When 13-year-old Malik Bryant wrote to Santa this past Christmas, he got a reply back, but not from the North Pole. Malik had asked for one wish, which was not an Xbox or the newest Nikes, but safety. The young resident of Chicago's Englewood neighborhood wrote, "I just wanna be safe." Malik's letter was forwarded to the White House, and a few days after Christmas he received a response from President Obama himself. Obama saw that Malik, while unlike the typical teenager, is exemplary of the many who struggle with neighborhood violence. To highlight the importance of keeping kids like Malik safe, First Lady Michelle Obama invited Malik Bryant to be a special guest at the State of the Union address on Tuesday.
When Malik sat down to write his letter to Santa, material possessions were clearly the last thing on his mind.
I would like to ask you something, but first I'm going to tell you about me. I'm a black African-American. I stand 5'10". I'm in seventh [grade]. My favorite subject is math. I have two siblings.
Sounds like a pretty typical teenager in the States, but his wish tells a different story.
All I ask for is for safety. I just wanna be safe.Malik is no longer just any kid in America, but one of the millions of kids who live in urban areas fraught with violence. According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, more than three-quarters of children living in a high-violence urban neighborhood report experiencing community violence. Malik lives with his mom and two sisters in the low-income Englewood neighborhood on Chicago's violence-plagued South Side.
The teen told the Chicago Sun-Times that he often hears gunshots
from his house, frequently witnesses gang members jumping victims, and
he's even seen the dead body of a teen neighbor lying in the street
after a gang shooting. He added:
I barely can’t even go outside anymore, can’t ride my bike, can’t play ball, can’t go play with my cousins, because you have to watch your back every 30 seconds.
Malik's mother told the paper that she worries every time her son walks outside.
Sometimes he wants to go over to my sister’s house nearby, to hang out with his cousins, but he can’t because he has to cross gang lines and walk past all these gang members on some of those blocks. And all he ever hears on the news about our neighborhood is shootings, gangs and violence. Malik knows he’s not safe.
When Malik sent his letter through a local Letters to Santa program
run by the nonprofit DirectEffect Charities, his message caught the eye
of the organization's CEO, Michelle DiGiacomo. DiGiacomo, who told the Sun-Times
that she was "floored" by his words, decided to send it to President
Obama via her local congressman, U.S. Rep. Michael Quigley, who then
forwarded it to the White House.
A few days after Christmas, Malik got his reply. It may not have been from Old Saint Nick, but it was from someone just as powerful — President Obama. The president wrote to Malik:
I want to offer you a few words of encouragement.
Each day, I strive to ensure communities like yours are safe places to dream, discover, and grow. Please know your security is a priority for me in everything I do as President. If you dare to be bold and creative, work hard every day, and care for others, I’m confident you can achieve anything you imagine ... and I will be rooting for you.
While President Obama can't curb urban violence overnight, he and Michelle have shown their pledge to help keep Malik safe in their own way. The first lady has invited Malik to be one of her special guests at the State of the Union Address on Tuesday night, and Malik will join 21 others in the First Lady's Box.
Each year, Michelle chooses guests who
reflect an aspect of the president's policy that he plans to emphasize
in his speech. Malik not only reflects the
president's promise to make neighborhoods safer — his hope for safety helps fuel Obama's dedication.