Eritrean community in Toronto unites in grief over loss of Nighisti Semret
In the Cabbagetown alleyway once soaked with rain and stained with blood, mourners shed tears and whispered prayers in Tigrinya for the ghost they called Nicky.
Few, if any, knew Nighisti Semret, the middle-aged Eritrean refugee so brutally, mysteriously, stabbed to death on her way home from work earlier this week.
But in the days since her death, local Eritreans have been searching for any fragment of the quiet refugee’s story. Many say they empathize with her lonesome path to Canada, where she was determined to one day reunite her family, scattered thousands of kilometres away.
“Even though I personally didn’t know her, you still feel a connection,” said Juwaher Yusuf, 23, whose parents fled war-torn Eritrea in the 1980s. “Her story is our story.”
Friends say Semret, 55, left Eritrea decades before arriving in Toronto in 2010, possibly travelling to Sudan and as far south as Uganda.
Her path out is a well-travelled one. The United Nations estimates more than 250,000 people — about five per cent of the country’s population — have fled Eritrea, escaping war, poverty and corruption.
For decades Eritrea struggled for independence from neighbouring Ethiopia in a bloody, decades-long civil war that ended with its own flag in 1991. Since then, however, the country has been gripped by the dictatorial rule of President Isaias Afewerki.
Under one of the most repressive governments in the world, the tiny east African nation has become one of the most militarized and least developed countries on the continent, enforcing indefinite national or military service for men and women aged 18 to 50. As a result, the country’s pre-independence refugee crisis has persisted as Eritreans move to escape.
Canada has been an asylum for fleeing Eritreans since the 1970s, according to a 2001 study funded by Citizenship and Immigration Canada. During the 1980s, many arrived as permanent residents through a UN-backed government resettlement program, first filtering through Ethiopia, Sudan or Kenya.
In 2006, Statistics Canada reported more than 5,000 Eritreans in Canada. Since then, Canada has granted permanent residence to roughly 3,000 more and received 3,615 Eritrean refugee claims. Berhane Kidane, a youth mentor at St. Michael’s Eritrean Orthodox Church, said Semret was privately sponsored in 2010 by a Winnipeg friend, one of 2,014 Eritreans who submitted sponsored applications that year.
In Toronto, the Eritrean population is scattered from the Bloorcourt neighbourhood, along a strip of Bloor St. near Ossington Ave., to the St. James Town highrises and Cabbagetown, where Semret lived in a city-run women’s rooming house until her death. To serve the sprawling settlement, there are two community centres and at least four churches across the city — a geographical spread that has hampered attempts to unify the young community.
More than geography, however, Toronto’s Eritreans are also divided along political lines, between nationalists who support their country unequivocally and those critical of the repressive Afewerki regime.
“It’s a fractured scenario,” said Daniel Tsegay, 39, a musician and youth worker at the Eritrean Canadian Association of Ontario in Bloorcourt.
Among the crop of younger Eritreans to run from Afewerki’s rule, Hagos Hagos, 30, reflected on the situation at home with a mixture of anger and despair. Many of his family members still live in the country he was forced to flee.
When he was a teenager, Hagos said, he was arrested by government forces and jailed for two months for his Christian beliefs. (Eritrea is divided between Muslims and Christians, mostly Orthodox, in disputed proportions.) In 2004, afraid for his life, he left the country and spent four years in Sudan as a refugee.
Six years later, Hagos found himself in Toronto, working briefly for the same cleaning company as Semret. The pair talked together of their lives in Eritrea, with Semret expressing a wish to someday bring her teenage children to Canada.
His mother and sisters still live in Asmara, the capital, but Hagos said he will never return.
Earlier this year, a United Nations report accused Eritrea’s Toronto consulate of forcing expatriates, through harassment and bullying tactics, to pay a 2 per cent “diaspora tax” to bankroll its military.
Though it garnered international criticism, the diaspora tax controversy drew a line in Toronto’s Eritrean community between those who saw the tax as a necessary “state-building” tool and those who saw it as an extension of an oppressive regime that many had chosen to leave behind.
In September, under pressure from Canada’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the consulate agreed to stop collecting the tax. The consulate could not be reached for comment by deadline, but Aaron Berhane and other community members, who asked not to be named for fear of reprisal, said the tax is still being collected.
“The Eritrean government is the worst government in the world, a government that abuses its own people,” said Berhane, a journalist and outspoken critic of the regime who fled Eritrea for Canada in 2001. “(It’s) failing its people.”
Tsegay, who arrived in Toronto from Ethiopia as a 15-year-old refugee and has never stepped foot in his ancestral homeland, acknowledged the Eritrean government is “not perfect” — indeed, Transparency International ranked the country a dismal 2.5 out of 10 in its corruption perceptions index last year.
But he said the vicious criticism within the diaspora community tells only half the story. The sentiment is visible at his community centre’s Bloor St. basement headquarters, where Eritrean flags and posters proclaiming independence hang from the walls and ceilings.
“We’re the first ones to admit that Eritrea is not there yet,” Tsegay said of a younger generation of Eritrean immigrants. “But we believe that the due process (of reforming) at its own pace has to be respected. When was the last time you heard how many schools were in Eritrea, how many hospitals?”
While political in-fighting has fostered mistrust, the public mourning of Semret’s death has given Toronto’s Eritreans a reason to band together.
“The community, in a political sense, is divided. There’s no doubt about that,” Berhane said. “When something is apolitical, though, people will still collaborate with each other.”
At St. Michael’s Eritrean Orthodox Church, a white brick building on Jane St. near St. Clair Ave., congregants are hosting a four-day, open-door memorial.
The Eritrean Canadian Association of Ontario is planning its own mourning. More than 200 people attended a hastily arranged vigil Thursday in Cabbagetown, where a small maple tree was planted as a more permanent memorial.
Semret’s husband, who is in contact with a church member, is making arrangements to travel to Toronto, said Kidane, the church youth worker. It’s not clear whether the husband will travel from Uganda, where police have said they contacted members of Semret’s family, or from South Africa, where he is working. Kidane said it’s likely there will be delays, as he needs to obtain a visa.
Meanwhile, St. Michael’s is accepting donations for Semret’s funeral, here or in Africa. Toronto Centre MP Bob Rae, whose constituency is blocks from where Semret was killed, told the Star his office has stepped in to help her family.
In Cabbagetown, police have stepped up patrols and are calling on residents to check their properties for the murder weapon.
For now, as police continue to search for Semret’s killer, the Eritrean community grieves the loss of someone whose story remains unknown — but entirely familiar.
With files from Jennifer Pagliaro,thestar