Noera Ayaz fought against domestic violence, then apparently killed her sons and herself. Her family struggles to understand why — (The Washington Post)

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The Washington Post

 (Justin Jouvenal/The Washington Post)

By Justin Jouvenal January 1 2019

Kate Schubert remembers Noera Ayaz as one of the best moms she had ever known. Schubert was looking for a playgroup for her son after moving to Qatar in 2009 when she found Ayaz’s “Storytime Under the Trees.”

Ayaz commandeered a choice spot in a Doha park, where kids would frolic, eat healthy snacks and listen to book readings. Schubert considered Ayaz such a role model that she consulted her during her next pregnancy.

Ayaz was a professional pillar, too. After returning to the United States, she won plaudits as a lawyer working with immigrant Muslim women who were seeking refuge from domestic abuse, part of two decades of charity work.

Schubert said that background makes it so hard to understand what came next. In early September, Ayaz and her two sons were found fatally shot in their house in Herndon, Va. Police are still investigating but say they think Ayaz, 42, killed the boys and then herself.

[Mother apparently shot two young sons, then herself]

Schubert said she is haunted by the case. So are some members of Ayaz’s family and community, who are still reeling and trying to fit together pieces that don’t seem to match. Her family said she left no note.

“I cannot reconcile the Noera I knew with the tragic story of her death,” Schubert wrote in an email.

The case is all the more unusual because it breaks a grim mold. About 90 percent of the perpetrators who carried out murder-suicides in the first half of 2017 were men, and the majority of the victims were wives or girlfriends, according to the most recent data on the phenomenon by the Violence Policy Center. Cases in which mothers kill their children are rare.

The weeks since the deaths have provided some clues, but much remains murky. Fairfax County police have not released a motive, and Ayaz’s husband, the sole surviving member of the immediate family, said he is not ready to talk and has not shared key details with Noera’s relatives.

That has left people like Schubert and Yasir Ayaz, Noera Ayaz’s brother, to try to figure out answers. Yasir Ayaz said he wishes he had access to the police report and his sister’s journal, but police said those items can be shared only by her husband, who is her official next of kin.

“I want to understand what happened,” Ayaz said. “There are other families that might be going through such things. If some of the evidence becomes clear, you can help some of these families. We can’t reverse the situation that occurred, but we can try to prevent similar situations.”

Ayaz said he learned after Noera’s death that she had been suffering from depression and had been in treatment for about six months. He said she was taking antidepressants. She also had stopped responding to his texts and phone calls in the weeks before the shootings.

Ayaz Lari, Noera and Yasir’s father, had visited the family in recent months and had a pleasant time. He recalled Noera’s sons, Tihami, 11, and Miraaj, 9, beating their grandparents at chess.

“They were even brighter than Noera,” Lari said. “I couldn’t believe it, they were so smart.”

The last time Lari talked to his daughter in the weeks before her death, she told him she wasn’t feeling well and had been working late nights. Her husband also called with concerns about her mental health, but Lari said the depth of her problems remained masked.

“I had no idea what was cooking,” Lari said.

That veil carried right through the day of the killings. Yasir Ayaz said that on Sept. 5, his sister went out to lunch with her husband and some friends at Taco Bell. Nothing seemed amiss, but Lari said he now knows that his daughter had purchased the gun used in the killings the day before.

Lari said that on the evening of Sept. 5, he received a call from his son-in-law after he arrived home from work. “I see the children in blood,” Lari said the husband told him. “I’m going to call 911.”

When officers arrived, they found Ayaz in an upstairs bathroom. First responders attempted to revive the children, but the mother and sons were pronounced dead.

In the days that followed, Ayaz’s husband and relatives put out a statement saying they were “shocked and devastated.”

“Noera was a devoted mother, a dedicated attorney, and a champion for the rights of women everywhere,” it said. “Noera will be remembered for her warmth, wisdom, and artistic spirit.”

Her husband and family set up a charity fund that has raised about $10,000. Murder-suicides are often met by public silence, but the Web page for the fund has drawn an outpouring of support.

Noera Ayaz lived a “noble and generous life,” one donor said. Another offered, “What I learned from her will always live in my heart,” and another said that Ayaz “was an inspiration to many.”

Ayaz had been the director of Women in Islam, a group that worked to empower Muslim women. Lari said his daughter had spent two decades largely doing charity work for various organizations, including most recently for Just Neighbors in Annandale, Va.

Before that, she worked in intellectual property law for the firm Baker Botts. Her father said she had worked for former secretary of state James A. Baker after he stepped down from public life. She also traveled widely.

There is little research on women who carry out murder-suicides because the overwhelming number of such perpetrators are men. David Adams, co-director of Emerge, a domestic-violence counseling program in Massachusetts, said men and women engage in the acts for different reasons.

“With men, it’s pretty typically a scenario where they are possessively jealous and looking to punish a partner for thinking about leaving them or having left them,” Adams said. “For women, it’s sort of operating out of hopelessness and despondency.”