When he was in college, Taliesin Namkai-Meche took an introductory religion class on Islam and impressed his professor with a deep desire to understand how others see the world.
Rick Best spent years in Muslim countries as an Army platoon sergeant in Afghanistan and Iraq.
And Micah Fletcher won a Portland poetry competition in 2013 with an entry about prejudices faced by Muslims.
Those details, reported by the Oregonian newspaper, may help explain why the three men acted in a way that has much of Portland praising them as heroes.
On Friday night, they found themselves in the same train car in Portland’s light-rail system when a 35-year-old white supremacist named Jeremy Christian began shouting anti-Muslim slurs at two teenage girls, one of them wearing a Muslim head scarf, police said.
The details of what happened next are still unclear, but when the men intervened and placed themselves between the girls and Christian, he pulled out a knife and stabbed each in the neck, police said. Best, 53, was killed at the scene, and Namkai-Meche, 23, died at a hospital. Fletcher, 21, remained hospitalized Sunday and was expected to recover.
“Their actions were brave and selfless and should serve as an example and inspiration to us all,” Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler said. “They are heroes.”
“I hope that the three families of the three heroes recognize the significance and the magnitude of what their loved ones did,” said Harris Zafar, spokesman for the Ahmadiyya Movement in Islam mosque in southwest Portland. “It’s inspiration that they’ve given frankly to the entire country.”
He said the Muslim community in Portland aimed to collect $60,000 in donations for the victims’ families. “There is an overarching sense of gratitude and really just affection that the Muslim community wants to convey,” Zafar said.
On Sunday, the home page of the Oregonian featured a photograph of Namkai-Meche’s mother, Asha Deliverance, forehead to forehead with a young Muslim woman in a head scarf at a vigil held at the transit center where the attack occurred.
“That was a very stark image for me,” Zafar said. “It just showed that the inspiration is not just from the three themselves who stood up, but clearly this is part of their families — look at the courage that even the mother is showing.”
Namkai-Meche graduated last year from Reed College in Portland with a degree in economics and was an intern at a consulting firm. The college said it was planning a memorial.
“His enthusiasm was infectious,” Namkai-Meche’s family said in a statement. “We lost him in a senseless act that brought close to home the insidious rift of prejudice and intolerance that is too familiar, too common.”
Best, who had three teenage sons and a 12-year-old daughter, worked for the city’s Bureau of Development Services, which planned to make counselors available when the staff returns to work Tuesday. He made news in 2014 with an unsuccessful run for Clackamas County commissioner in which he refused to accept campaign donations.
Fletcher was on his way to work at a pizza shop when he was attacked.
When his poem about anti-Muslim prejudice won the contest in 2013, he told the Oregonian, “I just hope that people are listening and try to do something about it.”
The suspect, Christian, was arrested and charged with murder and attempted murder. He could also face hate crime charges, police said.
He was photographed by a newspaper in April giving a Nazi salute at a Portland rally, and his Facebook profile contains neo-Nazi statements such as, “Yep. Im a nazi [sic],” “Hail Vinland” and “I will defend the Nazis.”