“What happened on Martin Luther King Jr. Day will forever be ingrained in my mind,” said co-founder of Rebirth SYR, Mered Billue, during the unveiling of a mural featuring some of Syracuse’s youngest victims of gun violence.
Brexialee Torres-Ortiz, murdered Jan. 16 in the crossfire of a drive-by shooting, is just one of the youth memorialized on the walls of what Billue and Hasahn Bloodworth, the other co-founder of Rebirth SYR, hope to turn into a community center. Named “A Playground in Heaven,” the artwork also features Kihary Blue, Dior Harris and Rashaad Walker Jr.
Mered, as well as his mother Twiggy Billue, told the families: “we are here for you.”
“I don’t understand,” said Mered, hanging his head. “I was in high school when baby Rashaad passed away. I didn’t understand when Kihary Blue passed away … phenomenal basketball player. Probably would have been in the league right now.”
“I come from a place that is tough,” he continued, as Walker’s mother, Kameka Alexander, breaks in, “a place programmed and designed to keep us down.”
Syracuse, shaken by the death of Torres-Ortiz, killed mere yards from her front door as she returned home from buying a quart of milk, demanded help and cooperation from the community to find her killers.
“It’s up to us,” said Twiggy, of the Black community rebuilding a village and speaking up. “It’s up to us to make people stop and think. If the killer isn’t caught, somebody’s sleeping with a murderer. It could be your son. It could be your husband. It could be your child. With all that love we might have for them, the right thing to do is to tell it. To help them turn themselves in. Because we can begin to heal that way.”
Rebirth SYR plans to convert the space into that village.
“The next time you come, you’ll see a lot of changes,” said Bloodworth of the first floor. “Hopefully, they’ll come … They’ll find somewhere else other than the streets, like here, to be their safe space.”
At Saturday’s event, community leaders and several family members of victims came together. Speakers included: Bishop H. Bernard Alex, Sen. Rachel May, Common Councilor Jennifer Schultz, Syracuse Board of Education Commissioner Billue and Clifford Ryan, as well as other members of Rebirth SYR.
Mural artist Victor Matthews was inspired by the children featured. He felt they had their childhoods stolen, and envisioned them up in heaven, playing the games they most enjoyed. Blue playing basketball. Torres-Ortiz playing tennis, and baby Rashaad and Dior carefree in a sandbox.
“Unfortunately, there’s some children that won’t be able to enjoy it. They didn’t have a chance to really be a child,” he said. “My hope, that’s what they’re doing now.”
Before the final reveal, Bloodworth presented plaques to each family, stressing this was not an event of mourning but a celebration of healing.
The Dior Lionheart Award was presented to Desiree Seymore and Shaquail Harris, mother and father of the slain 11-month-old, for their bravery, love and strong will. Her sister, Milteshia Seymore, accepted the plaques, saying with recent discoveries in the case, their grief is overwhelming.
“They finally got the shooter just two days ago, so now we reliving it again,” she said. “I know they wanted to be here, but it’s just too much.”
Father José Torres accepted the Brexi Lionheart Award. Unable to accept in person was Brexialee’s mother, Brenlee Ortiz, and the mother of Kihary Blue, Twanda Rufus.
The final plaque was accepted by Kameka Alexander, mother of Rashadd Walker Jr., the 20-month-old toddler killed in 2010.
“What you’re doing for our community is wonderful because our kids are only the product of the environment that they live in,” Alexander said. “I thank you for everything you’re doing, for keeping my son’s name alive. Because I was a kid having a kid. To have a kid be taken away … there’s nothing you can say to a mom who has lost her child. You just go through a lifetime disease of healing. Nothing can fill the void.”
Bloodworth told the families: this is now a place for them to visit and remember their children.
“Come anytime you feel like it,” he said. “I don’t care if it’s 3 o’clock. 4 o’clock. 5 o’clock in the morning. It doesn’t matter. Call me to come, and sit with yours. I’m coming to open the door. That’s my blessing to you.”
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