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Toronto Survivor thanks city and hospitals for support on anniversary of Yonge Street van attack

'Love' is painted on the sidewalk on Yonge St. where victims of last year's van attack were killed. Tuesday marked the one year anniversary of the attack in 2018 that left ten people dead and many more injured after a van was driven down Yonge St. hitting people along the route from Finch Ave. to just south of Empress Ave..

Fred Lum

While Torontonians gathered for a ceremony on Tuesday afternoon marking last year’s van attack, Amaresh Tesfamariam could not leave her hospital room, paralyzed from the neck down. She wore a sapphire blue dress with slippers. Next to her, she kept a battery-powered candle and a bottle of holy water from Jerusalem.

“I always hope to be cured and to be normal,” she says, requiring a ventilator to speak and breathe.

Ms. Tesfamariam, 73, has spent the past year fighting to survive. She is one of the 16 people injured and 10 people killed in the Toronto van attack last spring, which left her quadriplegic. Before the attack, she was working as a nurse and lived alone. Afterward, she spent nine months as a patient at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre, moved to another hospital and has been told she will never be able to move home.

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But Ms. Tesfamariam has always been resilient. During the civil war in Ethiopia ending in 1991, she immigrated to Canada, family friend Adey Worku says. She first settled in Quebec, learned French and put herself through nursing school. She then got a job as a nurse through the City of Toronto and bought her own condo.

Now, her words are few and laboured, but her message is one of thanks. She thanks her nine siblings, who visit and call her from Germany, Ethiopia and Eritrea, where she was born. She thanks her priest, politicians and powers of attorney, and she thanks her family in the United States, from Maryland to Texas, who have put their jobs on hold and left their immediate families to be with her even on Christmas.

“Thanks very much for their help. I really appreciate it,” she says.

After the attack, she received a visit from her priest from an Eritrean Orthodox church, and she often listens to religious hymns in Tigrinya, a language spoken in Eritrea. She also received a visit from federal immigration minister Ahmed Hussen and former Toronto mayor Barbara Hall, who conveyed the city’s support.

“I think that blew her away,” says her niece, Luwam Ogbaselassie, referring to Ms. Hall’s visit.

Her siblings in Eritrea and Ethiopia haven’t yet been able to visit Canada, but they frequently call her for video chats, friend Adey Worku says.

Each May, Ms. Tesfamariam hosts a gathering to celebrate a saint. At the time of the attack, she had already begun preparing Eritrean wine and stew, which she stored in the freezer. Three weeks after the attack, she felt a need to welcome her guests, so she asked her family to host the gathering at her house even though she couldn’t attend. They fed nearly 50 people that day and videotaped it for the absent hostess to watch. She was not upset to miss her own party.

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“I’ve never seen her cry,” Ms. Ogbaselassie says, “and I’ve been with her for the last year.”

On Tuesday, Ms. Tesfamariam was aware of the ceremony on Yonge Street, organized by the city, but she accepted that she would not attend. “I can’t. know I can’t,” she says.

Another one of her nieces, Liah Tesfamariam, who travelled from Dallas, did attend the ceremony.

“I brought one of your scarves,” Liah tells her aunt in the hospital room later that day, “so a piece of you was there.”

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