Standing in the emergency room of Albert Einstein Medical Center, Victoria Greene gazes down at her only son. Emir, 20, looks as if he’s sleeping. His mother slowly pulls the sterile white sheet down his body, revealing four fresh gunshot wounds on his chest.
Blood is still seeping from the wounds, but Greene can feel warmth in her son’s hands and face — a false sign of hope in what is now a lifeless body. She steps outside the room and collapses.
It was March 26, 1997 and Greene, a resident of Philadelphia’s Germantown neighborhood, would never see her son alive again.
“I felt totally betrayed by God,” Greene recalled during a recent interview in her Germantown office. “I prayed for the protection of my children every day, and it took a long time for me to come back.”
Sixteen years after her son was shot dead on the sometimes mean streets of Germantown, Greene, 64, has turned her grief into action. She has founded the EMIR Healing Center, a non-profit group that provides grief counseling for those who have lost family and friends to violence.
The center, at 5213 Germantown Ave., offers group-counseling sessions in six-week increments, with meetings held every Wednesday. The entire group gathers to eat dinner together, then splits up to discuss how they are coping with the loss of loved ones to violence.
“I’ve found working with some families layers of trauma that have never been addressed,” Greene said.
In addition to counseling, Greene and her staff also speak at local conferences and area schools. A few weeks ago, the center took its message of healing to Hope Charter School, 2116 East Haines St., which had five students murdered during the 2012-13 school year.
“Might as well be in Afghanistan”
“Some of these children might as well be in Afghanistan because they, too, are in a war here at home,” Greene said. “Why aren’t we helping them? Going into the schools has shown me that the children have more trauma and pain than anybody else. But they are more open to discussing their feelings because it makes them feel as if they have some control and can do something about it.”
While North Philadelphia has more murders than any other area of the city, Germantown in Northwest Philadelphia is not far behind. Of the city’s 331 homicides last year, 40 were in Germantown, police reported.
In the months after Emir’s murder, Greene had trouble keeping her own life intact. There were moments when she considered killing herself. There were also times when she thought about killing the men who were responsible for her son’s death.
“I felt like I could get a gun. Everybody else has guns, so I could get one, too,” Greene recalled. “I had heard who it was from Emir’s friends and I thought that now I know where he lives and where he hangs out, I could just go over there and shoot him myself. I’m not running, I would stay right there; they could lock me up, I wouldn’t care. But then I thought about my children. They already had lost their brother, now they would lose their mother. I said to myself, ‘I can’t do this.’ The turning point was when I thought about everyone who would be affected. That’s when I made a conscious decision to live.”
Every Murder is Real gets launched
Greene began attending grief-counseling sessions at the Philadelphia Medical Examiner’s Office, which provided her with support groups as well as individual counseling. Over time, the support helped sooth her aching heart. She began to live for others, and, in Emir’s memory, started the EMIR Healing Center. His name now stands for Every Murder Is Real.
At the beginning, Greene worked out of her Germantown home, turning Emir’s bedroom into an office. With the help of a grant from the Maryland Crime Victims Services, she was able to purchase computers and materials. Today, she is telling the story of Emir, and her own struggle to come to terms with his murder, to dozens of other families who have experienced the grief she knows all too well.
He started out so well
Emir Peter Greene, his mother recalled, was once like the young people she meets today during her visits to the city’s schools — full of life, energetic, and creative.
He had a real talent and passion for art, but could never see the potential for a career. Instead of attending a standard high school, Emir went to a vocational school in Bensalem. He studied to become a contractor and found a job remodeling houses with a co-worker of Greene’s. The work wasn’t steady, and with a pregnant girlfriend, Emir began to feel the pressure.
“I didn’t’ realize how a neighborhood could catch a hold of your child,” Greene said. “I was really naïve of this other life that we were living among. What happened at night- the guns, the drugs. I felt that I taught my children the right thing. I thought that if we eat together and pray together that we would be all right. I was wrong, and that blew me away.”
Around the time he turned 19, Emir began selling crack-cocaine as a means to an end, Greene said. He hid his new lifestyle from his family, but a cloud of suspicion always remained. He didn’t wear the flashy clothing or gold jewelry symbolic of those involved in the drug trade, but the late hours Emir was keeping led Greene to believe her son was indeed involved in dealing drugs.“I saw agitation, he was always on edge, he was not comfortable,” Greene said. “I would check his room at night and would be thankful that he was there when he would be.”
The night Emir didn’t come home
On the night of March 26, 1997, Emir went for a drive with his friends Steve Holiday and Ubong “Ju-Ju” Uboh, both fellow drug dealers, Greene later learned.
When the trio reached the 5200 block of Rubicam Street in East Germantown, Emir got out of the car and was shot multiple times in the back by Holiday. He survived this initial assault, and managed to run down an alleyway, where he collapsed. According to Uboh, the only eyewitness to testify at Holiday’s trial, another unrecognizable man stood over the fallen Emir and finished him off.
“Some people have said, ‘Oh, her son was a drug dealer, what did she expect?’ I expected him to live, he was 20,” Greene said. “It’s interesting that you have social-service workers saying these things. That was my introduction to the hierarchy of murder. Even in death, people are judged, lives are judged. That’s how services are doled out or not doled out. I’m still fighting that.”
Learning about the “hierarchy of murder”
Despite the challenges, Greene is convinced that trauma education can help reduce homicide in low-income urban neighborhoods like Germantown. “People still have a stigma about counseling, but look what we did with smoking or AIDS,” she said.
Although urban violence has drawn the interest of countless academics with PhDs, Greene believes that people like herself, who have experienced the trauma first hand, have the best shot at reaching the grassroots.
“That’s the fight I’m fighting,” she said. “Trying to get trauma education out to the community.”
(Joe Trinacria can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @jtrinacria.)