A teen shooting expands a school community’s borders

When a fourth-grader's older brother is arrested for murder, the International Community School's sense of a beloved community' means supporting the struggling families of both victim and shooter.

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The funeral was standing-room-only. A hundred and sixty dark-suited men, high school soccer players, and women in bright African cloth packed the chapel outside Atlanta on Thanksgiving weekend to remember 17-year-old Burundian Gerali Kagwa.

Sitting among them were several strangers. Graveside, they stood together holding hands in their American church clothes. After the burial, the boy's mother asked a friend who they were.

"They're my co-workers," said Janine Ndayaremwa. She and her husband Come Nahabakomeye met Gerali a decade ago in a Tanzanian refugee camp (where Bill Clinton Hadam would later be born). In 1999, their family and Gerali's were resettled in Georgia, where Janine and Come work at the International Community School (ICS), she as a teaching assistant and he in accounting. The night Gerali was shot, by the teenage brother of an ICS student, Come and Janine were some of the first to hear.

The next morning, they told ICS colleagues. Their 7-year-old elementary school had no precedent for this. The principal contacted the county to ask for guidance. In e-mails and an impromptu meeting, staff discussed who would counsel affected students, how best to protect the shooter's sister, who'll be referred to by her initial "A." here, and how they could support both boys' families.

At the supper after the funeral, Gerali's mother greeted ICS visitors graciously. Privately, she asked her friend: "Why are they here?"

Janine wasn't sure how to answer. She was a little surprised herself. "The school is not even connected to the kid," she remembers thinking, "they're connected to [A.] and me and Come."Then again, she'd worked with these people for years. She could guess why they'd come to the funeral of a boy they'd never met. It was hard to put into words. "I told her: You are a human being, and you're here, and you lost your son, and you are a refugee, and they want to help refugees,' " Janine says. "It was not easy to explain."

It is not easy to explain the ICS community. Founders modeled the public charter school for refugee, immigrant, and US-born kids on the "beloved community," a concept borrowed from Martin Luther King, Jr. Dr. King borrowed it, too, from 19th-century American philosopher Josiah Royce, who wrote that a "beloved community" of truth-seekers should be religion's earthly aim. King used the phrase to describe the world he was fighting for: racially integrated, socially just, nurturing of individuals' cultures, beliefs, and gifts.

ICS folks talk about their "beloved community" reverently or ironically, depending on their mood. But there's more to it than talk. The school reaches deeper into the lives of students and staff than most schools even try to. Teachers visit students at home. Colleagues celebrate holidays together. Parents and staff wear themselves out driving other people's kids to sports and school events. ICS provides food, uniforms, legal and medical help, parenting advice, mentoring, even jobs to families in trouble.

The magnitude of student need makes it impossible to do enough. The generosity of staff and volunteers makes it hard to do it in moderation. Inevitably, people overstep. People burn out. Too much work rests on the shoulders of a small group of active parents. Job interviews screen for candidates who teach out of a sense of mission; the whole staff is overspent and underpaid. And like any organization, ICS has its factions, egos, passive-aggression, gossip.

Still, at the end of the day, people are laughing in the office. Year after year - in classrooms short on pencils, between parents with little common language - real, unexpected, cross-cultural friendships take root, and people are transformed by them. And outside, little embodiments of their challenges and successes tear across the playground in blue-and-white uniforms.

Working at ICS the past four years, Janine says she's felt herself relaxing, letting down the defenses she had erected as a refugee and a stranger in America: "That's what makes ICS different. You feel like you're wanted. Everywhere else you go, you feel like you are a refugee still."

For the shooter's little sister - a wiry girl, full of energy - this was what community looked like, until last month. Then, a boy's death and her brother's incarceration showed her a new face of the beloved community.

It was raining when the boys came to A.'s apartment. The fourth-grader wasn't home from school yet, but her brother was; soccer practice was canceled. The Liberian 10th-grader, his friend Gerali, and another teammate went upstairs to his room. His mother says they told her they were going to do French homework. They'd been there 20 minutes when a gun went off. Gerali, shot in the head, died on the spot. Clarkston police arrested A.'s brother for murder; the chief later said photos on the teen's walls suggested he was in a gang. Both boys' families believe the shooting was an accident. "Our tragedy," A.'s mother calls it. "He tell me, Mom, Gerali was my best friend.' "

That night, Come and Janine hurried to Gerali's mother's house. As a soccer mom whose son plays on a team with the shooter, Janine knew both boys: "It isn't easy for me to believe. He's one of mine."

As Janine and Come helped make funeral arrangements, ICS co-workers filled in for them, and chipped in for funeral expenses.

Both the victim's and shooter's moms are single parents, working long hours to support their families. They remind Janine of herself a few years ago, before she started working at ICS. Despite her teaching experience, her husband's background in banking, and the many languages they speak, the best American jobs they could find were in a copy shop and parking cars. While Janine worked at night and Come took classes, their three teens were coming home to an empty house.

"That's how [this tragedy] touches me so bad," she says, "You don't know who their friends are. You're busy trying to make a living in America, and you end up losing your son?"

The Monday before Thanksgiving, A. came home from school to find police in her apartment - her brother's room a crime scene. Over the next days, her principal, assistant principal, former principal, school receptionist, after-school teacher, tutoring coordinator, and counselor visited her in twos and threes, bringing sodas, oranges, and cake.

On Tuesday, A. stayed home. She didn't know teachers were exchanging worried e-mails about how to talk to students about the incident. She didn't know neighbor kids had come to school talking about what her brother had done. She didn't know DeKalb County's School Social Work Department was telling her principal they'd be glad to talk with ICS students, but they couldn't send the crisis team, which only visits schools where students are directly affected by tragedy.

What she did know, she says, is that her school cares about her. Coming to Atlanta as a refugee and her brother's incarceration have taught her how quickly life changes. "First, nothing happens to you, and a lot of people do not come around you," she explains, "and as soon as something happens, they all care."

The Monday after Thanksgiving, A. returned to school. While she spoke with social workers, teachers assembled her fellow fourth-graders on a classroom floor. Adults gathered against the walls, in the doorway, out in the hall. A. slipped in followed by counselors and administrators; they'd told her about the meeting, and she chose to go. She knelt at the front of the room, her lavender windbreaker hood pulled around her ears. The county social workers introduced themselves and assured the kids they were safe. A., hunched over, fiddled with a pair of marbles. One adult said that the week before a teenager had been killed "when a gun went off in a house," and asked who'd heard about it. A third of the students raised their hands.

The social worker asked where the kids had been when they got the news. "In the car." "At my auntie's house." "Watching TV." "I was surprised. And also scared," said a boy in a striped shirt. "I was wondering how his family would feel after he did something like that," said a girl with glasses.

The kids were asked to raise their hands if they'd ever made a mistake, and again if their brothers or sisters had ever made mistakes. Two-thirds said that they'd heard gunshots from their homes. They talked about their fears and who could help them. A boy next to A. asked for one of her marbles. She shushed him gently, and rolled one his way.

Afterward, A. said the conversation had been good for her classmates, because it "made them to know that what happened was a mistake."

The counselors praised the kids, thanked them, and reminded them they had adults all around who cared about them. Then it was time for P.E.

As her classmates headed out, A. scooped up her marbles and followed them.

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