Houston-based virtual memorial honors victims of COVID-19 by spotlighting lost loved ones

It comes as no surprise the coronavirus pandemic has taken several of our local neighbors but the reality of each death still comes as a shock. And with the death toll from COVID-19 related complications appearing to get higher due to the Delta variant, Houston residents have set up a virtual memorial to put a face before the number. 

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Mohammed Nasrullah and his wife, Ruth, both founded the COVID-19 Wall of Memories in January 2021, citing the pandemic’s impact on the U.S. played a significant impression on them. In other words, they wanted to look beyond the daily number of new cases and deaths. 

"We realize that behind these numbers, there are people, you know, people in our community, people that we know, our healthcare workers," Mohammed said. "So, by the time the number of deaths in our country reached 100,000, we decided that we have to take some action and try to remember these people who have died because of this terrible disease."

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The couple resides in Houston but shared how the memorial expands beyond even Texas by serving as a national memorial. 

"Our vision was to remember and honor every American, you know, across the entire nation," Mohammed added. "So we have people from all the states, including our territories, like Puerto Rico, Guam, the Virgin Islands. So our goal is to honor everyone in this country."

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The site’s homepage shows the gallery of monochrome faces that are highlighted in color once the viewer’s mouse hovers over their picture.

(Screenshot from COVID-19 Wall of Memories)

"My vision was to create a virtual Memorial similar to the Vietnam Memorial," Mohammed said. "But you know, it worked with one where I was imagining, you know, pictures of the victims, and the wall to be scrolling."

Additionally, Ruth explained how as a journalist, the two sought to use their website as a way to also inform viewers on COVID-19 in an objective way. 

"My immediate response was if we're going to tell the story of COVID-19 in America, which is what we're doing, in addition to the stories of the people, which is really the most important thing," she said. "I also wanted the opportunity to provide the latest news and information about COVID-19. 

"So we created the ‘COVID-19 Observer,’ which is our news page that's on our website, as well as a page called ‘Just the Facts,’ which has primarily CDC guidance and information," Ruth continued.

(Screenshot from COVID-19 Wall of Memories)

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The process of getting someone on the memorial is not that simple, however. As Ruth explains, it’s a collaborative effort but there are three ways to have someone memorialized but part of it involves a great deal of research and respect. 

"First, family members and friends of loved ones who have passed away, can go to the website and fill out a form and provide all the information, whatever they want us to know about that person's life, and submit it," she said. "And we can bet that we bet everything that goes on the wall and proven and then that appears on the wall."

"The other way is we observe online obituaries," Ruth continued. "We have volunteers who find obituaries online of people who have passed away from COVID. And enter that information into our database, and then just use an excerpt of the obituary, we don't want to copy and paste the entire thing…and then sometimes we do that also with newspaper articles. If it's someone prominent, perhaps or somebody even then it's locally well now."

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Despite the website being only around for less than a year, both say the community’s response to the virtual memorial has been "overwhelmingly positive." 

"We were just talking earlier a couple of days ago, we got an email from a woman whose husband, who passed away from COVID and...she said, ‘this wall just brings so much comfort to me,’" Ruth said. "And so she regularly just comes to the wall and you know sort of pays homage to her husband. And that's the kind of thing that I think just to get one email like that."

Submission page (Screenshot from COVID-19 Wall of Memories)

The memorial features a plethora of victims ranging from various walks of life, but Ruth added they’re seeing a growing trend of partners passing away, arguably from broken hearts in addition to the coronavirus. 

"There's a lot of couples," she said. "A lot of couples who passed away within days or weeks or even hours of each other. That's hard." 

(Screenshot from COVID-19 Wall of Memories)

(Screenshot from COVID-19 Wall of Memories)

To date, the COVID-19 Wall of Memories has collected more than 7,000 people across the U.S. And according to the couple, reading each victim’s story can be unimaginably stressful. 

"It's my job to kind of read all the inputs and make sure everything checks out, so I end up reading most of the stories," Muhammad said. "And there are times when it becomes so overwhelming that I just shut down my laptop and go do something else...because it's really sad and very touching that it will overwhelm you."

"When I filled in a couple of times, I just kind of burst into tears as soon as I started reading someone's story, because these are real people who had real loved ones [who] died of a real plague," Ruth added. "And it’s not a joke." 

As the coronavirus continues to ravage across Texas and local hospitals experiencing deja vu with their ICU rooms filling up, the Nasrullah’s say they’ve already begun stepping away from behind the computer screens to reach the community in person.

"We have started to go beyond the website a little bit, whereas the wall of memories will always be the heart of what we do, we are trying to do more offline activities," Ruth said. "[For example,] President Joe Biden has a week of action for vaccination drives targeted to you so we're participating in that.." 

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In working with these vaccine drives, the couple said it’s a way to help not only keep residents safe but hopefully limit the death toll so more names are not added to the memorial wall. 

"We're trying to do more of those activities and think about trying to prevent getting more people on our wall by trying to think about what needs to be done in order to better this situation," Ruth explained. 

To learn more about the COVID-19 Wall of Memories and make a donation or volunteer, click here.