by Len Lear and Constance Garcia-Barrio
E.M.I.R. (Every Murder Is Real), a community-based grassroots non-profit located at 5213 Germantown Ave., held a vigil on Sept. 25, The National Day of Remembrance for Murdered Victims. E.M.I.R. works with families and community members who have been affected by homicide. Over 100 people gathered at E.M.I.R. to remember the lives of their loved ones that were cut short due to rampant violence in the city of Philadelphia.
Victoria Greene, founder and executive director of E.M.I.R., opened the program with a welcome and an affirmation of love for the lives that have been lost. Ms. Greene also spoke about the need for victims to have a stronger voice “because our voices and our needs are not being heard.” The Rev. Myra Maxwell offered a prayer and song. Dina Dashell and Darlene Sistrunk, mothers and writers who have lost sons to homicide, read their poems expressing the pain that has become all too familiar in this city.
Police Deputy Commissioner Thomas Wright and Inspector Michael Gillespie spoke to the audience. Police Commissioner Ramsey was scheduled to open the program, but he was late since he had to deal first with the homicide of a 31-year-old mother in Southwest Philadelphia. Commissioner Ramsey expressed gratitude to the community for coming together, but he added that he longed for a time when vigils would be few and far between.
A beautiful candlelight ceremony followed in which family, friends and neighbors lit candles in silent remembrance as the names of their loved ones were mentioned in the otherwise quiet night. The Rev. Hilda Campbell of Chester closed with a moving prayer that spoke about the loss to society of contributions, gifts and talents that would never be realized
A few blocks away at First Presbyterian Church of Germantown, Councilwoman Cindy Bass was having a summit on crime in the community. Participants expressed anger, outrage and frustration at the horrendous conditions in Southwest Germantown. “Well, it is about time,” Greene told the Local. “I have often wondered where is the outrage? Here we are community members who have come together to get help from those whose job it is to serve and protect. Here we are community members who have come together to mourn and remember lives cut short by the failings of our society. A community in crisis, traumatized by crime and violence. How do we heal our community?
“You have unbearable pain when you lose someone to murder,” said Victoria, 63, in an earlier interview. Her son Emir was shot dead in 1997 at age 20. E.M.I.R., which came into existence as a result of that horrific crime, offers grief support groups for children, youth and adults. E.M.I.R.’s motto is “Healing the community one family at a time.”
Victoria attended Germantown High School because of its academic strengths at that time. In the ‘60s students were divided along racial lines, Victoria noted. In addition, color-consciousness among black students meant that “I was too dark for some groups and too light for others. I also had strikes against me since I was from a North Philly working-class family. Counselors told me that I wasn’t college material.”
Despite those difficulties Victoria seemed fated to continue Germantown ties. Married in 1966, Victoria and her husband lived on Sharpnack Street. She honed her skills dealing with the public through jobs at Strawbridge’s, Wanamaker’s and the Social Security Administration. Subsequent jobs as a Head Start teacher’s aide and as a social worker in the Philadelphia Prison System schooled Victoria in early childhood education and individual and family counseling. “I draw on that knowledge daily in grief counseling,” she said.
Further professional advancement required a grueling schedule. Victoria had completed two years of college at Temple University when she met Dr. Jackie Murphy, a faculty member at Rosemont College who taught black history in Philadelphia prisons. “She urged me to finish my degree at Rosemont,” Victoria said.
“For three years, I took public transportation to Rosemont and then made up hours missed at work. I did 12 and 13-hour days.” However, Victoria’s five children — Chantay, Altovise, Emir and twins Aja and Ayanna — whose ages ranged at the time from 24 to 15, watched her receive her degree in sociology in 1995.
Around that time Victoria, who had gotten a divorce, realized that her son Emir seemed distant and depressed. “He’d started hanging around a young man whose energy felt negative. I took Emir to counseling, and it seemed to help.” Later she learned that the young man had recruited Emir to sell drugs.
Victoria was juggling her prison job with a sideline as a cosmetics consultant. “On March 26, 1997, I had come home from work, made dinner and gone upstairs to put my customers’ orders into the computer when a friend called to say that Emir had been shot.” Driven to Einstein, Victoria sent her daughter Altovise, a new police officer, to identify the body covered with a white sheet. “It was Emir,” Victoria said. “I went into the hallway and collapsed.”
Some people feel indifferent when they hear that a young person who sells drugs has been killed. “They forget that he’s somebody’s son,” Victoria said. “Emir had artistic talent — he used to attend Prints in Progress down the street — and he could make you laugh by imitating family members. He was a human being. He didn’t deserve to be shot in the back seven times.”
Victoria felt suicidal for a time. “The pain of Emir’s murder was too much to bear,” she said. Her healing began with the Grief Assistance Program (since discontinued) in the Medical Examiner’s Office. “You have to talk about your grief to heal.”
In 2006, two years after EMIR became nonprofit, Victoria began grief support groups at the Northwest Regional Library. Today, the home-like Germantown Avenue site lets her accommodate a range of ages. “Our support groups meet on Wednesdays for six weeks,” Victoria said. “We have dinner from 6 to 6:30 p.m. Members of the Green Street Friends Meeting have volunteered to provide dinner, no small feat since we have up to 15 people. Eating together helps to make community so that we draw strength from each other.”
After dinner, people meet according to age and gender. “An art therapist facilitates the children’s gathering. Sometimes children can’t verbalize their feelings, but art can become their medium for expression. Children must have a voice to heal. Untreated trauma perpetuates violence.”
When a murder occurs, said Victoria, there’s healing but no closure. “You learn to live with the loss, and how precious life is,” she said. “You learn that you deserve to be happy, that your murdered loved one wouldn’t want it any other way.”
You can contact E.M.I.R. at info@E.M.I.R.philly.org or 215-848-4068.