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Acid attack survivor who got life-changing surgery in Toronto wants to make Canada her home

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Every day for a year, from the confines of her tiny hospital room in Bangladesh, Popi Rani Das dreamed of Toronto.

A doctor from this faraway city had promised its surgeons could repair the life-threatening wounds in her throat caused by a horrific acid attack that left her unable to drink or eat.

Popi Rani Das has found a new home in the city’s Bangladeshi Hindu community, which has embraced her since she came to Canada to have her esophagus repaired after her husband tricked her into drinking acid.“I am safe here,” Das, now 30, says in her soft-spoken and tentative English. “I am OK here now.”
Popi Rani Das has found a new home in the city’s Bangladeshi Hindu community, which has embraced her since she came to Canada to have her esophagus repaired after her husband tricked her into drinking acid.“I am safe here,” Das, now 30, says in her soft-spoken and tentative English. “I am OK here now.”  (Steve Russell / Toronto Star)

Das was just 21 when her husband tried to kill her by tricking her into drinking the acid that burned away her entire esophagus and most of her stomach. For the next seven years, she lived in a top-floor room of the Acid Survivors Foundation Hospital in Dhaka, Bangladesh, keeping herself alive by injecting pureed food into the feeding tube threaded into her small intestine.

Then, a chance meeting in February 2016 with Dr. Toni Zhong, a Toronto plastic surgeon on a medical mission to the country, gave Das hope that she would one day escape her bleak surroundings.

“I remember feeling so much sadness for this woman,” recalls Zhong. “I remember thinking: ‘This must be what it is like to be a forgotten person in a small corner of the world.’ ”

Das did come to Toronto in 2017 and, following a trio of risky surgeries at Toronto General Hospital, can once again eat and drink.

Now, two years since she arrived in Toronto, scared, weak and weighing less than 80 pounds, Das, 30, wants to make Canada her permanent home.

It was here, after all, that surgeons gave her another chance at life by building her a new esophagus using skin harvested from her arm.

She has also found friends and a new kind of family in the city’s Bangladeshi Hindu community, which has rallied around her since the freezing February night she arrived at Toronto Pearson International Airport.

And, most importantly, living in Toronto keeps Das safe from her husband, who she says wanted her dead so he could remarry for a bigger dowry. Police charged him for the attack, her lawyer says, but he was released on bail and Das fears he will try to find her should she return to Dhaka.

“I cannot go back … That is where my life is not safe and where my life could be in danger again.”

Read More:

A Toronto doctor promised to help this acid attack survivor. One year later, she’s leaving Toronto with a new esophagus

Acid attack victim finds hope in Toronto surgeons

Acid attack: From victim to triumph in India

Though she misses her country, especially its constant warmth and her friends at the Acid Survivors Foundation Hospital, Das is learning to love Toronto.

She enjoys her ESL classes, riding city buses and eating Oreo cookies, the everyday things that once seemed so impossible from her Dhaka hospital room.

“I am safe here now,” Das says in her soft-spoken and tentative English. “I am OK here now.”

Popi Rani Das, with her mother, Ajanta Rani Das, who hasn't left her daughter's side since the attack that left her unable to eat or drink.
Popi Rani Das, with her mother, Ajanta Rani Das, who hasn’t left her daughter’s side since the attack that left her unable to eat or drink.  (Toronto Star)

Das filed a refugee protection claim last February and is waiting for her case to be heard by the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada.

Her mother, Ajanta Rani Das, who travelled to Toronto with her daughter in 2017 and who has been by Das’s side since the day she was attacked, has also made a claim. Both women say their lives are at risk in Bangladesh.

Douglas Lehrer, their Toronto-based immigration lawyer, says he has affidavits from Das’s maternal aunt and from a neighbour stating Das’s former husband is “threatening to kill them out of revenge.”

Lehrer says the immigration board, which is currently taking between six and 24 months to hear claims, must believe the women would be in danger in Bangladesh — and that the state would be unable to protect them — to grant them protected person status, thus putting them on the path to Canadian citizenship.

For now, Das is trying to put her immigration status from her mind and focus on her daily life in the city.

These days, she and her mother live in a basement apartment in Scarborough, where they enjoy cooking in their small kitchen, planning trips to the library and going for walks around their Birchmount Park neighbourhood.

Both women adore the big white flowers that bloom on bushes growing near their street and which remind them of their village in Bangladesh.

During her first year in Toronto, Das saw little more than hospital rooms, doctors’ offices and the apartment she shared with her mother near Toronto General. Much of her time was spent recovering from surgery, relearning how to swallow with her new esophagus, and finding strategies to deal with the post-traumatic stress triggered by her husband’s attack.

Popi Rani Das, right, shares some cake with Dr. Toni Zhong at a party thrown for Das following her successful surgery at Toronto General Hospital.
Popi Rani Das, right, shares some cake with Dr. Toni Zhong at a party thrown for Das following her successful surgery at Toronto General Hospital.  (Toronto Star file photo)

Zhong, director of the breast reconstruction program at Toronto’s University Health Network (UHN), says few people would have the strength to endure the hardships Das has faced.

That inner courage was one of the reasons Zhong felt compelled to help Das by raising more than $700,000 to start the UHN Helps Fund to bring international patients to Toronto for life-changing surgery. A portion of that money raised paid for Das’s medical care in Toronto, as well as her travel and living expenses.

Zhong also convinced Toronto General to open its operating rooms after-hours for Das, and the surgeons who performed the complex surgeries waived their fees, so as not to impact Canadian patients.

Though Zhong is happy Das is well and safe in Toronto, a part of her is also disheartened that Das will not return to Bangladesh to advocate for survivors of acid violence, something both women had once badly wanted.

She says she didn’t fully understand the risks Das faced until she was again in Dhaka in January of this year for another medical mission. There, she says, she met people who know Das who believe the young woman’s decision to stay in Canada is the right one.

“They told me: ‘There is no doubt that if she came back she would be a target, for her husband or just in general because (after earlier media stories) she has a celebratory status and she spoke out for herself.’ ”

The renowned doctor has many hopes for Das. Some, including a chance to eat and drink, have already been fulfilled. She also believes Das lived through her ordeals to make a lasting impact on the world.

Popi Rani Das stitches to pass the time at the Acid Survivors Foundation Hospital in Dhaka, Bangladesh, in 2016, where she lived for seven years until coming to Canada for surgery.
Popi Rani Das stitches to pass the time at the Acid Survivors Foundation Hospital in Dhaka, Bangladesh, in 2016, where she lived for seven years until coming to Canada for surgery.  (Toronto Star file photo)

“She shouldn’t have survived that initial attack,” Zhong says, adding that 75 per cent of people who swallow acid will die. “Popi is an incredibly strong person who can make a difference. I don’t know where or how she can do that. But my hope for her is that she will find a way to tell her story and to live a meaningful life with this gift she has been given.”

Arun Datta is among the dozens of people in Toronto’s Bangladeshi Hindu community who have helped Das since she arrived in the city. He says he didn’t hesitate for a moment after Zhong’s 2017 phone call, during which she asked for their community’s support.

Within days of that call, members of the Bangladesh-Canada Hindu Mandir temple in Scarborough were raising funds and finding a place for Das and her mother to stay.

“We all had a desire to help,” says Datta, who came to Canada 30 years ago and works as a paralegal while advocating for the rights of Hindus, a religious minority, in Bangladesh as the president of the Bangladesh Minority Rights Alliance. “We gave money, and we gave time driving her to the hospital, going to get groceries, anything that was needed.”

He and others in the Toronto community say Das’s Hindu faith is yet another thing that will put her at risk in Bangladesh, where religious minorities face oppression and persecution.

“That is the main reason we are all here,” says Datta, gesturing to Das, her mother and some of their friends gathered around a table on a recent winter evening at the Bangladesh-Canada Hindu Mandir. “We all have been victims as well.”

Bijit Roy, the temple’s president, says the Toronto community has been moved by Das’s story.

“It was a rare type of cruelty,” he says. “She is far better here. Here she can have a new and safe life.”

Popi Rani Das on a trip to Toronto's Centre Island with her English class last summer.
Popi Rani Das on a trip to Toronto’s Centre Island with her English class last summer.  (Supplied/Popi Rani Das)

Looking at those gathered at the table, Das says she is grateful to everybody for their help — the Toronto surgeons, her new community and Canada, the country that made her safe.

While Das can read and write English fairly well, she finds it more difficult to maintain a conversation in English. Datta helps, when needed, to translate her conversation with a Star journalist between English and Bengali.

Das says she is not yet sure what her future holds as a potential Canadian.

In between her trips to the library and her ESL classes, Das continues to embroider, a task that helped pass time in her Dhaka hospital room. As long as she takes small, slow bites, Das can eat anything that she likes. She still loves Kit Kat and chocolate ice cream and most kinds of cookies. And she is practicing English by watching TV.

“I don’t like sad movies,” she says in English. “Only funny.”

While she is now used to Canadian winters, Das says she can’t wait for the warm weather and more trips to Centre Island, one of her favourite places in Toronto. This summer, she wants to go up the CN Tower so she can look out over the city that is now her home.

“The people here are good,” she says in Bengali.

And then, in English: “Here, I am safe.”

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‘Business as usual’ for Dorel Industries after terminating go-private deal

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MONTREAL — Dorel Industries Inc. says it will continue to pursue its business strategy going forward after terminating an agreement to go private after discussions with shareholders.

« Moving ahead. Business as usual, » a spokesman for the company said in an email on Monday.

A group led by Cerberus Capital Management had previously agreed to buy outstanding shares of Dorel for $16 apiece, except for shares owned by the family that controls the company’s multiple-voting shares.

But Dorel chief executive Martin Schwartz said the Montreal-based maker of car seats, strollers, bicycles and home furniture pulled the plug on a deal on the eve of Tuesday’s special meeting after reviewing votes from shareholders.

“Independent shareholders have clearly expressed their confidence in Dorel’s future and the greater potential for Dorel as a public entity, » he said in a news release.

Dorel’s board of directors, with Martin Schwartz, Alan Schwartz, Jeffrey Schwartz and Jeff Segel recused, unanimously approved the deal’s termination upon the recommendation of a special committee.

The transaction required approval by two-thirds of the votes cast, and more than 50 per cent of the votes cast by non-family shareholders.

Schwartz said enhancing shareholder value remains a top priority while it stays focused on growing its brands, which include Schwinn and Mongoose bikes, Safety 1st-brand car seats and DHP Furniture.

Dorel said the move to end the go-private deal was mutual, despite the funds’ increased purchase price offer earlier this year.

It said there is no break fee applicable in this case.

Montreal-based investment firm Letko, Brosseau & Associates Inc. and San Diego’s Brandes Investment Partners LP, which together control more than 19 per cent of Dorel’s outstanding class B subordinate shares voiced their opposition to the amended offer, which was increased from the initial Nov. 2 offer of $14.50 per share.

« We believe that several minority shareholders shared our opinion, » said Letko vice-president Stephane Lebrun, during a phone interview.

« We are confident of the long-term potential of the company and we have confidence in the managers in place.”

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Anglais

Pandemic funds helping Montreal businesses build for a better tomorrow

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Many entrepreneurs have had to tap into government loans during the pandemic, at first just to survive, but now some are using the money to better prepare their businesses for the post-COVID future.

One of those businesses is Del Friscos, a popular family restaurant in Dollard-des-Ormeaux that, like many Montreal-area restaurants, has had to adapt from a sit-down establishment to one that takes orders online for takeout or delivery.

“It was hard going from totally in-house seating,” said Del Friscos co-owner Terry Konstas. “We didn’t have an in-house delivery system, which we quickly added. There were so many of our employees that were laid off that wanted to work so we adapted to a delivery system and added platforms like Uber and DoorDash.”

Helping them through the transition were emergency grants and low-interest loans from the federal and provincial governments, some of which are directly administered by PME MTL, a non-profit business-development organization established to assist the island’s small and medium-sized businesses.

Konstas said he had never even heard of PME MTL until a customer told him about them and when he got in touch, he discovered there were many government programs available to help his business get through the downturn and build for the future. “They’ve been very helpful right from day one,” said Konstas.

“We used some of the funds to catch up on our suppliers and our rents, the part that wasn’t covered from the federal side, and we used some of it for our new virtual concepts,” he said, referring to a virtual kitchen model which the restaurant has since adopted.

The virtual kitchen lets them create completely different menu items from the casual American Italian dishes that Del Friscos is known for and market them under different restaurant brand names. Under the Prasinó Soup & Salad banner, they sell healthy Greek options and their Stallone’s Sub Shop brand offers hearty sandwiches, yet the food from both is created in the same Del Friscos kitchen.

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Anglais

Downtown Montreal office, retail vacancies continue to rise

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Some of downtown Montreal’s key economic indicators are heading in the wrong direction.

Office and retail vacancies in the city’s central core continued to climb in the fourth quarter of 2020, according to a quarterly report released Thursday by the Urban Development Institute of Quebec and the Montréal Centre-Ville merchants association. The report, whose first edition was published in October, aims to paint a socio-economic picture of the downtown area.

The survey also found office space available for sublet had increased during the fourth quarter, which may foreshadow even more vacancies when leases expire. On the residential front, condo sales fell as new listings soared — a sign that the downtown area may be losing some of its appeal to homeowners.

“It’s impossible not to be preoccupied by the rapid increase in office vacancies,” Jean-Marc Fournier, the former Quebec politician who now heads the UDI, said Thursday in an interview.

Still, with COVID-19 vaccinations set to accelerate in the coming months, “the economic picture is bound to improve,” he said. “People will start returning downtown. It’s much too early to say the office market is going to disappear.”

Public health measures implemented since the start of the pandemic almost a year ago — such as caps on office capacity — have deprived downtown Montreal of more than 500,000 workers and students. A mere 4,163 university and CEGEP students attended in-person classes in the second quarter, the most recent period for which figures are available. Border closures and travel restrictions have also brought tourism to a standstill, hurting hotels and thousands of local businesses.

Seventy per cent of downtown workers carried out their professional activities at home more than three days a week during the fourth quarter, the report said, citing an online survey of 1,000 Montreal-area residents conducted last month.

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