Published by Hycide Magazine
As told to Shara Dae
In February 2003 after serving three previous bids in state prisons, Mohammed T. Anwo was convicted of unlawful possession of a firearm by a felon. Anwo, also known as the infamous Itchie Mu, is waiting out the last few months of his 120-month sentence in Bennettsville federal prison. As an OG in the Newark Li’l City Projects, Anwo was nicknamed “Itchie Mu” to reflect his itchy trigger finger. On the streets of Newark, he was shot by a rival gang member and later witnessed the murder of his closest friend. However, Anwo believes despite the dangers of Li’l City, “time in federal prison exposed me to things nothing the outside world can prepare you for and there aren’t many ways to survive.”
To survive, I had to educate myself and dig deep to figure out who I was without the pressure of the outside world.
The minute I walked into federal prison, I knew everything was gonna change. I was surrounded by enemies and I had to analyze everything really fast and ask myself who do I know and where do I fit in.
In prison there are the black gangs, the Mexican gangs and the white supremacy gangs as well as the Bloods and Crips. No one is safe in the yard. Anyone can be hurt or killed at any time.
Early on I realized, it was different for me though. Most people have to hurry up and get with a side. But everyone knew “Itchie Mu” and my past protected me in prison. I had a family as soon as I got there. But no matter what, everyone has to follow the strict rules of the prison.
At one point, I spent two months straight in the hole. I was thrown into a very small cell for days without seeing or speaking to anyone other than armed guards.
In federal prison it’s harder than anyone can imagine. You are owned. You’re not a person. You are a number. At any time they can lock things down. At lock-down no one can leave their cells for days and the guards search everything you have. If they find anything you are not supposed to have they will definitely put you in the hole.
People make all kinds of weapons out of anything too and hide them everywhere. Guys make shanks out of chicken and turkey bones in here. If they want to hurt you they will find a way. I saw guys stabbed and worse over cigarettes. In here, Cigarettes are more valuable than heroine. Smokes are golden and can be sold for $20 each in here. You can make a lot of money. Many things can make you a target.
My name carries weight, but it can makes me a target too. I was a boxer and in here I have to knock a guy out once and a while to keep people right. Once this new young boy thought he could take me. He was trying to make a name for himself. In here everybody wants to be somebody. He wanted to be the guy who got Itchie Mu. I didn’t want to hurt the kid because I’m a different person now. But I had to fight because if I backed down there would be more guys in line after and I ain’t no punk. So I laid him out and beat him down pretty bad. I had to.
Everyone knows the name, Itchie Mu. But that ain’t me no more. Being in here can open up your eyes to a better way of life. It took me many years to change. I had to educate myself. I found Islam through the Bloods, but like me many of these guys will take the long way home.
Nema Etebar, Working on Wilder
By Shara Dae
Lewis was small in stature. His shirt and pants fit a bit large around the waist and sagged from top to bottom. However, his smile grew large alongside the volume of his voice. The rising pitch of excitement built within him as he watched his new buddy, Nema Etebar, turn the corner of the 2600 block of Wilder Street. He called out, “Nema” with the hopes of being seen. He wanted to be seen first among the neighborhood kids who were also finding solace in paper colors, photographs and plastered hands.
Etebar, in his 30s with long dark hair and kind eyes, greeted the boy, “Hey Lewis, what’s up?” Etebar carried an overflowing messenger bag that unsteadied his balance as he climbed from the seat to the pavement locking his bike to a rusted pole for security. Etebar had been welcomed into the confidence of the Wilder Street residents, a rare commodity there. Nema Etabar knew that Lewis’ block was the perfect place to conduct a new social experiment he was calling Photophilanthropy.
Working on Wilder began as a simple short term social experiment to pick, inspire and beautify a Philadelphia neighborhood in need. Etabar’s idea was originally inspired by JR, a popular French photographer. JR took photographs of rape victims in Sierra Leone then posted them in mural-like images on the walls of the city to help restore the dignity of the victims. Etabar hoped to have a similar warming affect on the people of 2600 Wilder Street who were victims of warring neighborhood gangs. Etabar’s goal was to use his unique technique of wheat paste imagery to honor and bolster the community of Wilder. With only water, plaster, photographs and the offer of new friendships, Etabar would help Wilder in performing its own healing transformation. Etabar intended his experiment to last only the length of the summer of 2008. Yet, soon he learned it would last a lifetime. Thus the project grew, “from planting community gardens, picking up trash, making pictures into a full-fledged artistic and philanthropic success,” says Etabar. The group started calling themselves Photophilanthropy. Yet, the real work of fitting into a community that was so different from their own had yet to begin.
Etebar feared his “stranger” status wouldn’t win him any favor with neighborhood residents, but Tonya Bell was Photophilanthropy’s way into the well-guarded confidence of this ailing community. Every community has its leader. However, 2600 Wilder Street had a champion in Bell. Mrs. Bell would play an integral part in the Wilder Street Project because she herself believed in Etabar’s vision.
Along-side Etebar stands a spectrum of devotees, a skateboarder, a doctor, a singer/song writer and a financial specialist, all working for a common cause. Nema Etabar, although a modest man of 31, is a powerful believer in transformation and the healing attributes of art. He’s half Iranian and half Kentuckian, but he’s also equal parts optimism and creative gun powder. Yet, his tenacity and grace was matched respectfully, by a 3-foot wisp of a child with hopes as big as his eyes. “Lewis was always the first one out to begin the day with us and the last to leave,” Etebar recalled. Some days, Etebar only had to look over at Lewis proudly lecturing his friends about not littering to know that he was no stranger to these children or any more passionate about this community than any of its members. He now knew the power of the number one, in that reaching one child was no less significant than reaching a thousand. To Etebar, his team’s efforts were undoubtedly worth the rainy days on the block with plaster hands and financial worries.
Now active for over 3 years, Photophilanthropy is only one of Etebar’s projects. Between fundraising and photography assignments in India and Africa Etebar stops by to visit 2600 Wilder Street and Lewis as often as possible. The community is still struggling and Etebar is confronted with the reality that he can’t save everyone. Tragically, this past summer while teaching in Hyderabad Etebar learned Lewis was hit by a train as he played on neighborhood train tracks. Lewis survived, but lost his left arm and severely injured his right leg in the accident. Etebar is planning to return to Philadelphia within the next year to help organize a fundraiser to help cover Lewis’s ballooning medical expenses.
Etebar believes that with help, “Lewis can be one of the kids who will grow up to change the world.”
To donate, volunteer or to learn more about The Wilder Street Project and Photophilanthropy visit: http://www.facebook.com/pages/Photophilanthropy/105134848516?ref=ts