Hundreds turn out for Rexdale funeral of slain Somali teacher
Some arrived in a school bus, others on foot to Khalid Bin Al-Walid mosque to pray and remember Abshir Hassan.
He looked so small as he approached the too-tall microphone, the young boy dressed head to toe in black, his eyes cast downward.
Standing before the grieving crowd gathered in Lawrence Heights Community Centre Friday night — inside a gym not unlike those where slain supply teacher Abshir Hassan spent countless hours — Ahmedshaw Naimi unfolded his paper and began his speech.
In a quiet voice he spoke a few words, but saying the name of his teacher proved all too much. He stopped, and as Hassan’s grieving family, friends, colleagues, and fellow teachers looked on, he buried his head in his hands.
It’s difficult to know how the young minds Hassan sought to enrich and challenge are processing the sudden death of their teacher — someone who grew up in the neighbourhood, faced many of the same challenges, and had risen above them before his life was ended by violence he was working to curb.
Earlier Friday, following a Muslim prayer service honouring Hassan, 14-year-old Tashayla Price flattened her hands on the back window of the funeral van, and touched her forehead against the glass, peering in at the wooden casket holding Hassan, which had been draped in a yellow and green tapestry.
“He was helping me with my anger,” she said after, her cheeks still streaked with tears.
The 31-year-old teacher was gunned down outside his Lawrence Heights apartment Tuesday morning in what Toronto police say was a random shooting. Hassan was moving his car to avoid a ticket when he was hit by a spray of bullets that also left a 22-year-old man and an 18-year-old woman injured. Police have yet to release information on suspects.
Administrators and teachers, struggling with their own grief, have done all they can to support the students, including opening the school during the summer break to provide a gathering place.
For the young people in the community, said Lawrence Heights Middle School principal David deBelle, it’s both shocking and unsurprising. “They’ve seen this all many times before,” he said, “and chances are they are going to see it again.”
On Friday afternoon, orange school buses lined up outside Khalid Bin Al-Walid mosque, bringing students from Lawrence Heights and other middle schools to the funeral, held in conjunction with the traditional Friday prayers.
Police directed traffic as car after car pulled up outside the Rexdale mosque. Inside, it felt as if mourners had filled every inch of space, packed into the large building’s maze of rooms, then lining the halls. Prayer mats eventually had to be placed outside on the concrete, under the beating midday sun.
“Look how many people we have here today. The mosque is packed,” said a visiting imam who led the service.
He encouraged mourners to take comfort in the overwhelmingly positive things being said about Hassan — “someone who helped people, someone who did whatever he could to support his young brothers and sisters in humanity.”
Natalie Haddrell was a former colleague of Hassan at FedEx, where the young man worked part-time for nearly a decade. She attended prayers because he would have done the same for every single person who was there, she said.
“He never had a bad day. He was just a good person.”
It was as simple as that, so many said.
“He was a good man. The best,” said a colleague.
“He was attentive to his friends, and he had so many,” said a York University professor and former teacher to Hassan.
After first working at the middle school’s after-school program, Hassan was hired last year as a supply teacher at Lawrence Heights and Flemingdon Public School, instructing students from Grades 6 to 8.
Hassan earned a bachelor of arts from York University in 2008. He went on to complete his bachelor of education at York in 2011 and took an introductory course in special education. He was pursuing his master’s degree in education.
Hassan also volunteered with Success Beyond Limits, a community-based organization encouraging youth to finish their education, and worked with the school board’s Somali Task Force to facilitate professional development for teachers and administrators.
At Lawrence Heights Community Centre Friday night, more people flocked to remember Hassan through laughter and prayer — and, for Muslims marking Ramadan this month, the breaking of the daily fast. Many lined up to speak to Hassan’s father, Ahmed Hassan; Hassan’s mother, who lives in Somalia, will make a trip to Toronto in the fall.
“Violence is what we want to root out,” he told the Star earlier Friday, announcing a scholarship in his son’s name that will support young people in need. “We want to bring kids out so they can play and they can be told that they’re loved, and this will be on behalf of Abshir’s vision.”
Co-signed by deBelle, the scholarship fund has already raised $3,000, which CIBC has matched.
Addressing mourners on Friday evening, Imam Ramzy Ajem said to take comfort in the impact that Hassan had made as an educator, someone who has performed the “sacred” act of imparting knowledge.
“If we remember him as a teacher,” Ajem said, “it doesn’t stop here. It continues with his students.”
Later, as Naimi, the young boy dressed all in black, struggled to continue, principal deBelle rushed from his seat, put an arm around him, and encouraged him to go on.
The young boy began again.
“You didn’t deserve to die,” he said.
With files from Tara Deschamps
To donate to the scholarship fund: CIBC Transit #: 01912. Account #: 7916280