‘Support didn’t show up’: Toronto woman’s death comes as support services slashed

The Shahdady family home in Scarborough, where Shaher Bano Shahdady lived in the basement with her husband, Abdul Malik Rustam, before moving out with the couple's two-year-old son. Barely a month later, friends gathered here to offer her parents their condolences on Ms. Shahdady's death.
(Photo by Anna Mehler Paperny, Globe and Mail)

Tuesday, Aug. 9, 2011 – Globe and Mail

ANNA MEHLER PAPERNY

After the ceremony, family and friends crowded into the Shahdady family’s Scarborough house, prayed and struggled to talk about anything – anything but the 21-year-old daughter they had just buried in a Pickering cemetery; or her son, the two-year-old who’d spent more than 15 hours in the apartment with her body; or the husband her father had chosen, now charged with killing her.

Abdul Malik Rustam, who she’d sponsored to join her in Canada just months earlier, faces a first-degree murder charge. He appeared briefly by via video feed in a Scarborough courtroom Monday, speaking with counsel through an Urdu translator. He was clean-shaven but for a small moustache and wearing a loose-fitting orange jumpsuit. He’s to appear again Tuesday.

Shaher Bano Shahdady’s death – in the apartment she’d moved into, having left her husband just weeks earlier – rocked the city’s close-knit Balochi community, an ethnic group from Pakistan’s largest province.

But the problem isn’t that cases like this are shockingly rare. It’s that they aren’t.

Police and community organizations are dealing with more incidents of domestic abuse. According to Toronto Police annual reports, “domestic-related” victim services incidents are up 74 per cent since 2006. In all likelihood, that’s due less to an increase in the problem, and That may simply mean more more to an increase inpeople are trying to get help. But the help isn’t always there.

In Toronto, some of the trickiest and most volatile cases of domestic violence tend to be in immigrant and refugee households. And in Toronto, the groups dealing with those cases are the ones facing funding cuts.

Eke Terveld was jolted awake in the dark around 1 a.m. July 22 to the sound of a child howling.

“The little guy, he was screaming. … I thought, ‘What are they doing to that kid?’ ”

The panicked wailing lasted 15 minutes, then stopped. The 90-year-old poked her head out her apartment door but saw nothing in the beige, fluorescent-lit hallway.

“I didn’t go check the stairways. I can hardly walk, myself.” She didn’t even think to check the apartment across the hall; she had no idea a woman and her son had moved in three weeks earlier.

It wasn’t until late that Friday afternoon that someone called the police, after Ms. Shahdady’s father, Abdul Ghafoor, went racing through the hall, sobbing.

“He was crying and screaming. He said, ‘Call 911. My daughter killed herself.’ ”

Ms. Terveld’s son Jake, who lives in the apartment beside hers, went in and saw the still body on the bed in the apartment. No blood, but marks of strangulation on her neck. And the toddler there with her, as he had been for more than 15 hours.

“Just a little happy boy,” Ms. Terveld said. “I think the child had no idea.”

Even some of Ms. Shahdady’s closest friends aren’t sure at what point she and her son moved from her parents’ house, where she’d been living with her husband since sponsoring his move to Canada in May, to the apartment in a seven-storey brick building on Eglinton near Markham Road.

“I don’t know how this happened. How it ended up like this,” said Sara Kahrazehi. She counts Ms. Shahdady more as a relative than as a close friend, someone she grew up with in Scarborough before Ms. Shahdady moved to Pakistan to study at a madrassa.

Ms. Shahdady married Mr. Rustam at her parents’ request when she was 18, and he 24. She’d spent the past several years studying in Karachi, Pakistan. Pregnancy was her ticket back to Canada, after tests revealed multiple complications and the family decided it was better for her to give birth here.

Talha was born in Toronto in 2009; an operation at Sick Kids hospital this year gave him a new heart.

Ms. Shahdady spent much of her time trying to get Mr. Rustam to Canada, going from one politician’s office, one bureaucrat’s kiosk to another to secure his visa.

“She was excited her husband was coming,” Ms. Kahrazehi said. “She sponsored him herself, filled out the forms herself.”

He arrived in May; she met him at Pearson International Airport.

They were living in her parents’ house in Scarborough, a brown-shuttered building with beige siding, which abuts a Catholic cemetery near Colonel Danforth Park.

Her friends don’t know or won’t say what happened from there.

“I don’t think she would have wanted me to discuss all of this,” Ms. Kahrazehi says, before adding, “Arranged marriages, forced marriages, they should be stopped.”

“She wanted to live an independent life; to continue her education, to find a job, to live independently,” says Zaffar Baloch, a friend of the family. “She couldn’t live with this person.”

One long-time friend ran into her signing up for courses at an adult learning centre; another says he saw her and Mr. Rustam together at Wal-Mart, shopping for her new apartment.

But this is where Mr. Baloch pauses.

“If the community had known about it, that would have meant more support for her. … The community could have done something, intervened, especially put pressure on her parents.

“But this support didn’t show up.”

And this is what drives Kripa Sekhar mad: The support network her organization has been painstakingly building for the past three decades was cut off at the knees this year.

The South Asian Women’s Centre, of which Ms. Sekhar is executive director, lost more than half a million dollars in federal funding as of April 1.

Included in the space and salaries they lost were the multilingual counsellors they had in Kingston-Galloway, at a community centre just blocks from the house where Ms. Shahdady’s marriage unravelled, and the apartment where she died was killed. Those trained staff knew how much more dangerous domestic situations get when a woman moves out with her child, how important it would be to find her a place where she’d be safe.

“That was a solid knowledge base that has been lost, just cut at the root,” Ms. Sekhar said.

“When you eliminate resources like this, there will be no way to provide any substantive service to women.”

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