Yousif Youkhana 1949-2006 - Macleans.ca

Yousif Youkhana 1949-2006

He escaped with his wife and children from Iraq, only to die at the hands of thieves in Canada

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    Yousif Youkhana was born on July 1, 1949, into a comfortable life in Zakhu, Iraq, a small city that straddles the Khabur River in the northern part of the country, about 10 km from the Turkish border. Yousif’s father was the mayor of one of the outlying villages and ran a small lumber company. He was wealthy enough to send his son to school and later help him establish his own business as a contractor. Yousif was bright, and well liked. He learned four languages: Assyrian, Arabic, Kurdish and English, which he taught himself from words he picked up on the street.

    In 1970, Yousif married Selma Warda and they began building a large family. They had two sons (Evan and Ayman), and two daughters (Vevyan and Eman). In 1982, the family moved to Baghdad, where Yousif set up an alcohol distribution company, selling alcohol to stores and bars in northern Iraq.

    Life was good, says his son, Ayman, now 26 and a carpenter, like his older brother. They had a large home—much bigger than the typical Canadian house—and a car, which was a luxury at that time.

    But Yousif’s life, and the country he knew, changed forever in 1990, with the first Gulf War. Iraq was thrown into a depression. Business dried up. It seemed his two sons would surely end up in the military if the family stayed in Iraq. “Over there, there were no jobs. Everything was going bad,” says Ayman.

    Yousif decided the family would flee.

    From northern Iraq, they set out on foot through the mountains toward Turkey. “It was dangerous,” remembers Ayman, who was 11 at the time. “I was scared. You don’t know who was going to come kill you: the army, the people walking you, you don’t know.” Yousif made sure his family was safe by paying off the men who were guiding them through the mountains with a group of about 150 others. They arrived at a Red Cross camp in Turkey two full days after leaving Iraq. There, it was decided the family would move to Canada, where a cousin could sponsor their immigration application.

    In September 1992, Yousif and his family arrived in Canada. It was safe, but not exactly what he had imagined. For 12 years the family lived in an apartment building in north Toronto. Life was hard and Yousif struggled to find work that suited him and his training. He drifted between as many as 50 different jobs, once at a meat-packing plant, once as a delivery man. The work was tough, and not what he was accustomed to. Few jobs paid more than $7

    an hour. “He was struggling,” says Ayman. “He used to work for maybe one week, but then he couldn’t work. He wasn’t able, maybe in his mind, maybe it was the conditions.” In recent months, he had been on welfare.

    At times, Yousif’s situation in Canada troubled him, but he was at least glad to be safe, and glad that his family was safe. His sons were working and always busy. Ayman and his older sister had saved and borrowed enough money to buy the family home in Brampton. Yousif used to repeat the Iraqi phrase, “As long as you’re safe and you eat bread from God, that’s all you need,” says Ayman.

    In Iraq, Yousif had had many friends. One day, while out buying food, he was arrested by the Iraqi police—not an uncommon occurrence at the time, but still something to be feared. It could mean getting involuntarily drafted into the army. His wife was away attending a funeral, so he assured his children, “Don’t worry, I’ll be back in five minutes.” Sure enough, he came back not five minutes later. He had told the police he would call a well-connected friend if they didn’t release him, says Ayman. “That’s how well known he was back home. He used to get away with everything.”

    In Canada, Yousif led a more solitary existence, keeping to himself, and occasionally going to Woodbine racetrack to watch the horse races. In recent years, he started playing bingo. “My dad just wanted to kill time. He didn’t have much to do,” says Ayman. Yousif played bingo alone and often came wearing a suit and tie, says Lucy Szinegh, the manager of Finch Bingo Country, where he played a few times a week. He was always friendly and quiet, she says.

    On the night of Friday, April 7, Yousif won $1,000 at the bingo hall—not the biggest sum that night, but still one of the top prizes. At 10:10 p.m., after collecting his cash winnings, he left for home. Yousif likely did not notice the four heavy-set women who followed him from the bingo hall into the parking lot. As he approached his car, they confronted him and demanded his money. When he refused, they punched and kicked him repeatedly and ran away with the cash. Yousif managed to make his way back inside the bingo hall, but minutes later he died. He was 56. Six months earlier, Yousif had had heart bypass surgery, but had fully recovered. The exact cause of his death is still not known. At week’s end, his attackers had not been found.

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