Toronto’s inner suburbs have become shorthand for crumbling postwar apartment blocks, underfunded schools or gang warfare. They’re among the neighbourhoods with the lowest incomes in the city, the longest trek to a TTC stop, and the highest concentration of immigrants and visible minorities. This month, we’re sharing stories from Torontonians who live in the inner suburbs, told in their own words. Some are shocking, some tragic, some hopeful. Together, they convey an urgent truth: Toronto is failing too many of its citizens. Have a story of your own? Tweet, Facebook, or Instagram with the hashtag #TorontoIsFailingMe to tell us.
Arsema Berhane, 32
My father, Tsehaie Berhane, fled Asmara, Eritrea, in the ’80s during the war with Ethiopia. He was a professor, and the Ethiopians were targeting professionals. It took seven years for him to be able to sponsor my mother, Mebrat, myself, and my three siblings, Filmon, Nahom and Salem. We all arrived in Toronto in 1990. It was March 14, the day before Nahom’s 10th birthday. For four months we lived in a one-bedroom in a high-rise near Lawrence Avenue and Black Creek Drive. The four kids shared the bedroom and my parents slept on a pullout couch. We’d never been in an apartment building before, and it felt like a prison compared to Asmara, where there were other children to play with and green space all around us. That July, we moved into a community housing townhouse in Victoria Village. There was a big yard, fields, a school across the street and children from many different cultures. It felt like we had finally arrived at the place we’d envisioned for so long. That was an epic moment for us kids.
The O’Connor Community Centre became our second home. We participated in the day camps as kids, and became staff in our teens, tutoring and providing youth and family support for Parks and Rec. Nahom played basketball there and led summer camps. He worked for Access Alliance, serving mostly South Asian and Middle Eastern newcomers in Crescent Town. All of us work in social services now; I’m a community development manager with TCHC.
This past September, Nahom and I attended a United Way City Leaders event at the 519 Church Street Community Centre. Nahom basically had the mike that night, passionately sharing his ideas for how the organization could grow. Afterward, I went home to my house in the Emery Village area and he went east toward his home in Crescent Town. He texted at 11:30 p.m. to say good night, then met a couple of friends at a bar on the Danforth near Greenwood. Around 3 a.m., he left for home. Apparently he encouraged some young guys he knew who were outside to do the same, and that’s when a 23-year-old man he’d never met stabbed him. It was a totally random attack. (The man fled and was arrested the next day.)
At 5 a.m. I was awoken by a call from my brother Filmon’s wife, Beth, who told me Nahom was in emergency at Toronto East General. I dropped to my knees and prayed, but at no point did I think he was dead or that it had to do with a fight. I assumed it was a car accident. Filmon was there when I arrived. He had been to the scene and had Nahom’s blood on him. He told me how Nahom had been stabbed. Filmon was adamant that we not call my parents until we had some information, because he didn’t want them to panic. Three hours passed and no one would tell us anything. It was weird. We finally decided to call our father, and he came to the hospital. Around 10:30 a.m. the doctors and detectives told us Nahom was dead—they had been held up because they weren’t 100 per cent sure it was him on his ID.
That was the first time in my life I heard my father cry. It was piercing; I can still remember it. I just tried to hold it together. At that point I put on my social work hat and became the main contact for the police and media. We went home and broke the news to my mom. She started wailing: “What do you mean my son is dead?”
The initial online conversations claimed Nahom was involved in gangs, which couldn’t be further from the truth. He was a young professional and a contributing member of society. Around 1,500 people came to his funeral, including a number of people Nahom had helped through his work. With his advice, one woman was able to start a small business. Nahom helped one young man develop a music portfolio. He’d created his own vibrant community.
—as told to Anupa Mistry