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The casket holding the remains of slain Toronto teacher and graduate student Abshir Hassan is carried out of a mosque after his funeral in Toronto on Friday. (Mark Blinch For The Globe and Mail)
The casket holding the remains of slain Toronto teacher and graduate student Abshir Hassan is carried out of a mosque after his funeral in Toronto on Friday. (Mark Blinch For The Globe and Mail)

Teacher shot in the neighbourhood where he wanted to help end violence Add to ...

The loud bangs outside the window are what made Sam Tecle think something was wrong. His friend, Abshir Hassan, had stepped out of the apartment to move his car, while Mr. Tecle and four others waited inside.

But Mr. Hassan had been gone too long. The friends tried calling his phone. There was no answer.

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Then Mr. Tecle spotted yellow tape outside the window and one of the friends ran outside in time to see Mr. Hassan and two others, each suffering from multiple gunshot wounds, being loaded into an ambulance.

The 31-year-old teacher and graduate student had been shot multiple times at close range outside the apartment building where he lived, near Lawrence Avenue and Allen Road. Mr. Hassan was taken to hospital where he died. The two other victims, a young couple aged 18 and 22, are expected to recover.

“It was a quiet night and this wasn’t supposed to happen,” said Mr. Tecle, who met Mr. Hassan in middle school and is also a graduate student at York University’s department of education.

The irony that Mr. Tecle and others who knew Mr. Hassan are now grappling with is that he was gunned down by the kind of violence he tried to prevent. Mr. Hassan was fascinated with identity and the damage caused by stereotypes. Having grown up in Toronto as an academically driven, overachieving Somali youth, he knew first-hand the cost of telling a black immigrant kid who or what he should be.

He chose to live in a modest two-bedroom apartment in the Lawrence Heights neighbourhood, where he grew up, in order to stay close to the students he saw as brimming with potential. He worked as a supply teacher in local schools, including Lawrence Heights Middle School, where he also volunteered his time to an after-school program called Beyond 3:30. (Friends said he would sometimes pass up on paid teaching jobs in order to volunteer with his students at Lawrence Heights.)

On Friday at Lawrence Heights Community Centre, close to where Mr. Hassan grew up and a place where he mentored young students as a supply teacher, mourners filled three school buses and were transported to the the Khalid Bin Al-Walid mosque in west Toronto for Mr. Hassan’s funeral.

At the mosque, dozens who didn’t know Mr. Hassan joined the crowd to pay their respects. Inside, the carpet was barely visible as hundreds of people crowded together over two floors in prayer.

“Life is very short,” said Imam Mohamed Ali, who led the service. “When this life is taken away from you, you will not get a second chance.”

Mr. Hassan devoted his life to helping others. His master’s thesis proposal, submitted shortly before he died, focused on building positive identities for Somali-Canadian youth. He felt that teaching students to be proud of of their heritage and their roots would provide them with some defence against stereotypes and media biases that portrayed Somali youth as troubled drug-dealers and thugs.

That belief was what made him devote so much of his spare time to after-school programs: He believed in the power of role models and he devoted his life to being one.

He wanted to prove that with the right help, any child could succeed.

“It’s a life lost that could have meant so much,” said Carl James, a professor at York and Mr. Hassan’s thesis supervisor.

Police are at a loss for why anyone would shoot Mr. Hassan. All three victims were law-abiding citizens, and investigators have yet to establish a motive.

The shooting happened almost two years to the day after a young father was killed, randomly targeted in the playground at Flemington Public School, up the road from Mr. Hassan’s apartment building. Months later, on the same street, another man was randomly targeted, chased up a driveway and shot to death while out walking his dog.

Random attacks such as the ones that have plagued Flemington Road are rare, according to Staff Inspector Greg McLane, who leads Toronto’s homicide squad.

“Generally speaking, when people are murdered, there’s a motive behind the murder that would be directly linked to the person who was killed: ‘He’s a member of a gang, he insulted my girlfriend, he ripped me off,’ ” Mr. McLane said. “The ones where you have an innocent person like [Mr. Hassan], who was just doing his business and he ends up murdered, those are rare.”

These random acts can involve mental illness or an attempt at intimidating others in the community; they can also involve a case of mistaken identity.

The individuals linked to the 2012 attacks remain in custody and police don’t have any reason to believe that Tuesday night’s violence is connected.

Mr. Hassan was about nine years old when he moved to Toronto from Somalia to live with his father. He had witnessed the violence of war, and spoke very little English. Growing up, Mr. Hassan was eager to learn, always picking up the paper and reading, said his uncle, Hassan Hassan.

“He wanted to educate himself,” he said.

When Abshir got dressed in the morning to go to Flemington Public School, he buttoned his shirt all the way to the collar – and then the cuffs, according to his father, Ahmed Hassan.

“I ask him why and he said, ‘This is the proper way I want to go to school.’ He was 10,” Ahmed said.

And before playing or watching television when he got home at the end of the day, Abshir would sit down with his homework. “Sometimes I pulled him out of his homework to take him to McDonalds to play,” Ahmed said.

That work ethic persisted into adulthood, and as a teacher, Abshir became known for staying after school to mentor students.

His thesis supervisor, Dr. James, describes him as the kind of student every teacher wants to work with: intellectually gifted and eager to give back to his community. “He was very keen on pursuing a PhD,” Dr. James said. “He had so much promise.”

Mr. Hassan was interested in using data collected by the Toronto District School Board to investigate the issue of identity, and how it could be used to help Somali youth. A 2006 study showed that 25 per cent of Somali-speaking students at the TDSB dropped out, compared with 14 per cent over all. Also, fewer students of Somali descent apply to university or college.

These issues consumed Mr. Hassan, and Mr. Tecle said he will miss the late-night text messages he received from his friend on identity, religion and faith. “He would send me a quote or a passage and then he would just expect us to have a full blown conversation on text about it,“ he said. “We would have arguments and debates.”

Follow on Twitter: @katiehammer

 

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