It never ceases to terrify me how close to home the horror I read about in the news is. The more I scratch the surface of the news section, the more I’m opened up to the world of gun violence in Chicago.
My aunt Mary has been teaching in Chicago for the past 30 years. She was upset when I spoke with her recently. I asked what was wrong, and she told me that one of her students shared sad news with her.
She “had been really preoccupied in school, her grades were very bad, and just been sad for the past couple of weeks, and she finally told me that her brother had been shot and killed in a gang-related fight.”
His death “destroyed her family,” who had moved from inner-city Chicago to Cicero to live in peace, away from gangs and guns, to live in what the family believed to be a safe place. My aunt told me that story was just one among thousands she has heard.
I asked her how she, as a teacher, deals with young adult students living in such difficult conditions.
“It is amazing what these kids do,” she said. “They survive. I am constantly amazed at the human spirit and at the humanity that people offer, like the Zakat Foundation of America (ZF), their presence in Chicago, the help they offer. The fact that they care enough to do something about it is one example of that human spirit.”
School teachers bear a hefty responsibility with students.
“It is not that the students don’t want to learn, it is just living in such a state of fear and having to watch your back all the time gets in the way,” said my uncle Dave, who is also a Chicago Public School teacher.
He said drugs are too prevalent in schools, and he questions how students can take education seriously when they’re worried about getting to school and back home safely.
Gang violence in the area was rampant, he said, and he talked about a student in his class who insisted on wearing a hat despite the possible repercussions.
“I told him time and time again to take it off, not to get into trouble, and then one day on his way home, he was shot and killed because his hat was interpreted as a gang sign,” he told me. “All I can do is my part as a teacher, but when a student knows he has a safe haven, someone they can trust, and the student learns to depend on you, it is just mind boggling the response you get.”
I asked him about how teachers address the issues with children and young adults about living in violent areas.
“You know, kids want to talk and there is not enough communication, and what ZF offers is priceless,” he said. “I can see my students going out of their way to go to the Zakat Foundation Chicago Community Hub (ZFCCH).”
Brother Fahmi Jones, ZF’s violence prevention coordinator, said that at the Chicago Community Hub, they try to equip kids with the tools they need to navigate in the community and to think before they act.
Taking a moment to think in a confrontational situation might make the difference of going home, going to jail or getting killed, he said. It’s difficult for kids to do this when they’re in danger, but Mr. Jones said planting the seed in their minds might save someone’s life.
“Our kids are depressed, angry, traumatized and living in war-like conditions,” Mr. Jones said. “It’s hard for them not to act out. They have a lot of things they deal with that they shouldn’t have to deal with as kids, so they need a lot of support and help.”
ZF U.S. Coordinator Marcus Knight said the community hub was created to provide both the tools and experiences to help youth live a better life. Let the people of Chicago, the parents and CPS students know they are not invisible. Let them know we are aware and remember those we’ve lost to senseless gun violence. Let them feel your care and see the kindness of your human spirit.