Haile Selassie’s pilot, friend to Eritrean refugees, husband, father. Born Aug. 21, 1941, in Hebo, Eritrea, died March 28, 2013, in Toronto of complications from a fall, aged 71.
Captain Keflimariam Mahari was best known in Canada for his generous help to hundreds of Eritrean and Ethiopian newcomers. He spoke excellent Italian and English, and acted as a bridge to the general community for these new Canadians. He located homes and apartments for them, spoke to citizenship officials and court authorities on their behalf, and found job openings as well as social and church affiliations.
Kefle was born in the village of Hebo near Asmara in Eritrea 71 years ago. Educated in Italian schools, he moved to Addis Ababa at age 14 to finish high school before being admitted in 1956 to the pilot training course of Ethiopian Airlines. His flying career took him to Seattle for a special Boeing training program in 1965.
His talent for languages and aviation led to his appointment as the private pilot for Emperor Haile Selassie.
Some of Kefle’s illustrious passengers, of whom he always retained wallet photos, included Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, Golda Meir, the Shah of Iran and numerous other world leaders.
In Addis Ababa, he also taught aspiring Ethiopian pilots and was a student mentor to the future military dictator of Ethiopia, Colonel Mengistu.
Mengistu’s coup in 1974 saw the abolition of the monarchy and the executions of Haile Selassie and his family and most of the royal entourage and cabinet.
In 1980, Kefle fled the country to neighbouring Sudan, and came to Canada in 1983. Eventually, his son Kirubiel joined him.
In the early 1980s, the Eritrean community in Toronto was just a few dozen people. However, Kefle’s previous role as the emperor’s pilot was well known, and the Italian-speaking community generally referred to him as Capitano.
He made his way successfully in Toronto because of his fluency in Italian and English. He arranged jobs with Italian-Canadian employers and homes with Italian-Canadian landlords for his African proteges. One proprietor was so grateful to “il Capitano” for filling his latest building with good tenants that he named it after a province in Ethiopia from which most of the tenants came.
Kefle found that the name Mario suited him better in Canada, and only his compatriots knew his original name.
He found work in the Ontario court system as an interpreter in three languages – Italian, Amharic and Tigrinyah. He was also a courier driver, but remained on permanent call to help anyone who needed a new home, job or documents. All his aid was given freely, even after he later underwent treatment for emphysema, followed by a double lung transplant in 2006, which extended his life for several years.
Kefle died March 28 after spending eight months in different Toronto hospitals due to a severe fall from which he never recovered. He is survived by his son in Toronto, his ex-wife and daughter in Washington, D.C., and three grandchildren.
Overflow crowds attended his funeral, attesting to his vital role in assisting hundreds of people settle in the Greater Toronto Area.
Joshua Goldhar was Kefle’s friend.