Toronto’s Ethiopian community prays for plane crash victims

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Toronto’s Ethiopian community prays for plane crash victims


Before the victims were named, the Ethiopian Airlines crash already felt personal to some Torontonians.

“I took the same flight two months ago,” says Alemayehu Zenebe, the program co-ordinator at Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church of Canada Saint Mary Cathedral.

Alemayehu Zenebe of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church blesses parishioners in the wake of the Ethiopian Airlines crash outside of Addis Ababa in Toronto. March 10, 2019. Steve Russell/Toronto Star
Alemayehu Zenebe of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church blesses parishioners in the wake of the Ethiopian Airlines crash outside of Addis Ababa in Toronto. March 10, 2019. Steve Russell/Toronto Star  (Steve Russell / Toronto Star)

It was this January, and he was travelling to see his sister in Nairobi on the same series of plane that crashed on Sunday. Zenebe had flown to Addis Ababa directly from Toronto, and was pleased to be aboard a new Boeing 737 for his connecting flight. He was relaxed as the two-hour flight began, admiring the view outside his window as the capital city of Ethiopia became smaller, and the countryside became a blur of green.

Early Sunday morning, his sister called from Nairobi, to tell him that Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 — the same route he had travelled two months ago — had crashed not long after takeoff. She was OK, but her Ethiopian colleague had been on board. Another one of her friends was supposed to be on the plane, but had switched to a different time. Zenebe quickly called his head priest to arrange a memorial for the unnamed victims as the news began to spread in the rainy grey of the Toronto morning.

“All of Ethiopia is in mourning of this big tragedy,” he said, standing in sock feet inside the incense-scented entrance of the church west of Dufferin Street and north of Eglinton Avenue. It was “heart pounding,” waiting for the names, he said. Many people have friends and family travelling in Ethiopia right now.

“My heart froze,” says Abebech Engeda, who heard the news on the drive to church, where her husband is the head priest. “I said, ‘Oh no, not Ethiopian Airlines.’ Then they said from Addis. Oh my God.”

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In Ethiopia, Sunday service typically starts at 6 a.m., but in Toronto, the service begins at 8 a.m. to account for the TTC opening later on Sunday. Some parishioners learned about Flight 302 as they settled into their pews: 157 dead. 18 Canadians. Nine Ethiopians. 32 Kenyans. 35 nationalities. For nearly five hours they prayed in Ge’ez and Amharic.

Head Priest Messale Engda of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church blesses parishioners on March 10, 2019. “I wish that the families are comforted by the Holy Spirit. It will be very difficult for the families,” Engda said.
Head Priest Messale Engda of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church blesses parishioners on March 10, 2019. “I wish that the families are comforted by the Holy Spirit. It will be very difficult for the families,” Engda said.  (Steve Russell/Toronto Star)

Jane Njambi, the chairlady of the Kenyan Global Church, said she woke up to the “nightmare” of WhatsApp messages on her phone. At the Kenyan Global Church services on Davenport Road, there was a moment of silence and a special prayer from a visiting bishop, she said. There was speculation about whether there are Kenyan-Canadians among the 18 Canadian victims, but no confirmation.

She said that most Torontonians who visit Kenya fly Ethiopian Airlines because of the 13-hour direct flight from Toronto to Addis Ababa, with the two-hour connection to Nairobi. Most people prefer that to a layover in Europe.

At the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, families gathered in the refectory after the service to share vegan injera typical of the Lent season. At the tables topped with ginger ale and water bottles, people tried to process the news with friends and family as children played on the stage. Many talked about how the airline was the “gateway” to the continent, how it had always been regarded as a safe way to travel. Some were speechless.

The priest said more prayers in Amharic from the stage, and people gasped as he gave the latest update on the numbers and nationalities of the dead. Nobody knew anything yet, one woman wearing the tradition Netala scarf said, so all they could do was pray.

“Even though we don’t know the names of the people, we just pray a general prayer for the deceased and also for the families,” head priest Messale Engeda explained. “I wish that the families are comforted by the Holy Spirit. It will be very difficult for the families.”





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