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Nza-Ari Khepra
COMMENTARY

This 21-Year-Old's Best Friend Was A Victim Of Gun Violence

Now she's working with other young people to end it

On Sunday evening (October 1) a gunman later identified as 64-year-old Stephen Paddock opened fire on a crowd at a country music event in Las Vegas killing 59 people injuring over 500 more. This is now the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history—and the 273rd mass shooting in America in 2017 alone.

For 21-year-old Nza-Ari Khepra, the events in Las Vegas were yet another reminder of why she fights to end gun violence. Khepra's friend Hadiya Pendleton was shot and killed by two gunmen in a driveby on January 29, 2013, just days after participating in President Obama’s second inaugural celebration in Washington, DC. Soon after the murder, Khepra and some friends founded a gun violence prevention organization called Project Orange Tree.

In the wake of the tragedy in Las Vegas, Khepra told MTV News about her own experience with gun violence and how young people can help fight for a safer future.

This piece has been edited and condensed.

Nza-Ari Khepra

It happened on the day of finals in 2013. Less than an hour before Hadiya was murdered, she came over to my locker. I wasn’t happy about how my AP Calc exam had gone and she was the type of person who sensed when you weren’t right. She asked me what was going on and stayed with me until she knew I felt better. Most people’s interactions with her were the same way — you always felt like she went the extra mile to help you.

A group of students, including Hadiya, decided to celebrate being done with classes. They went to a park about five minutes away from our school in South Side Chicago. While they were there, two men drove by in a van and opened fire on the entire group. Everyone there was scared and ran away. One boy was shot in the leg while trying to protect his girlfriend. Hadiya was shot in the back.

You don’t need guns to be free. We need gun violence prevention. We need to make sure our country is safe and that we can go to churches, schools, and concerts without fear that some angry person will take our lives.

She wasn’t pronounced dead on the spot but there were a lot of rumors. I didn’t want to believe them. I sent her so many texts saying, "Are you ok? So many people are worried about you. Please respond." [When I learned] Hadiya was in the emergency room I remember thinking I had to channel the same energy Hadiya had; I needed to there for other people, to be their emotional support.

I had never felt so emotionally distraught as [I did in] that emergency room. I heard people wailing and weeping. At that point, I realized she was gone and that there was no way to help or save her. The entire emergency room was full of her friends and family — people who clearly cared so much about Hadiya, and who wanted to return the favor of the support system she had provided them.

Before Hadiya was murdered, I was fooled by a misconception about who can be a gun violence victim or perpetrator. I’m from the South Side of Chicago, so I’m very familiar with gun violence, but I always thought it had nothing to do with me — that the people who were involved in it chose to be. Hadiya’s death was a wake up call for me. She was an honor student, a truly amazing human being. She wasn’t involved in gangs. She was in a local park a few minutes from our school.

Nza-Ari Khepra

After doing research, I found out that 93 people per day are killed by gun violence. This violence is not a small problem in one city, but an issue culturally threaded into our nation. We associate guns with safety and freedom. In actuality, you don’t need guns to be free. We need gun violence prevention. We need to make sure our country is safe and that we can go to churches, schools, and concerts without fear that some angry person will take our lives.

Some friends and I who were trying to cope with Hadiya’s death decided to create a space where we could discuss what had happened and deal with our emotions. We created a public event where we could discuss gun violence with our community. Hadiya’s mom was one of the mediators, and Lupe Fiasco even agreed to come. We talked about things like "what is gun violence?" and "how can we solve it?" and "what does it mean personally to us and how have we seen it manifest in our own lives?" By the end, everyone felt very inspired and wanted to know what the next step was.

Nza-Ari Khepra

It only seemed right to have the people who are most affected by this issue try to find the solution to it, so we started an organization: Project Orange Tree. The name comes from the idea that a tree represents a sense of community and orange is the color hunters often wear. We wanted to flip the meaning of that color on its head; we wanted to wear orange to show that we opposed Chicago becoming a hunting ground — that we care about our lives, don’t want people to disregard us, and want to find a solution to this issue.

We created a Project Orange Tree campaign, during which we wore orange while fasting from sun up to sundown to symbolize dining with the dead — with the people who no longer have the ability to eat because gun violence is ravishing our community. We did grassroots organizing across Chicago, held candlelight vigils and open mics for youth come express themselves in a safe space. Gun violence is a huge problem, but there are steps young people can take to combat it. First, become aware of the issue. Understand gun-related laws that are proposed and passed in your state. Then, educate other people. Make sure they’re aware of these laws and their right to vote. We need to hold our politicians accountable so they can represent our voices correctly and prevent violence from happening in places that should be safe. Every single time you think about talking about gun violence, you should think about ways you can be active about it as well.