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posted: 9/26/2013 5:00 AM

Editorial: Out of murder, a story of human values

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  • Love, determination, a commitment to family and selfless efforts of many people throughout the suburbs helped keep Greta Ramirez, left, and her older sister Karen together after a family tragedy.

      Love, determination, a commitment to family and selfless efforts of many people throughout the suburbs helped keep Greta Ramirez, left, and her older sister Karen together after a family tragedy.
    Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

The Daily Herald Editorial Board

When we think "suburbs," a few specific ideas come to mind. We think "schools," for instance. We like to think "safety." We think "community" and "neighborhood" and "home." Perhaps above all, we think "family."

How, then, to find reassurance following something so heinous as murder -- and at that the murder of a mother by her husband and on Valentine's Day, of all days.

It can happen. And it is demonstrated in the lives of Karen and Greta Ramirez.

Daily Herald legal affairs writer Barbara Vitello told the story of the sisters from near Des Plaines in a two-part series this week. In its own right, it is a story of the remarkable resilience of the young and what they can achieve through commitment and determination.

But it is also a story of community and family -- and perhaps something else worth celebrating in the suburbs.

Tragedy devastated the bonds of the Ramirez family on February 14, 2011, when father Heriberto stabbed his wife Alicia to death. Daughters Karen, then 19, and Greta, then 9, were left not only to endure the trauma of their mother's violent death at the hands of their father, but also to fend entirely for themselves as undocumented immigrant children with no income and, legally, no country.

They did have, however, both family and community. For family, they had each other and a steadfast refusal to be separated because of their circumstance. For community, they had the support of compassionate friends and complete strangers, in all a collection of teachers, school administrators, classmates known and unknown, attorneys and even one of the assistant Cook County prosecutors involved in sending their father to prison.

Reflecting on school fundraisers that helped raise money to keep the sisters in their home, Liz Greenberg, Greta's fourth-grade teacher at Admiral Richard E. Byrd Elementary School in Elk Grove Village, described a situation that cultivated something positive from the ashes of tragedy for the girls as well as Greta's classmates.

"This was an event which could really have traumatized them. Instead, it empowered them to be better friends," she told Vitello.

In spite of one of the deepest breaches imaginable in the concept of family, it also helped Karen and Greta gain a closer bond, with each other and with the suburban supporters around them.

People like Greenberg and Admiral Byrd Principal Mary Ellen Esser, who at times welcomed the girls into her home. People like attorney Jeffrey Koppy, a patent attorney who helped the sisters navigate the byzantine networks of the courts and government bureaucracy to stabilize their immigration status. People like Maria McCarthy, an assistant state's attorney who, in the course of prosecuting Heriberto Ramirez, took pity on his daughters and called them to Koppy's attention.

And the cast expands. Ultimately, it sweeps throughout the region, helping us remember that even when actions occur that seem to contradict some of the human values we hold most dear in the suburbs, there is one other worth thinking about that can temper great tragedy.


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