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‘He was the community’s Yore’: An impact for years to come
May 25, 2023
This series examines the life, death and impact of Yore Jieng. The reporting for this article was original and conducted by a team of reporters from Iowa State University from March until May. Submit tips regarding Yore Jieng at Crime Stoppers of Central Iowa.
The sanctuary of Capitol Hill Lutheran Church is illuminated as a single candle flickers.
A woman cries as she lights the candle in memory of her daughter’s fiancé. In the midst of her sorrow, she feels Lory Kuon’s arm wrap around her.
The Rev. Minna Bothwell witnessed Kuon, Yore Jieng’s mother, console the grieving woman. It was a moment Kuon had experienced before. Just before she walked the mother back to her seat, she lit her own candle in memory of her son Yore.
Although the pair of mothers shared a small moment of pain together in a more intimate setting, the church was once filled with over 600 people whose wails and screams echoed off the Capitol Hill walls in mourning for Yore’s death.
The church was swarmed with family, friends, classmates and community members grieving the loss of an integral piece of the community.
“The support that we got from the school, the community, the city and the churches he went to was incredible,” said Gideon Paul, Yore’s uncle and Capitol Hill lay minister. “He wasn’t our Yore anymore. He was the community’s Yore.”
Yore was the heartbeat of his community, and when he died, those around him felt the loss. He was an active participant in his school and neighborhood. Yore and his family attended Capitol Hill Lutheran Church for Sunday service, and he was also active at Zion Lutheran Church in their youth programming.
He was an energetic member of the community taken too early, and following another gun-related death in the Des Moines area, those around him have worked to make sure Yore’s memory lives on.
“He was really sweet, really generous.” Bothwell said. “He was very funny and just didn’t care about what other people thought of him. He was just very true to himself, and I think that’s pretty rare to come by as a kid his age.”
At Yore’s funeral, Bothwell wrote the sermon in English and Yore’s uncle, Paul, translated the service into Nuer to include all of the South Sudanese attendees.
“It was the school, the neighborhood and the church coming together that really, I think, made a difference not only for his family, but for the young people that were close to him as well,” said Teree Caldwell-Johnson, CEO of Oakridge Neighborhood, where Yore and his family lived.
Many family members and classmates from Roosevelt High School visited the hospital shortly after Yore was shot. Generations of his community sat in silence waiting for news.
Yore’s wake was impactful for the attendees, especially Emily Burroughs, a former social worker at Roosevelt.
“It was a warm day, and I remember walking up to the church – the doors of the church were open – and I could hear wailing and screaming from blocks away,” Burroughs stated in an email. “I was told that culturally, wailing is a part of grief and honoring the dead. It was unnerving to me, and I felt like I could barely breathe listening to the pain and screams.”
Bothwell worked alongside Kevin Biggs, the principal of Roosevelt at the time, to help aid the family in any way possible during the difficult days following the shooting. The church assisted in setting up a vigil for Yore at the school, and multiple faculty members were present from Yore’s time in the hospital to his funeral.
Burroughs was among the group of faculty that arrived at the hospital in the aftermath of the shooting. She had spent time with Yore in the counseling office throughout the school year, and she became accustomed to sending him home with a bag of popcorn before he boarded the bus after school.
The night Yore was shot, Burroughs received a call from a Roosevelt school resource officer, and she arrived at a hospital waiting room filled with family, community members and Roosevelt students.
“It was chaotic, and I remember feeling a huge weight as I looked around and saw multi-generations of his community sitting in silence waiting for news,” Burroughs stated.
As the Jieng family waited for news following the shooting, Roosevelt’s halls filled with concerned students. Yore and his sisters were well-known in the school, and when the shooting took place, many had a difficult time processing how the event could have even happened.
“[Yore] wasn’t a student, like a typical student that you would think of, that would be caught in that type of situation,” Ryan Williamson, who worked as a Roosevelt counselor at the time, said. “He wasn’t, you know, one of the super hyper, super exposed [students…]. He just kind of did himself.”
“It was more awe,” Williamson said. “It was like, ‘Are you kidding me? Are you sure you got the right person?’ because it just didn’t make a whole lot of sense.”
The mood at Roosevelt was somber in the five days Yore stayed in the hospital, and when he died, the student body immediately felt his absence. Yore’s death had an impact on Roosevelt students, even ones who were not fully acquainted with the family.
“We had a lot of traffic coming into the office,” Williamson said. “I can remember a student who really had nothing to do with [Yore]; I don’t even think she and Yore ran in the same circles, but I can distinctly remember a conversation about her and a grandparent passing away. She was swirling about everything else that was going on, and this is the trauma that popped up.”
Yore and his family lived in the Oakridge Neighborhood, which is permanent subsidized rental housing in Des Moines. Many of the individuals who live in the Oakridge Neighborhood are refugees and immigrants. A number of people living in the community are still associated with Yore’s family.
The Oakridge Neighborhood had been approached by the Des Moines Public Art Foundation to participate in an initiative to revitalize public spaces in ethnically diverse and low-income areas.
The foundation commissioned Des Moines native artist Jordan Weber to design a mural in remembrance of Yore. He designed the mural for the neighborhood’s basketball court in honor of Yore’s love of basketball and the potential he had. Yore wears the titled Nubian crown and a Lakers jersey. The mural covers Oakridge’s basketball court, between the Community Center and the Variety Center. This mural was completed in 2021 and named “King Yore I.”
Caldwell-Johnson said several of Yore’s friends worked together with Weber to design the concept for the basketball court and then participated in painting the mural alongside the artist. It was a combination of Weber and his hired artists, along with the community’s young people, who not only designed the mural but brought it to life.
Weber then designed a second mural in honor of Yore and his tragic death. “King Yore II” was completed in 2022 and is located on the side of an Oakridge Neighborhood building. In this piece, a crown is surrounded by Sudanese plants and flowers, which represent nature’s ability to heal the body from stress and trauma, according to an article by Little Village.
“King Yore II” faces the Blank Children’s Hospital on Center Street, where Yore took his last breaths.
Gun violence has become an epidemic in America. Firearms are the leading cause of death for children ages 1-19 in America as of 2020, according to Everytown for Gun Safety. In Iowa, it is the second leading cause of death.
“It could be anyone for any reason. I think that is what is so unsettling about this – that in broad daylight, at an open intersection, where people drive through all day long, right next to where people are taking their loved ones to the hospital, this happened,” Bothwell said. “Next to Methodist Hospital, as they were driving to get supper, somebody opened fire, shot and killed a 14-year-old boy and was never caught. It is unfair and it’s unjust, and that is so unsettling for all of us.”
Nationally, in 2016, the year Yore was killed, 3,154 teens ages 12-17 were killed or injured by gun violence. In 2022, 1,367 teens were killed, and another 3,806 were injured, totaling 5,173. This was a 64.014% increase over six years in America, according to Gun Violence Archive.
In Iowa, the rate of gun deaths has increased by 59% from 2012 to 2021, according to Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund. The state of Iowa has the 41st-highest rate of gun deaths in the U.S., and in an average year, 323 people die by guns in Iowa.
“We want justice for his family, and we hope that the person who did this is not going to do it again,” Bothwell said. “Shootings in Des Moines have been on the rise.”
As an example, Bothwell mentioned a shooting she said was between two Nuer communities, Chie Chaany and Chie Waw, during a vigil for Yore at a church he once regularly attended.
The Chie Chaany community is mostly based in Iowa and is the group Yore, Paul and the rest of their family are in. The Chie Waw community is mostly based in Nebraska, Paul said.
Paul believes there is an issue of Sudanese violence not being reported on enough in America.
He said the violence that happens in their home country, South Sudan, carries over to America, especially between the Dinka and Nuer groups. He is the chair of the Iowa South Sudanese Union and said they are working to try and bring light to the violence between the groups. Paul wants to acknowledge that what happens in South Sudan can affect the violence the refugees and their families suffer from in America. He believes that if more people understood this, the U.S. government may also acknowledge the issue and step in.
“It [the lack of reporting on South Sudanese violence in the U.S.] may be contributing to the problem because here we want to talk about the root of the cause,” Paul said. “We need to let everybody know, [and] then maybe they will have a good idea of why we kill each other or why we are fighting every day so we can tell the government.”
Another violent event injured a two-year-old at his home in a drive-by shooting. Paul and Bothwell believe the shooting between the two South Sudanese groups at Yore’s vigil at Zion Lutheran Church could have sparked a larger cultural rift, leading to the shooting where toddler Malcolm Mai was shot in the head.
Some community members theorize that these shootings are related.
To help raise awareness regarding the issue of violence in the community, Yore’s sister, Nyeduel Jieng, and Yore’s cousin, Rina, started a grassroots fundraiser project called Score4Yore. The event consists of a basketball tournament hosted in honor of Yore to celebrate his love of the sport. The Capitol Hill Lutheran Church gives a stipend every year to help support the event.
Score4Yore takes place in different facilities and is typically held in the spring. This year it will be in June, and the hosts are inviting different non-profits to speak about the issue of violence in the community and how to help stop it. Images of children who have lost their lives to violence will be shown, and their families will be invited to speak.
Funding goes toward having the nonprofits speak and renting out the facility.
Score4Yore has a Facebook page for all information regarding the event.
“As far as we know, no one is continuing to do the work to investigate, but we still hold vigils; we still have the Score4Yore event,” Bothwell said. “These events continue to show up in the media, and we hope that somebody will see them and something will come to light. It reminds the community that we are not forgetting. We will always remember Yore and seek justice for his family. We pray that the person who committed this murder does not do it again.”
Read part one of reporting on Yore Jieng’s life.