Sallah graduation

Jacob Sallah (left) with his son Malik in 2018. Jacob Sallah was shot to death in Roanoke last October.

The phone rang at midnight.

Malik Sallah was in Kentucky for his first year of college. It was his brother calling, and he was sobbing.

“Yo Malik,” he said. “Dad got shot. He’s dead.”

Sallah had just only recently established a strong relationship with his father, Jacob Sallah, when the immigrant from Gambia was shot to death in late October. Jacob Sallah, 42, had been in and out of prison much of Malik’s life, but the last year or two, they’d become close.

“He was such a good person, he was doing so much better … and when he finally was, he was taken,” Malik Sallah, 20, said. The pain of that loss is what he wants to convey Sunday at an event at William Fleming High School in Roanoke to memorialize victims of gun violence.

“Once you kill somebody, they never come back. That pain on that family will always be there,” he said.

He’ll be one of four victims’ family members telling their stories as part of the Roanoke Remembers event. City leaders will speak, and others will sing, dance or read poetry. The program begins at 5 p.m., but for an hour beforehand, people are invited to post photos and write the names of those they’ve lost to gun violence in the Fleming lobby .

Victims’ families and friends are also invited to submit digital photos for inclusion in a memorial slide show to the city clerk at clerk@roanokeva.gov.

“We hope, through various art forms, to provide a safe space for healing,” Vice Mayor Joe Cobb said. “And I think what’s unique about this is people don’t tend to look to government for healing.”

The event is the first visible work of a gun violence task force recently appointed by Roanoke City Council.

Cobb said the idea for the event was born alongside the idea for the task force, which aims to promote healing and seek preventative solutions to gun violence.

Cobb said the idea was for “some kind of event that would raise awareness and be primarily healing focused and honor those who died and bring the community together.”

“I don’t think we even begin to comprehend the trauma that people live with,” Cobb said.

Malik Sallah expects to gain some peace of mind from being in a community of others who understand what he and his family are enduring.

He didn’t know his father until he was 8, when Jacob Sallah was released from prison the first time. They met, and Malik found out he had four half-siblings — a whole family — he didn’t know about.

For five years his father was free before reoffending.

“Even though he was incarcerated, he always called to see how I was doing,” Malik Sallah said. “He was still a good person, but he just hung out with the wrong crowd.”

When Jacob Sallah was released again about three years ago, he told his brother, “I’m done, I’m going to get right, I’m going to be in my kids’ life.”

And Malik Sallah said he was. Malik is an elite wrestler, and his father always talked to him before tournaments when he couldn’t attend in person.

His senior year at Cave Spring High School, Malik won the state championship in his weight division. His father shouted to anyone who could hear when Malik called with the news: “My boy’s a state champ!”

When Malik graduated, Jacob Sallah was there screaming. He asked his son later, “Did you hear me?”

Jacob Sallah was hanging out in an apartment on Hanover Avenue on Oct. 30 when he and Travis Jarrod Turnage, 37, of Franklin County, whom Malik Sallah calls “Uncle T.J.,” were shot to death.

Dominic Shantae Townes, 30, was arrested the next day and will stand trial on two counts of murder and other charges later this month.

Malik Sallah said all he’s heard about the motive is that there was a dispute between his father and the man who shot them because the man owed Jacob Sallah some money.

Before the arrest, Malik Sallah said, his older brother was vowing revenge on their father’s killer.

“You just need to chill,” Malik said he told his brother. It only makes things worse to end up in jail, he said, “and you’re taking the pain that you have inside and putting it on another family.”

That cycle of violence and vengeance is at the core of too much gun violence, Malik said, and ending it is the thrust of his message .

“A lot of youth nowadays in Roanoke have that thought that, ‘I’m gonna be that man. … I’m gonna be a killer,’ ” he said. “The streets ain’t cool. I’ve been from the streets. The streets ain’t where it’s at.”

He’s now waiting to start his second year at Campbellsville University in Kentucky, where he’s a standout wrestler.

His message for other young men who fancy a life of violence: “You’re bigger than that, you’re better than that. Get an education, get to college. That’s what’s cool …

No matter where you come from, you can better yourself.”

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Matt Chittum covers Roanoke City. A Roanoke native, he’s been at the Roanoke Times for more than two decades, having overcome an inauspicious start with a part-time clerical job.

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