Eritrean in Toronto mourn during Nighisti Semret’s funeral service
It was an overwhelming outpouring of grief for a woman no one really knew.
Hundreds of members of the Eritrean community crammed into St. Michael’s Eritrean Orthodox church, near Jane St. and St. Clair Ave. W., to pray for Nighisti Semret, who was brutally murdered in Cabbagetown last month as she walked home from work early one morning after ending an overnight cleaning shift at the Delta Chelsea Hotel.
Many at the church Sunday afternoon had never met Semret, a hardworking woman who arrived in Toronto two years ago as a refugee from Eritrea. But as Semret’s body was blessed by a priest during the hour-long service, the mourners cried and prayed for their “sister” whose search for a better life was unjustly cut short.
“Our dear cousin Nighisti … had been roaming country to country, from city to city always in search of a better life for her and for her four children,” said Rahwa Yemane, one of Semret’s cousins who came from the U.S. to take part in the service.
“Nighisti is the symbol of human beings who face so many dangers and difficulties, finding their death in lonely dark streets of cities like Toronto,” she said. Her husband Augustus Ntahobali, was unable to make it to the funeral. He is trying to get a visa to come to Toronto later this month.
Her cousins said they had lost touch with Semret years ago, and didn’t even know she had come to Canada until they read about her horrific death online. But they recalled that hers was a life full of struggle. Her parents died when she was young and she was raised by her family. She attended an Italian school in Asmara, Eritrea and eventually went to South Africa where she married and had children. Her life after that was a mystery to them.
And it remained so, to everyone else, said boss and co-worker Frida De Paz who also attended the service. “She was a private person. I don’t think anyone knew who she really was,” said De Paz, who worked with Semret at Andorra Building Maintenance, the company that contracts out cleaning services to the hotel.
Semret, 55, was known to live a simple life, spending much of her time between her work and a rooming house, where she lived with other women. And at work, even though Semret was reserved, she fought for her rights and recently as a supervisor, asked for a raise for her team. “She was something else,” said De Paz.
Since her death, her co-workers haven’t been able to forget about her, said De Paz. “I can still hear her whistling. That’s how she announced her presence in a room,” said De Paz, the tears streaming down their cheeks. “And every day since she died, her crew saying they keep waiting to hear that familiar whistle in the halls.”
Another cousin, Messelesh Geberesilasie Simret, said her family wants to see justice served.
“She was stabbed with a knife so many times. She didn’t deserve it. It’s so horrible. Why did this happen?” said Simret. “She was just trying to live her life, like everyone else,” she said. “We are confident that the person who did this will be caught.”
Her killer remains at large. Thirteen officers with the Toronto police’s homicide squad have sifted through hundreds of hours of security footage, releasing videos and slide shows to the public. Police said earlier this week that they believe that the suspect is familiar with the area, and may have a limp.
At the end of the service Sunday, the family thanked the community for their outpouring of love for their cousin.
“Nighisti is blessed to have found you. Thanks to you she has been loved and respected in her death,” said Yemane. “May her soul now find the peace she deserves.”
The community has rallied together to raise funds to pay for her funeral costs and sending money to her children back home. This weekend, Semret’s former employer held a fundraiser to help raise money. Toronto Centre MP Bob Rae, who was also at the service, said his office will be contributing to help with the funeral costs. The community is hoping to eventually send her body back home to Africa to be buried.