Family struggles with daughter's shooting death

Saleem Nurid-Din sits with grandchildren at Nur Academy. His daughter Hafeezah, who was killed by a stray bullet, founded the school.
Saleem Nurid-Din sits with grandchildren at Nur Academy. His daughter Hafeezah, who was killed by a stray bullet, founded the school. (MICHAEL S. WIRTZ / Staff Photographer.)
Posted: April 08, 2013

They had to close school for sentencing day.

Hafeezah's school. The one she had worked so hard to open. Her dreams realized, then stolen by a stray bullet on an Overbook sidewalk.

Hafeezah Nurid-Din's family sat quiet and dignified in Courtroom 807 on Wednesday morning, there to see justice delivered to the 19-year-old who had ended Hafeezah's life in October 2011.

Nurid-Din, 31, earned her degree in elementary and special education from Cheyney University, then a master's from Cabrini College. She had her mind set toward her doctorate. She had opened a small private day-care and elementary school in a once-grand stone building in West Philadelphia. She had four children of her own, including a 9-month-old son.

She had just returned from a trip to the grocery store when she was shot outside her parent's home.

In court, her loved ones sat 12 deep. Her father, mother, husband, three sisters, brother, nephews, and friends. The sentencing of Daniel Shelley represented an end to one chapter of a terrible nightmare.

The family had no choice but to close the school for the hearing. Since her death, Nurid-Din's loved ones have made her dream their own, but the school struggles, surviving only through their love and labor.

In the days before the hearing, the children were learning about the moon and the stars and about musical instruments, how each one makes an individual sound, but together they create harmonies.

In the pews of the courtroom, the Nurid-Din women sobbed softly and held one another. They clutched a photo of Hafeezah, with her soft, pretty smile.

Shelley, who had entered a guilty plea to third-degree murder, was led into the courtroom. He looked like a child.

"Judge, the genesis of this killing dates back to January 2011," began Assistant District Attorney Brendan O'Malley.

The genesis of a killing. The death of an innocent. The retaliatory violence and crippling silence that plague streets where so many Philadelphians live.

This time, it was the lethal stupidity attached to a feud between teens from 54th and 58th Street - teens with handguns and assault weapons.

In January 2011, Shelley's older brother, Anthony, was shot in the face on a playground by a 58th Streeter. Shortly before Anthony was scheduled to testify, his family's home was riddled with 20 bullets.

Daniel and his brother talked tough. They weren't going to snitch. They would handle it.

"I live by the streets, I know the consequences," Daniel Shelley told The Inquirer at the time. "If you shoot one day, you got to be prepared the next."

On a Saturday night, just before 8 p.m., Daniel Shelley pedaled up to 58th Street and pulled a .40-caliber handgun from his hoodie and pointed it at two 58th Streeters at a bus stop. They scattered.

Nurid-Din spent much time at her parents' house at 58th and Malvern. She lived around the corner to be near her handicapped mother. On that Saturday, she had picked up groceries for herself and her parents. She and her younger sister, Seidah, were making pizza, and had forgotten an ingredient.

Saleem Nurid-Din, a 67-year-old retired SEPTA station manager, offered to drive his daughter home so she could drop off her groceries, then he would return to the store.

Hafeezah was the fourth of his five children. He was proud of how strong-willed and determined she was - how she always accomplished the things she wanted. He was opening the driver's-side door when two teenagers ran past. Then, the shots.

Hafeezah didn't scream. Saleem Nurid-Din ran around to the passenger side and found her bleeding. Neighbors helped him lift her into the car. Seidah cradled her in the backseat.

O'Malley, the prosecutor, read the medical examiner's report into the court record. The bullet pierced the right side of Hafeezah's chest, traveling through her heart.

Saleem Nurid-Din's body buckled at the word heart. He began to weep. There are days when he can look at his daughter's picture in the living room. There are days when he must lower his head when he walks past.

"This is just a tremendous loss," O'Malley told the judge, the veteran homicide prosecutor's voice catching.

Shelley had agreed to plea after two witnesses identified him as the shooter. The Nurid-Din family approved as long as Shelley received at least 20 years in prison. True sorrow and the Lord's forgiveness take time, they felt.

Before Judge Lillian Harris Ransom sentenced him to 22½ to 45 years, Shelley spoke a few faint, almost imperceptible sentences. He was sorry for the pain of the family, he said.

Latifah Nurid-Din, Hafeezah's older sister, rose to speak. She told of the confusion - and guilt - she feels in questioning God's reason.

"He says, 'It will be and it will be,' " she said. "But I can't understand it."

Then, Hafeezah's mother, Zakiyyah Nurid-Din. She remembered Daniel Shelley as a child from the neighborhood. She spoke of Hafeezah's own children - of the loss they have endured. She spoke of the school.

"It was good with her," she said. "Now it struggles."

The school was open again Thursday morning.

It's in a three-story stone building near the corner of 63d Street and Lansdowne. Hafeezah and her husband bought the property and opened the school in September, the year before her death. She named it "the Nur Academy" for her family name.

The preschoolers were finishing arts and crafts in the play room. Hafeezah's 6-year-old daughter, Sumayyah, ran for Saleem Nurid-Din at dismissal, yelling, "Pop-Pop! Pop-Pop!"

Hafeezah's goal was to provide day-care and early-education classes to families who struggled to afford it, said Saleemah Nurid-Din, who with her sisters made sure the school did not shut down after Hafeezah's death.

Latifah handled administrative duties. Seidah volunteered as a teacher. Saleemah left her job as an administrator at a New Jersey elementary school to work full time.

Eventually, Hafeezah hoped to build it into a private academy for girls in grades K through 12, Saleemah said.

"There were so many things she was going to get accomplished," said Saleemah.

The school was so new when Hafeezah was killed that some parents assumed Hafeezah's dreams would die with her. They did not.

"Her goals are our goals now," said Saleemah.

The school has four full-time staff members. The preschool room is decorated in the warmth of Dr. Seuss and ABC and the children's drawings and handwriting exercise.

Much of Saleemah's time is spent assessing needs and repairs. Walls that need painting. Supplies and books and funding.

When she first started at the school in the weeks after her sister's death, she could feel such a sadness among the children. Now, she feels Hafeezah's presence.

Some days, Sumayyah will cry and say she misses her mother.

"Mommy is in heaven waiting for us," Saleemah will tell her. "We have to do a lot of work on Earth so we can see her."

That makes the little girl smile.


Contact Mike Newall at 215-854-2759 or mnewall@phillynews.com.

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