Nathalie Arzu, a college student in upstate New York, was heading home from dinner in a cab on Sept. 15, 2011, when she got a call with horrific news: Her 16-year-old brother, Jose Webster, had been shot to death just blocks from their home in the Bronx.
“My hands were numb,” Arzu, now 26, tells PEOPLE. “I dropped the phone in the cab.”
Two men her brother had never met tried to pick a fight with him before shooting him 15 times with two different guns, she says.
“This was just 10 days after his 16th birthday,” she says. “We celebrated our birthdays together every year because his birthday is on Sept. 5 and mine is on Sept. 6.”
Reeling from her brother’s senseless death, Nathalie, then a 19-year-old sophomore with dreams of becoming a nurse, dropped out of school.
For a long time, the tragedy was too painful to talk about. She wanted to be alone in her grief.
All that changed when she realized she had a calling: She became an advocate for gun violence prevention and devoted herself to supporting others who have been impacted by gun violence.
“I became my brother’s voice,” she says.
Wanting to do everything she could to make the world a safer place, she returned to college and went on to earn a master’s degree in public health at the State University of New York in Albany.
No longer hesitant to open up about her feelings, she volunteers with Everytown for Gun Safety, a non-profit dedicated to gun violence prevention, speaking to groups about what she has gone through as a survivor: someone whose life was changed forever by gun violence.
“If you identify as a survivor, then we have a support system to let you know, ‘You are not in this alone,’” she says.
Moments That Survive Memory Wall Honors Victims, Survivors
Starting Friday, she will join many others in sharing her story as a survivor when Everytown launches the Moments That Survive Memory Wall, a virtual platform to kick off the first-ever Gun Violence Survivors Week.
Survivors can share their experiences and connect with others who have been impacted by gun violence on the Memory Wall and on social media using the hashtag #MomentsThatSurvive.
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“Gun violence in any form leaves an indelible mark on the lives of those who are affected,” Chris Kocher, Director of the Everytown Survivor Network, tells PEOPLE.
“We are committed to building a movement reflective of all those who have a personal connection to gun violence — whether they have had a loved one die by suicide, homicide, or they have been wounded or witnessed an act of gun violence.”
The week-long campaign, he says, “is a way to shine a spotlight on survivor stories and the ways gun violence affects the lives of all Americans.”
Arzu says that speaking with other survivors has helped her healing process after her brother’s death.
“They understand a part of you that other people don’t always understand,” she says.
Since Arzu has begun volunteering with Everytown and Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, she has spoken to survivors in groups and one on one. When she herself needs an emotional lift, she reaches out to other survivors.
“I have people I can call on and say, ‘Hey, I’m having a tough day’ or whatever the case may be,” she says.
Arzu’s advocacy is only getting started. Her plans include running for local office and maybe one day, for Congress.
“I want to see changes in policy and I want to help survivors,” she says.
If you are a survivor and want to share your story on the Moments That Survive Memory Wall, visit www.momentsthatsurvive.org.
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