Eritrean Nighisti Semret, mother of 4, Stabbed to death in Cabbagetown, Toronto
Nighisti Semret arrived in Canada two years ago, an Eritrean refugee determined to raise enough money to eventually reunite with her four children still in Africa.
On the overnight shift at the downtown Delta Chelsea hotel, she worked tirelessly cleaning floors and kitchens, and eventually asking and being tapped for a supervisor position. Semret was private, but feisty and ambitious. And always the first to get to work and the last to leave, shaken colleagues said Wednesday.
“She was like a lot of our workers, she came to start a life,” said Frida De Paz, who worked with Semret at Andorra Building Maintenance, the company that contracts out to the hotel.
After staying past her 6:30 a.m. shift Tuesday to clean up the storeroom, then leaving after one worker encouraged her to go home and rest, Semret, 55, headed north up Yonge St. in the rain to her nearby Cabbagetown rooming house. She was just 100 metres shy of home when she was stabbed to death in an alleyway — a popular neighbourhood shortcut near Ontario and Winchester Sts.
Disturbing security camera footage released by police Tuesday shows Semret passing through the laneway holding an umbrella, trailed by a man with his right hand tucked into a dark coat, clutching what police believe to be the kitchen knife that killed her.
Witnesses, alerted by Semret’s screams at about 7 a.m. Tuesday, rushed to her aid and saw her attacker stab her no less than 10 times. One eventually intervened, using an umbrella to knock the knife out of the man’s hand, causing him to flee.
Det. Sgt. Gary Giroux said Wednesday the fatal blows had been delivered by then. Semret was the 43rd homicide victim of 2012 in Toronto.
Semret, who went by the nickname Nicki, lived alone at the socially-assisted women’s home, in a cramped room big enough to fit a few belongings. She shared a kitchen and bathroom with another tenant.
While she kept to herself, she would occasionally joke with the other women and fill the kitchen with fragrant smells from traditional African dishes.
“Nicki would give you the shirt off her back if she could,” said longtime tenant Joan Bell, 59. “She didn’t deserve this.”
Friend Saba Belay, 35, said Wednesday that Semret, a proud woman, often avoided inviting visitors to her rooming house. She didn’t have an easy life, said Belay. Her parents died when she was young. While it’s unclear why she fled Eritrea, the small country in the horn of Africa is ruled by one of the most repressive regimes in the world.
While members of Toronto’s close-knit Eritrean community said Semret was not well-known because she hadn’t been in Canada long, a local Eritrean church offered to pay for her funeral with funds from the community.
“It’s really sad, especially an innocent woman who was just working so hard to bring her family here,” said Berhane Kidane, a youth mentor at St. Michael’s Eritrean Orthodox Church. On Wednesday night he was making posters to put up in local restaurants, urging people who knew Semret to offer information.
A former co-worker at Andorra said he believed Semret had lived in Uganda for several years before coming to Canada, and local Eritreans said Wednesday they thought at least one teenage child remained in the country and were working to contact family. Belay, however, said that Semret, who didn’t talk much about her husband, didn’t know where her kids were.
Police made the rare move Wednesday morning of identifying Semret, after fruitless attempts to find her next of kin, despite having contacted her employer and immigration officials.
Giroux said police believe Semret’s killer “lives, frequents and is known to the Cabbagetown and Regent Park area.” He said the same person may have panhandled or snatched purses in the area because it is unlikely the suspect would escalate to stabbing without prior incidents.
“Someone in that particular area knows who this person is,” said Giroux, who added that police are talking to local homeless shelters like Seaton House.
Giroux said it was possible the attack was random and there wasn’t any evidence to suggest the suspect and victim knew each other.
The suspect is described as a white male, between 5-foot-10 and 6-foot-2, 150 to 200 pounds with a medium build.
He was wearing a dark, long coat with buttons and a white scarf or garment around his neck, along with a dark hat, pants and shoes.
Officers at 51 Division set up a community vehicle near the scene of the crime, where anyone with information could speak with investigators. And police beefed up their presence in the area while the suspect remained at-large.
“Everybody feels very disconcerted,” said Sonja Scharf, 51, who has lived in Cabbagetown for a decade and walks her dog through the alleyway where Semret was killed everyday. “I’m trying to stay out in the open.”
Wednesday night, a group of Eritrean women, who didn’t know Semret personally, gathered at the site of the stabbing, weeping as they prayed for her.
Above the vigil, written in chalk on the brick wall, a message read: “Justice for who are victims of violence.”
With a file from Alex Consiglio