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The Globe and Mail

Cabbagetown community grieves for slain neighbour

Images from surveillance footage show a male suspect walking behind Nighisti Semret on the morning she was stabbed to death. =

Toronto Police

Following the savage and seemingly random slaying of Nighisti Semret as she walked home from work, Cabbagetown residents are grappling to find ways to deal with the senseless violence that has shaken their neighbourhood.

Already, there have been two vigils in memory of Ms. Semret on Wednesday and Thursday night. About 70 people attended the first impromptu vigil, and about 250 people showed up for the second one during which an Emperor Japanese maple tree was planted in Ms. Semret's name. Another vigil was held Friday evening by Toronto's Eritrean Youth Collective.

Nighisti Semret, 55, an Eritrean refugee who came to Canada in 2010, was stabbed several times in a laneway just a few short steps from her home on Winchester Street. The fatal attack appears to have been random as Ms. Semret is not known to have enemies, she has no criminal record and nothing was stolen from her.

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"I feel like I'm going to be haunted for the rest of my life," said Kathleen Dinwoodie who awoke to the sound of Ms. Semret's screams just before 7 a.m. Tuesday. "I realize now that every time I heard that guttural screaming, he must have been stabbing her."

Ms. Dinwoodie caught a glimpse of the killer from her balcony as he fled after another witness confronted him.

Police say the attacker is somebody who lives in the area and is very familiar with it. Long-time residents say it's the worse example of violence they have been touched by in their neighbourhood. But vigil organizers Karen McArthur and Samantha Thornton refuse to be scared by the random act of violence in what has otherwise been a safe and peaceful community.

"You've chosen the wrong place to try to get your jollies off, if that's what you're doing," Ms. McArthur said, sending a message to the perpetrator. "Don't come back here. This is our safe haven. This is our home. Turn yourself in to the police."

Ms. Thornton said she is a little on edge, but she still feels safe. Both women speak passionately about Cabbagetown. They have lived here for about 20 years and say that, despite Cabbagetown's economic, racial and sexual diversity, the community is tightly knit and very friendly.

There are varying stories of how Cabbagetown got its name. Some say it's because Irish immigrants who moved here circa 1850 grew cabbage on their front lawns. Others say the area reeked of the smell of cabbage because the immigrants cooked so much of it. The area experienced a revitalization in the 1970s, but it has maintained many of its Victorian-era homes.

Today, Cabbagetown is a diverse mix of single professionals making more than $100,000 a year, working-class service providers and economically depressed people living in rooming houses like the one in which Ms. Semret, a hotel cleaner, lived. The number of families is growing, as is condominium construction.

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Homeowners often witness things they would rather not see in their neighbourhood like drug dealing and prostitution. Ms. Thornton, a property manager, said a man came out of a rooming house with a large meat cleaver about three weeks ago while she was in a park with her children. He was threatening to kill anybody who came near him and Ms. Thornton had to call 911. Police came quickly and nobody was hurt.

Ms. McArthur, a litigation lawyer, said she has had to tell drug dealers to do their business away from schools and youth clubs.

The women – both mothers – are not afraid to approach people engaging in criminal activity to take their business away from children's noses. Some of the dubious characters come from Regent Park immediately to the south and St. James Town to the north. But the women say the people from the adjacent neighbourhoods generally mind their own business.

"They are so respectful. They even apologized," said Ms. Thornton of people who moved when she asked them not to drink in the park.

They also look out for people who may have overdosed on drugs or alcohol and may be in need of medical help.

"We really are a Good Samaritan kind of people," said Ms. McArthur on behalf of the entire neighbourhood. They wanted to hold the vigils because they want to find ways to heal after losing a neighbour, even though they never met Ms. Semret, who worked night shifts.

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"The vigil that we put together that was slapdash at the last minute and the amount of people that attended, and the tribute that we paid to her with the tree really drives home that we are a village and we can be safe if there's a crisis or a tragedy," Ms. McArthur said.

Ms. Thornton said she has even contacted police to help her arrange a funeral for Ms. Semret, cremate her body and send her ashes back home if her family desires. The community has also got the ball rolling on starting a trust fund for her family – a mother, brothers and four grown children.

"She was one of us. She was part of our community," Ms. Thornton said. "The least we could do as her neighbours and as a community was do this for her and show her family that. They're probably thinking Toronto's horrible, Canada's horrible because of what happened. But that's not the case."

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