No one would have questioned the couple skipping their community festival two summers ago.
If Zakariyya Abdur-Rahman, the tireless founder of the Nicetown Community Development Corp., didn’t show, the dedicated band of staff and volunteers would have jumped in to tend to the frenzy of last-minute details.
No questions asked. No explanations needed.
If his wife, Taherrah, opted to stay as far away as possible from Nicetown Park, rife with so many painful memories on that August day in 2017, my God, who would have blamed her?
But the couple did what they’ve always done. They showed up, kept moving. It was harder for grief to settle in that way.
“We do this for our boys,” Zakariyya says simply.
A family friend, Zenobia Thomas-Shah, remembers. For years she has watched the couple welcome neighbors to the annual “Give Back” community festival at Nicetown Park. At some point during the two-day weekend festivities, Taherrah, 58, and Zakariyya, 59, usually make their way to the stage to announce the recipients of an educational scholarship in the name of their oldest son, gunned down in 2009.
Thomas-Shah, a teacher, had taught the children when they were younger, two loved little boys who grew up to be just as involved in the family business at the neighborhood distribution warehouse named after them as they were with the family’s community outreach.
Zakee died at 19, on his daughter’s first birthday. He was protecting a female family member, his mother says.
And Zafir, the younger brother, was left shattered by his brother’s death, though he did his best to hide his grief from his parents.
Mother and teacher became friendly, then friends, then confidants.
Thomas-Shah knew better than most the grief the mother shared with few people. But watching her friend take the stage two years ago. … It nearly defies words, even now.
Just nine days before, her youngest son — the couple’s remaining child together — was shot in the head when a car pulled up beside a vehicle he was riding in. He was 23.
Thomas-Shah remembers looking at her friend on the stage and thinking: Would I have been able to do that?
“I don’t think that I could have,” she concluded.
But she also knew there was no other option for the couple. The neighborhood they adopted when they opened their business — one of the city’s poorest — needed them. And they, in turn, needed the neighborhood, to center them, to give them purpose, so that their sons’ deaths weren’t in vain.
They told me as much when I talked to them at Nicetown Park this week as they were preparing for the festival, now in its 17th year, which runs Friday and Saturday.
They hope that if they continue their work in their troubled community with the CDC that Zakariyya founded, with the distribution warehouse that employs neighborhood residents, and with the festival that this year includes a college fair and a walk for peace, that other parents might be spared what they weren’t.
They recalled, hesitantly, the day Zakariyya got the call that something bad had happened to their eldest. He rushed home to brace his wife before police came to the door to deliver the devastating news.
As Muslims, they told me, they draw strength from the faith that teaches them not to question a God they credit for helping them through their darkest hours.
Later, out of earshot of her husband, Taherrah conceded that after she lost her first son she thought, “You took my first, I know you’re going to let me keep my second.”
She held onto that hope until at the hospital, doctors said her youngest was gone.
Grief is ever-present, but in action it at least feels as though it has purpose. And so on the 10th anniversary of their eldest son’s death and the second anniversary, almost to the day, of losing their youngest, they will be back at the park. The message in their actions clear: We have experienced the unimaginable, and yet here we stand, ready to serve.
So far this year there have been 835 people shot in Philadelphia, police told me when I checked Friday afternoon. About 70 of them from their neighborhood.