'We're superheroes': Philly child shooting victims celebrate their survival

7-year-old Mahaj “Haji” Brown, a shooting victim, dances with a group of superheroes.

An unlikely group of superheroes gathered at a not-so-secret sanctuary in Hunting Park to celebrate their survival and to address a persistent evil in this metropolis: Gun violence.

Like the Atom or Ant-Man, the size of these superheroes belied their strength and their superhuman ability to survive what most will never experience — gunshot wounds.

For a few hours Friday, kids who were hit by stray bullets and the families of children who lost their lives to gun violence in Philadelphia gathered together in superhero costumes, capes, and T-shirts at the Lenfest Center on the 3800 block of North 10th Street for “Super Heroes Against Gun Violence.”

Hosted by the mother and grandmother of 7-year-old Majah “Haji” Brown, the event coincided with the one-year anniversary of the day Haji was shot 10 times by stray bullets from an AK-47 in East Germantown. Over the course of his lengthy recovery, which has included 32 surgeries, it has been Haji’s love of life, his family, and his favorite superheroes that helped him make it.

But to Haji’s mother, LaPrea, and his grandmother Esther Davis, Haji is the real hero.

“We tell him he’s a superhero because of all he’s survived,” Davis said.

That’s how the event’s theme emerged. Davis said they wanted to bring child shooting victims together to let them form a superhero support network for one another. The family also wanted to draw attention to cases that remain unsolved, like Haji’s.

The boy was one of four children shot by stray bullets within five weeks last summer, and one of 94 juveniles shot in Philadelphia in 2016.

Judelly “JuJu” Sanchez, who was 12 when she was shot on her way to a corner store in Fairhill last August, walked into the event and promptly hoisted Haji upon herself for a piggyback ride.

“You’re my new best friend,” she said. “We’re superheroes.”

Camera icon Stephanie Farr/Staff
Judelly “JuJu” Sanchez and Mahaj “Haji” Brown are child survivors of gun violence in Philadelphia. (STEPHANIE FARR / Staff)

Haji’s mom credits the two 14th District officers who took her son to the hospital with saving his life. She and Haji met those men, Officers Benjamin Klock and Matthew Walsh, for the first time at the event. Haji even got to try on Klock’s police hat.

“For a year I’ve been trying to track these guys down to say thank you,” Brown said. “If it wasn’t for them, I don’t think Haji would have made it.”

Camera icon DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer
Mahaj “Haji” Brown tries on Officer Benjamin Klock’s police hat. Klock (left background) and his partner, Officer Matt Walsh, rushed Haji to the hospital after he was shot. (DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer)

Also attending were politicians, including City Councilwoman Helen Gym and U.S. Rep. Dwight Evans, as well as police brass, like department spokesman Capt. Sekou Kinebrew, who was captain of the 14th District when Haji was shot.

“That was a horrible day,” Kinebrew said. “But our relationship with that area really did take off after that. Everyone recognized right away that this was everyone’s fight.”

Haji’s shooter hasn’t been captured. Kinebrew said police have “promising leads.”

Superheroes and their sidekicks danced, ate cotton candy, received balloon animals, and slurped on water ice. For a few hours, they were just kids again.

Watching from the sidelines was Shyema Washington, whose 5-year-old son, Cion Styles, was killed by his father in a 2014 Ridley Township shooting that also left Washington, 29, with critical injuries.

On her shirt was an image of a child-size Iron Man. The picture was of her son, wearing his last Halloween costume. In her hand, she held a blue, flower-shape balloon. Tears flowed from her eyes.

“Mahaj came up to me and said, ‘I’m sorry your son didn’t make it,’ and he gave me this balloon,” she said.

Camera icon Stephanie Farr/Staff
Shyema Washington, 29, lost her 5-year-old son, Cion Styles, to gun violence in 2014. He’s pictured on her shirt in an Iron Man costume. (STEPHANIE FARR / Staff)