Olivia Carville and Katrina Clarke | Dec. 2, 2014 | Toronto Star
A slain Toronto nurse fled a violent relationship to stay with her two young sons in a safe house while she tried to gain custody of her children last year, according to abused women’s centre Dr. Roz’s Healing Place.
On Saturday afternoon, Zahra Abdille, 43, and her sons, Faris, 13, and Zain, 8, were found dead in the same East York apartment they ran from last July, the centre’s executive director Roz Roach told the Star Tuesday.
Roach said the family stayed in the centre’s shelter for three weeks while Abdille battled for the custody of her children.
During her stay at the centre, the Toronto Public Health nurse went to court twice to fight for custody, but Abdille did not qualify for legal aid and could not afford a lawyer, Roach said.
When Abdille and her sons arrived at the centre on July 10, she told staff she was running away from a long-term violent relationship, Roach, who has a PhD in health and human sciences, said.
Abdille had escaped war-torn Somalia and arrived into Toronto in the late 1990s. She had no family in Canada, Roach said.
Roach says Abdille’s file Dr. Roz’s Healing Place states that she met her partner in 1997 and the couple married a year later in Toronto.
Roach said police would be collecting the Abdille family file from the centre Wednesday morning.
Valerie McRobie, the centre’s child advocate, worked closely with the family and said Abdille was “a very hands-on mother.”
“Her children’s happiness came first on top of everything else that was happening in her life,” McRobie said.
Abdille watched her son’s soccer games and was seen helping the boys with homework during their three-week stay, McRobie said. “She was trying really hard to keep herself and the boys safe and she was going through the legal process but coming up against a lot of roadblocks, she was getting so frustrated.”
McRobie said she can still remember the “bright smiles” of Faris and Zain.
“They always had smiles on their faces and they were happy, happy to be little boys,” she told the Star.
Roach said Abdille was also a “very private woman” who did not want the Somali community to know she was staying in the shelter.
“She was a nurse and she found coming to the shelter had a stigma about it. She didn’t want anyone to know,” Roach said.
The family stayed until July 23 when Roach said they moved into a downtown private rental.
The nurse was last seen at the centre earlier this year collecting mail she had redirected there while she was living in the shelter. Roach said Abdille told staff at the time “everything was going well.”
Roach feared Abdille may have been unable to afford rent in the city’s strained private market and been forced to return to her abusive partner, a situation many other clients from the centre had faced, she said.
“Some of the obstacles these women have to go through are unbelievable. She was devastated when she tried to get interim custody of the kids but she did not get it. For me personally, I get really angry at the system when these things happen,” Roach said.
According to Abdille’s file, which was read out to the Star over the phone, staff at the Ontario Court of Justice on Sheppard Ave. told the nurse she did not qualify for legal aid and that she should speak to a student lawyer for further advice.
She was also told by the court that she needed to provide additional documents, such as income tax returns and receipts for daycare and school camps before her application would be processed, her file states.
“Zahra was a wonderful human being and her sons were two bright boys who we had hope for,” she said.
Faris Abdille was in Grade 8 at Westwood Middle School and principal Marc Sprack told the Star he loved skateboarding and drawing and had an “infectious smile.”
“We’re having a hard time here trying to make sense of a very difficult situation,” Sprack said Tuesday.
Zain Abdille was attending William Burgess elementary, Faris’ old school. Shane Colby, 10, said Faris, who was three years older than him at William Burgess, was always nice to the younger kids and even protected Shane when he was being bullied at school.
“He was a really good guy. He was one of the reasons I could go to Grade 1 feeling safe,” Shane said.
Faris, whose nickname was Faris Wheel, would stand beside Shane when older boys were tying to bully him; the pair would also trade hockey cards, he said.
“He also did really nice things for other people,” Shane said. He’d race the younger students and let them win, “so they could feel like winners.”
“He’s just a great person and life wouldn’t be the same without him. It’s just really sad that he has to go away,” Shane said.
Shane’s mother, Nancy Adderley-Colby, said all the younger boys adored Faris. He graduated from William Burgess after Grade 5, but would come back to the school to visit Zain.
“Just even a few months ago, I went to pick up the kids and there is this buzz of excitement because Faris is there and he’s got this swarm of younger kids around him and he’s playing with them,” Adderley-Colby said.
Both Faris and Zain attended the Danforth Ave. Pat Schulz Child Care Centre as toddlers, director Kristi Bovaconti said.
“They were that family that reached out and wanted to talk to you and tell you how much they appreciate everything you’re doing for them,” Bovaconti said. “They just loved being here.”
In the years following, Abdille regularly kept in touch with Bovaconti — the two women spoke just a week ago. Abdille sounded like her upbeat self, Bovaconti said.
“She was just really happy and friendly and just a lovely, lovely person,” Bovaconti said.
Toronto police remain tight-lipped about a possible connection between a man who fell to his death from a bridge over the Don Valley Parkway and the triple homicide. Police discovered the bodies of Abdille and her two sons a few hours after finding the man’s body.
On Tuesday afternoon, Toronto police Const. Clint Stibbe said traffic services have not yet identified the man.
With files from Scott Colby