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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.

“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.

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