Penn students come to aid of food worker's son shot a day after Parkland | Helen Ubiñas

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Azir Harris, 17, was shot and likely paralyzed in Philadelphia on Feb. 15, 2018.

It wasn’t like Troy Harris to ignore messages, thought Michelle Lyu. Especially now.

Harris, a longtime beloved cook at Penn’s kosher dining hall, had joined with another cook, as well as Lyu and a couple of other students, to put a food truck on the streets.

They were just months from firing up the grill. His sudden silence made no sense.

And then, as Lyu biked by Penn Presbyterian Medical Center, they spotted each other.

“Man, my son got shot,” Harris told Lyu.

It was the cruelest of ironies, Lyu said. The vegetarian food truck that Harris, 43, had worked so hard to launch was meant to get at-risk teens off the streets by giving them jobs.

Much like the job at Penn Hillel’s Falk Dining Commons, where Harris has worked for 17 years, did for him as he watched friends die or end up in jail. He was 15 when he watched his friend, gunned down, take his last breath.

“Now the Grim Reaper is knocking on my door,” he said.

Around dinnertime one night in February, his youngest son, Azir, was walking to a store near their home at the Wilson Park housing development in South Philadelphia with two friends to grab something to eat.

Gunfire rang out. They were all struck.

Azir, 17, got it the worst, hit five times and left indefinitely in a wheelchair.

I’m guessing most people reading this column didn’t hear much, if anything, about it. A headline tersely read: “Police: 3 Teens Hospitalized Following Triple Shooting.”

That would be because the Philly teen had the unfortunate timing of being shot the day after the Parkland school shooting, and despite all the talk of mass shootings, gun violence in cities like Philly is still mostly overlooked.

Mass shootings move people. They inspire movements.

Everyday shootings mostly get a “meh.”

Since the beginning of the year, there have been about 300 shootings in Philly. Many victims, like Harris, survive. But they face a long, painful, and expensive road they’re left to navigate, out of sight and out of mind.

Unlike after Parkland, there are no collective calls for change, no celebrities lining up to help the victims.

For Harris and his wife, Debra, 41, who works full time at a rehabilitative nursing home, that means juggling full-time jobs, caring for their five other children ages 17 to 24, while watching their medical bills pile up, even with health insurance.

Lyu, a Wharton junior, struggled to find a way to help. She and another student visited Harris and his family at the hospital, where they sat vigil while Azir lay unconscious for three weeks. Debra, trying to shake the tightness in her chest that took hold the moment someone called to tell her that Azir had been shot. Troy, reliving the moment when he fell to his knees at the hospital.

“My soul left me.”

Lyu called it “heart-wrenching” as we visited Azir and his parents the other day at Magee Rehabilitation Hospital, where he’s expecting at least another month of treatments after bullets ripped through his legs, back, and a lung during the drive-by shooting.

Camera icon Helen Ubiñas
Michelle Lyu, a Wharton junior, started a fund-raiser to help a beloved Penn cook with medical expenses after his son was shot in February. Here, she is pictured with Troy and Debra Harris and their 17-year-old son, Azir.

She looked at Azir, sitting in his wheelchair. “Azir, the way he looked at you ” Her eyes filled with tears as she turned to Troy. “I could see the pain in your eyes, Troy. I could see the suffering, definitely. It was a very, very sobering sight to see.”

Until she created a fund-raiser to help with the medical expenses, Lyu concedes she had weaved an uncomplicated story in her mind of how the situation would get resolved.

“I’d very, very conveniently imagined that everything would work out for the Harris family,” she said. “I’m a Penn student, I’m obviously a privileged person. I have racial privilege. I have socio-economic privilege. I have academic privilege. It’s so easy for someone like me to imagine that everything will work out.”

Now here she was, face to face with the deep disparities that coexist in our city every day. A loved and devoted cook, who fought to improve working conditions and increase wages in the dining hall where he always warmly welcomed the students, was in crisis. The incident shook loose truths she was no longer willing to deny, that she readily acknowledges might make some of her peers defensive, even ashamed.

She’s grateful that people have contributed so readily to the fund-raiser (https://www.youcaring.com/azirharris-1150323) – the fund is slowly but steadily nearing its goal. But that’s not enough for Lyu, who fears that once they reach the $20,000 goal, people will retreat to their bubbles, and will think, “That’s it. The problem goes away. They just need a little bit of money.”

“We need to bridge this disconnect,” she says before putting out a call to action as much to herself as to her Penn community.

“Privilege is a gift. Use it.”