This Saturday, April 16, will mark 15 years since the worst day in the lives of the Samaha and Peterson families of Centreville. That’s when they each lost a child in the Virginia Tech massacre that took 32 lives.
Both Reema Samaha and Erin Peterson were 2006 Westfield High grads, and each was just 18. In high school, Reema was active in theater productions and was also an accomplished dancer. Erin was a standout player and senior-year captain on the Bulldogs girls’ basketball team.
As college freshmen, Erin was majoring in International Studies; Reema was majoring in international relations and urban planning and minoring in French. Futures filled with bright possibilities stretched ahead of them. But a mentally troubled young man with automatic weapons stole it all and left their shocked, grieving families devastated.
It was a seemingly normal Monday morning in 2007, and Reema and Erin were in French class together in Norris Hall. When Reema’s father learned about the shootings there, but didn’t hear from her afterward, he called the school.
Joe Samaha asked if French classes were held in Norris Hall. When he found out they were, “My heart dropped.” He and wife Mona and their two other children then headed to VT – where they learned Reema was, indeed, among the victims.
Erin’s parents panicked, too, when they didn’t hear from their daughter, so they drove to Blacksburg and were told she was in surgery. But the patient turned out to be another girl – and the next morning, Celeste and Grafton Peterson learned their only child had died the day before.
Since the tragedy, each parent has coped in their own ways. And although time may have dulled somewhat the sharp edges of the pain they feel, it’s always with them – as are the memories of their children.
“Grief isn’t something you ever put down,” said Celeste Peterson. “It’s just the way your life is now. You never forget and you never recover. Everything in my life is marked before Erin died and after Erin died.”
“Reema guides us and is always in our prayers,” said Mona Samaha, “I’m living hopefully and strongly, because that’s how she would want me to. But it’s a daily, inner workout to make a good day out of every day.”
Her husband is still a Realtor, but she retired last summer from her job as a French Immersion teacher at Herndon Elementary. Daughter Randa is married, with three children, and son Omar is married, with two children.
Mona Samaha admitted she’s had some “very bad times,’ over the years, but Reema’s spirit and God help her calm down and feel better. At first, though, she said, “You can’t imagine living your life without your daughter. It was a total loss of my compass. Every time I was walking with Joe, I’d think, ‘Why am I living? If my daughter is gone, what’s the point of it?’”
The first 10 years, she said, “I tried to be strong for my other children, the community and my students, to honor Reema.” And even therapy only helped so much. So the past four years, Mona “did a lot of personal effort, prayers, meditation and walks in the woods, talking to God. And every day was like a little curtain opening.”
“Finally, thank God – and also with the birth of my grandchildren – it all helped me get my feet on the ground, bring me back to earth and appreciate life again. I’d been in my head for so long, but now I acknowledge the care people give each other and the beauty and miracles in life that are given to us. We just have to see and appreciate them.”
Signs from Reema have also played a big part. A year ago, Mona wasn’t feeling well, and Reema’s friend, Ashley Dillard, called and shared a dream she’d had about Reema in heaven. She said Reema was happy, funny, witty and joking, like she always was. Dillard then told Mona stories about Reema’s life that no one had ever told her (Dillard) and she’d have had no way of knowing.
“She said Reema told her, ‘Many of my friends ask me for help, and I’m always happy to help them,’’’ said Mona. “Ashley also said Reema told her to tell me she’s there for me, too, because I especially needed her help. Hearing that brought me back to my faith. When I give up, I ask Reema, the Virgin Mary and Jesus for help.”
“Reema also told Ashley, ‘I’m so happy there are so many babies and that they’re naming them after me,’ but this hadn’t happened, yet,” said Mona. “A week later, Randa called and told me she’s pregnant with twins – but Reema already knew about them.”
Omar’s wife was also expecting a girl then; and two months later, Reema’s closest cousin learned she was having a girl, too. Randa named her firstborn, a son, Beau Ameer (“Reema” spelled backwards and “prince” in Arabic). Omar’s daughter is named Ellie Reema, and the cousin’s daughter is Eva Reema.
“It’s very touching and honoring,” said Mona. “I’m happy Reema is still remembered and loved, and that this new generation will know about her. During Randa’s high-risk pregnancy with her twin girls, I was so worried, and I asked Reema for help. She then appeared to me in my mind and winked, like, ‘C’mon, everything’s going to be OK’ – and it was.”
Likewise, Joe said Reema’s always by his side. “I have no doubt her spirit is never far,” he said. “She’s my inspiration for my work with the Virginia Tech Victims Family Outreach Foundation [see sidebar] and daily life, affirming that she’s OK, we’re OK and she’s watching over us.”
That work gave him a purpose that helped him in the aftermath of the tragedy. Yet for many years, he couldn’t admit that something inside him was still amiss. “We call this a life journey,” he said. “But the first eight years of my journey, I wasn’t OK, and I needed help. I’d say, ‘I’m fine,’ but Mona realized something was wrong.”
“Once I got help, a door opened, and I was able to do more in an easier and less stressful way,” said Joe. “What helps me most is – not only having Reema on my shoulder, inspiring me – but accomplishing goals that are actionable and practical, and reaching out to others to make sure they’re OK.”
Reema wanted to learn Arabic as a second language, but it wasn’t available at Virginia Tech; so, after her death, her parents created an Arabic Language and Cultural Center there. “It was my language in Lebanon and was what Joe’s father spoke,” explained Mona. “We also wanted to promote more understanding of Arabic culture.” The university now offers an Arabic language major and minor with a tenured professor.As the tragedy’s 15th anniversary approaches, the Samahas will go to Virginia Tech for all the memorial events. “There’s a candlelight vigil, interfaith prayer, family lunch and 5K,” said Mona. “And the library has stories and displays about each victim. That day is always hard, but it’s good that people still remember Reema.”