourists.
Faraaz was part of a prominent family that operates a major conglomerate that deals in sales and distribution.
Faraaz was an exceptional student who was transferring to the business school in Atlanta a semester earlier than is customary.
“He was extremely ambitious and outgoing and capable,” he said.
Friday was the last Friday of the holiday Ramadan, a special day, and Mursalin was heading to his midtown mosque when he heard about the hostage crisis. He was worried because he has friends and family there.
He woke Saturday to a bunch of messages on his smart phone. Several asked if he was okay, noting that Faraaz had died.
He said there has been a surge in extremist attacks in Bangladesh, but most of them targeted individuals such as educators or activists in the LGBT community or atheist bloggers.
But this one was bigger, occurring in what seemed like such a safe place.
“It was just a café,” he said.
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