Murdered 19-year-old Burundi refugee made big impact in short time in KC's Northeast

Murishi Sylvestre, a Burundi refugee, was shot and killed Dec. 14 in the Northeast area of Kansas City. Neighbors and friends are raising money to help pay for his burial.
Murishi Sylvestre, a Burundi refugee, was shot and killed Dec. 14 in the Northeast area of Kansas City. Neighbors and friends are raising money to help pay for his burial. Northeast Kansas City Chamber of Commerce

The gunshots woke him up about 11 that night in Pendleton Heights. He’s not sure how many. Maybe five.

There were no screams. Just gunshots that sounded really close, like they were in his backyard.

Jordan Schiele couldn’t see anything when he looked out his bedroom window into the dark.

He didn’t know until the next morning that his friend, 19-year-old Murishi Sylvestre, lay dead nearby.

Sylvestre’s friends still aren’t sure what happened Dec. 14, when he was shot and killed in the parking lot of the apartment building in the Northeast area of Kansas City where he lived with his parents. His killer, or killers, have not been found.

In the six years he lived there, Sylvestre made a singular impression among the refugees that call the Northeast area home.

Because he spoke English, he was a invaluable link between the neighbors and African newcomers who could not speak the language. He sang in his church choir and was writing new Christmas music with his pastor the night he died.

A lot of people knew, too, that Sylvestre was the rock for his parents — Ntahondereye Jean and Nyandwi Josephine — who came to the United States to escape the violence of civil war in their homeland. Because they don’t speak English, he translated. He drove them wherever they needed to go.

Now friends have launched a GoFund Me effort to help pay for his burial. The funeral is Saturday.

“He was a kind and gentle soul that everyone loved. He touched a lot of lives,” said Bobbi Baker-Hughes, president of the Northeast Kansas City Chamber of Commerce, which is assisting with the fundraising.

“It’s been a tough week for many, many people.”

Baker-Hughes lives near the apartments where Sylvestre was killed. She was at the back of her house the night of the shooting and didn’t hear anything until sirens started wailing through the neighborhood.

She couldn’t get close to the scene because of the yellow police tape. But when one of the officers told her that the victim looked like a “good kid,” she said she knew immediately who it was.

“We lost someone who truly understood what it meant to embrace your community,” Baker-Hughes said. “And we lost an opportunity for his family to feel peace, which is what they came to the United States to find.

“I believe that when he left this earthly world, he left all of us with a piece of him.”

Sylvestre attended the African Baptist Church. It’s known informally in the neighborhood as the “Burundi church” because of its members from Burundi, Democratic Republic of the Congo and Rwanda.

Dany Stephen, the church’s pastor, said Sylvestre and his family lived in Congo before they received refugee status and moved to Kansas City in 2009.

Sylvestre graduated from East High School last year and was taking classes at Penn Valley Community College.

“He was a nice guy, smiling, comfortable guy,” said Stephen. “He liked to make friends, he liked to play with the kids.”

And he loved Christian music, the pastor said. He sang, played keyboard, drums and guitar.

Schiele moved to the Northeast area from West Virginia in April 2012. He and his wife run Jerusalem Farm, a Catholic intentional community on Garfield Avenue.

Sylvestre “was one of the first neighbors who really welcomed us to the neighborhood,” Schiele said.

Only a fence separates Schiele’s yard from the apartments where Sylvestre lived.

“He would come over to just hang out in the evenings or whenever he was around,” said Schiele. “He would just stop by unannounced just to say hello. We have an open door policy. He was always welcome.”

Jerusalem Farm coordinates volunteers who help families in the area with home repair projects and garden work. Sylvestre was always willing to help on projects so he could learn — painting houses, installing drywall, laying flooring as he did the week before he died.

Sylvestre introduced Schiele, sometimes as “brother,” to other Burundis living in the neighborhood.

“I felt like I was instantly accepted as family,” said Schiele. “I’ll always be grateful to him for being a bridge.”

The pastor was likely the last person to spend time with Sylvestre the night he died. At choir practice that day, Sylvestre taught the group a new song to sing at Christmas worship.

Then he went to Penn Valley to take his last final exam of the semester. Then he went to Stephen’s house for dinner and to work more on the music.

About 10:45 p.m., Sylvestre got ready to leave. The pastor’s children, who loved playing with Sylvestre, hugged him as he left.

“Bye-bye,” they told him.

A few minutes later, a church member called to tell the pastor that Sylvestre was dead.

Lisa Gutierrez: 816-234-4987, @kcstargazing

Murishi’s funeral

Services for Murishi Sylvestre will be at 10 a.m. Saturday at Iglesia Christian Palabra Viva, 217 Benton Blvd.