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Zuhair Amir Baurak (left) and Sammy Yatim as schoolboys in Aleppo, Syria. (Handout)
Zuhair Amir Baurak (left) and Sammy Yatim as schoolboys in Aleppo, Syria. (Handout)

Sammy Yatim: Caught between two worlds Add to ...

He was a young boy, fascinated with things of old. As a child growing up in Syria, Sammy Yatim spent afternoons with his best friend trolling antique shops, weaving through the markets in search of items that captured their imagination.

With a stomach full from a sandwich or eggs, prepared by his doting mother or by Sammy himself, he and his friend Zuhair Baurak mined the dusty antique shops in search of lighters, perfumes and, especially, knives. For the boys, at the time around 10 years old and close like brothers, it didn’t matter how sharp the knife was, just whether the handle was unique and decorative – sometimes the blade was so dull it couldn’t cut anything; sometimes it was so rusty it fell off the handle completely.

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“On the way home, we would hide [them] so that other people wouldn’t know we were carrying the knives and get scared,” said Mr. Baurak, who left Syria in 2009 for England, where he was reached this week by telephone.

About eight years later, across the globe in Toronto, it was his collection of knives that ultimately, albeit indirectly, caused Mr. Yatim’s demise. Late Friday, July 26, he reportedly pulled out a knife on a Dundas streetcar, setting off panic and spurring passengers to flee, leaving him alone on the streetcar. He didn’t angle it or thrust it at anyone, according to the last eyewitness to interact with him, but held it in his hand as he screamed at other passengers. By the early hours of Saturday morning, 18-year-old Mr. Yatim was dead after police fired nine shots and tasered him.

The story is difficult for relatives and friends to process because his behaviour on the streetcar was so uncharacteristic of the shy and caring boy they knew. Though speculation is swirling about the potential role of drugs or mental health issues, and his cousin and friends acknowledge that he drank and used marijuana, there is so far no obvious explanation for his actions. Several people who knew him well said they did not know of him using hard drugs or having any history of mental illness.

“I don’t know if something… it’s just strange. Honestly, for him to… it’s just so weird. I can’t even, it’s just beyond,” said close friend Sasha Maghami, struggling, like so many others, to comprehend the night’s events, including video evidence that he goaded police with obscene slurs and reports that he exposed his genitals. “I’m rattled. I don’t know what would have possessed him to act that way.”

Mr. Yatim’s passing has galvanized the city around his family – his father Nabil, his mother Sahar Bahadi, a pediatrician, and his 16-year-old sister, Sarah, who among others was wearing a T-shirt that said “Nine shots....?” at her brother’s funeral. The premier and mayor have expressed their condolences, probes have been launched by the Special Investigations Unit and Toronto Police, and a review of de-escalation guidelines has been struck by the Ontario government’s watchdog. Over the course of just 24 hours, more than 30,000 people signed a Change.org petition demanding justice.

Now, one week after his death, those who knew him well are speaking out and a clearer picture is emerging of the young man. In the months leading up to his death, his parents discussed what to do about their son’s unhappiness with life in Toronto, Ms. Maghami said. All the while, though, Mr. Yatim was making half-baked plans to go on the road and leave Toronto – and arguments with his father – behind, Ms. Maghami said. Instead, the teen, who worked at McDonald’s until about six months ago, recently moved with a friend into a family’s apartment.

“He was so excited to turn 19,” said Ms. Maghami, who saw Mr. Yatim a week before his death at Fairview Mall, a hangout spot they frequented in their neighbourhood, to say goodbye before she moved for Australia. “He was excited to grow up. His life was changing. He was growing independent.”

Ms. Maghami said she was enthralled with the shy and “adorable” kid from the moment she first saw him, quickly earning the nickname “Sammy’s girl” for their inseparability. The last time she saw him, he had more facial hair than usual, which prompted her to exclaim, “Oh my God, Sammy, you’re all grown up,” to which he replied, “Yeah, yeah,” and rubbed his face.

He had big dreams: He wanted to own his own hospital – inspired, perhaps, by his mother’s medical career – but he also joked about wanting to get filthy rich owning a cigarette company and plastering his face all over the packages.

Born Nov. 5, 1994, Sammy has been described as a mama’s boy who grew up in a wealthier Aleppo enclave and went to Al Amal, a private Christian school. He went to church on Sundays and his mother’s home was decorated with pictures of Jesus. He played the guitar, listened to Arabic music and swam in the pool at Mr. Baurak’s grandmother’s house.

About five years ago, though, Mr. Yatim’s life appears to have been turned upside down. He left the comfort of his mother’s home and the instability of Syria for a new start in Canada, where his father, a management consultant, has been living for about 30 years. It’s unclear when or where the parents met or if they’re now officially divorced, but undoubtedly Mr. Yatim had trouble adjusting to living with his father. He grew frustrated by things like having to eat frozen pizza every night because his dad couldn’t cook.

Mr. Yatim and his father fought over him smoking pot and drinking hard liquor, but his cousin, Eiad Yacoub, said the troubles were far more deep-seated – that Mr. Yatim resented Nabil because he felt “he wasn’t there to support him.” And his mother, who started fearing for her safety in Syria during the civil war, left the city of Aleppo to be here in part because she felt her son “wasn’t on the right path.” She was worried he was stumbling in his studies and abusing substances, and was considering starting life anew in either Toronto or Montreal, where she has family.

“All she felt was guilt over the things she could’ve done,” Mr. Yacoub said, describing what he witnessed when Ms. Bahar learned her son was dead. “She was crying his name, crying all the things she was feeling – that she was responsible, ‘I shouldn’t have sent him to his father. I should’ve been there. I knew there was trouble.’ ”

Mr. Yatim returned to Syria and his mother during his summer holidays, until about a year ago when the war escalated, but when he was in Toronto, he did his best to fit in with his clique. Ms. Maghami said Mr. Yatim went from being an “Adidas tracksuit kind of guy” to sporting baggy pants, a backward hat, “like all the cool dudes,” and adopting profanities and slang like “yo,” “bitches,” and “pussy” – the latter used, for example, if someone chased a shot of hard alcohol with a sip of a milder beverage.

“It wasn’t a struggle, because people loved him, but he definitely changed his image,” said Ms. Maghami, who met Mr. Yatim at summer school in 2009 before he started at Brebeuf College, an all-boys Catholic high school. (She joked that he did poorly on a summer school math test, despite trying to copy her answers.) “You could see Syria would have been easier.”

Mr. Yatim spoke often of fond memories from Syria. The first time Ms. Maghami met him, she told him she didn’t know what Syrians look like, and he said: “They all look different, but I look the best.”

Emulating his friends may have distracted Mr. Yatim from his schooling. He was always texting on his phone during class and had to borrow other people’s notes at test time, said Joshua Cumberbatch, a Grade 11 biology classmate. At times, he said, Mr. Yatim went to school but skipped class and hung around in the hallways with friends.

“I think he was under some kind of pressure,” said Mr. Cumberbatch. “It looked like he was trying to fit in, but if he would just try to be himself, he would’ve probably done a lot better.”

“He was almost afraid to show us who he was,” echoed Ms. Maghami. “If he was smart, someone may say he’s a nerd and not cool. And he would much rather be cool.”

The last time Mr. Baurak saw his childhood friend was five years ago at the Aleppo airport, when he and two other friends joined Mr. Yatim’s mother and sister in sending him off to Canada. The boys carried him around on their shoulders and tried to enjoy their last few hours together. Mr. Yatim was conflicted about his departure: on the one hand excited about the prospect of a brighter future, and on the other upset at having to leave his friends, Mr. Baurak said.

“It was sad to say goodbye,” Mr. Baurak said of the farewell. “It’s sad to lose someone that you’ll miss and love.”

With a report from Cynthia McQueen

The printed and earlier online version of this story said that Sammy Yatim became an Adidas tracksuit kind of guy who sported baggy pants, a backward hat, and adopted profanities and slang. This online version has been corrected.

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