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.”

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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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New insect found in B.C. caves could be a survivor from Ice Age

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A newly discovered cave-dwelling species of insect found in British Columbia could be a survivor from the last ice age, scientists say.

Haplocampa wagnelli, the arthropod found in a limestone cave near Port Alberni on Vancouver Island, is about three to four millimetres long, with six legs, no eyes and a whitish, almost transparent colour.

Alberto Sendra, lead author of a study published in the journal Subterranean Biology last week, said the little bug’s existence opens up possibilities of how species survive in different climates and conditions.

« This is a very intriguing species because it looks like it lived underground in caves — for more or less a long time, » Sendra said in an interview.

« This means they can survive in the glacial period. And this is very remarkable because there are no examples of species that live in subterranean areas so up north. »

Sendra, a professor of animal biology at the University of Alcala in Madrid, said there is a possibility the insect migrated north from the United States and settled in the caves in Vancouver.

He said he could not say how old the insect is — just that it is primitive, and its discovery raises a number of questions.

« How can they survive there? It opens up the possibility in the future to search for species in other places where nobody looks for them, » he said.

« We always look in warmer climates in the south and this species suggests we need to look for this more in the Northern Hemisphere. »

Named after B.C. caver

The insect’s name pays tribute to caver and study co-author Craig Wagnell, who has spent years exploring caves on Vancouver Island.

A group from the Central Island Caving Club, including Wagnell, first recorded the critter in 2017, and Sendra said he spent the last year studying it.

Unlike most cave-adapted species that are elongated and slender, this insect has only slightly elongated antennae and legs and a thicker body, according to a news release announcing the study.

It also shows a close relationship with species found in Japan and Siberia, which is evidence for dispersal events where populations would cross over the land bridge that used to connect America and Asia, the release stated.

The study said Vancouver Island has more mapped and explored caves than the rest of Canada combined, and many contain unique features, including streams and rivers running through them most of the year.

The caves help the streams maintain constant water temperatures and quality year round, which helps support a variety of fish and wildlife, the study said, noting little has been done to protect the caves from logging, mining and recreational practices.

Some of the caves have been misused and more needs to be done to protect them and the unique wildlife they support, researchers said.

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Resilient insect newly discovered in B.C. cave may be survivor from Ice Age

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A newly discovered cave-dwelling species of insect found in British Columbia could be a survivor from the last ice age, scientists say.


READ MORE:
The bugs we need — bees, ladybugs, butterflies — appear to be dying off, scientists say

Haplocampa wagnelli, the arthropod found in a limestone cave near Port Alberni on Vancouver Island, is about three to four millimetres long, with six legs, no eyes, and a whitish, almost transparent colour.

Alberto Sendra, lead author of a study published in the journal Subterranean Biology on Tuesday, said the little bug’s existence opens up possibilities of how species survive in different climates and conditions.

“This is a very intriguing species because it looks like it lived underground in caves – for more or less a long time,” Sendra said in an interview.

WATCH: Monarch butterfly count increases 144 per cent






“This means they can survive in the glacial period. And this is very remarkable because there are no examples of species that live in subterranean areas so up north.”

Sendra, a professor of animal biology at the University of Alcala in Madrid, said there is a possibility the insect migrated north from the United States and settled in the caves in Vancouver.

He said he could not say how old the insect is – just that it is primitive, and its discovery raises a number of questions.

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“How can they survive there? It opens up the possibility in the future to search for species in other places where nobody looks for them,” he said.


READ MORE:
Cockroach milk? Insect dairy alternatives could be the next superfood trend

“We always look in warmer climates in the south and this species suggests we need to look for this more in the Northern Hemisphere.”

The insect’s name pays tribute to caver and study co-author Craig Wagnell, who has spent years exploring caves on Vancouver Island.

A group from the Central Island Caving Club, including Wagnell, first recorded the critter in 2017, and Sendra said he spent the last year studying it.

Unlike most cave-adapted species that are elongated and slender, this insect has only slightly elongated antennae and legs and a thicker body, according to a news release announcing the study.

WATCH: Bedbug battle – study suggests insects developed thicker skin to beat insecticides






It also shows a close relationship with species found in Japan and Siberia, which is evidence for dispersal events where populations would cross over the land bridge that used to connect America and Asia, the release stated.

The study said Vancouver Island has more mapped and explored caves than the rest of Canada combined, and many contain unique features, including streams and rivers running through them most of the year.

The caves help the streams maintain constant water temperatures and quality year-round, which helps support a variety of fish and wildlife, the study said, noting little has been done to protect the caves from logging, mining and recreational practices.

Some of the caves have been misused and more needs to be done to protect them and the unique wildlife they support, researchers said.

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Survivor Aymen Derbali sets out to combat hate, 2 years after Quebec City mosque shooting

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Aymen Derbali swivels his wheelchair toward the large windows of his new living room, sparsely furnished with ornate rugs.

He bows his head and closes his eyes, taking a moment for his afternoon prayer, before talking about the turning point in his life — moving into a new home with his family last August, after being apart for nearly 18 months.

« I was able to go back to my home and have a normal life, like before the tragedy, » he said.

Derbali, a father of three, nearly avoided the attack that killed six people and seriously wounded him and four others at Quebec City’s Islamic Cultural Centre on Jan. 29, 2017.

He was debating whether to go his local mosque that evening, but eventually told his wife he was going, and would be home in time to put their eldest son to bed.

Derbali was in his usual corner at the back of the room, when he saw the gunman come in and raise his weapon toward him.

He was hit with seven bullets, including one that struck his spinal cord. In a second, the life he’d set out for himself and his family made an abrupt turn.

Derbali regularly attends the mosque where he was shot on Jan. 29, 2017. (Julia Page/CBC)

Derbali was in a coma for the next two months. His doctors feared he’d lost most of his cerebral capacities, after surviving four heart attacks.

When he woke up, he was told he’d never walk again.

But « being able to recognize my children and my wife, for the rest of my life, that was the main thing for me, » he said.

His coma was especially hard on his then-eight-year-old son, Ayoub, who was convinced his father was dead.

« He was very upset. So when he saw me back at my home he was very, very happy. »

The wide hallways of his new home allow Derbali to move around easily. (Julia Page/CBC)

Outpouring of support

The soft-spoken 42-year-old can now move freely around the house, purchased thanks to a $400,000 fundraising campaign.

People from around the world answered the call from Dawanet, a Muslim charity, to help his family move out of their Sainte-Foy apartment — which was too cramped and ill-equipped for Derbali’s needs.

The wide hallways and door frames in the new home allow him to move around during the day, from his small desk in his bedroom to the sitting room where he can watch television with his children.

He can also watch them play soccer in the backyard in the summer.

« This solidarity has encouraged me to be more positive, and this is the beautiful thing, » he said.

Grateful for the wave of support he’s received, Derbali refuses to dwell on the act of violence he fell victim to that night. « There is much more goodness than evil on this planet, » Derbali said.

Derbali smiles at his two youngest children, Maryem, 2, and Youssouf, 6. (Submitted by Aymen Derbali)

His home still needs a few more modifications to make it fully adapted to his needs, including an adapted shower and an elevated platform to allow him to go straight to the garage from the kitchen.

But he is able to help in planning all this, now that he can type on his keyboard with two fingers and answer calls on his cellphone, lessening the burden he felt he put on his family, just 12 months before.

« I can plan the work around the house, pay the bills and help my son with his homework. »

He is also there every afternoon to greet his children when they return from school, just a few blocks away.

Second life

Derbali has started sending out resumés  in hope of landing a part-time job, to supplement the income provided by the government’s compensation for victims of crimes.

But his daily routine still takes up a lot of his time. He requires three hours of home care every day, and the bullets that exploded inside his body cause him constant pain.

Nonetheless, he is committed to the humanitarian work he began long before the shooting.

Derbali, who worked as an IT specialist, is now able to type on his computer and hopes to go back to work part-time. (Julia Page/CBC)

He continues to be involved in an orphanage he helped set up in Bolivia and now wants to do more within Quebec City, to foster dialogue between groups that may have been on separate paths for too long.

« We woke up after this tragedy and said ‘We have to be more open to all the communities,' » he said.

He is encouraging Muslim youth to get involved and volunteer for homeless shelters, for example.

« In this way we can fight hate crimes and we can fight ignorance. This is the most important thing, to have concrete actions, » he said.

Derbali has also started giving conferences in high schools to show young men and women the mark hatred left in his life, convinced these face-to-face meetings will leave a much deeper impact than any government initiative.

Derbali sits in the dining room of the new home his family was able to purchase thanks to a fundraising campaign that netted more than $400,000. (Julia Page/CBC)

« You know if we have an open-minded teenager, we don’t have to be afraid for his future. »

The two-year anniversary will be an important milestone for Derbali. So will knowing the fate that awaits the young man he crossed paths with in his place of worship, two years ago.

Convicted gunman Alexandre Bissonette will be sentenced just days after the anniversary, on Feb. 8, at the Quebec City courthouse.

Derbali says that will be another chance to turn the page and focus on the good he has seen emerge from that dark night.

« It’s my second life that is starting. »

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‘Not something that was in the past’: Survivor wants kids to be taught more about horrors of the Holocaust

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The memories of the Holocaust are as fresh as ever for Regine Frankel.

She remembers, she says, « never knowing even the next day — will we be alive? »

Frankel and her family hid with a family in France for years during the Second World War, knowing at any moment they could be found and killed.

She has been sharing her story with school children for decades, but said she was shocked when she recently spoke to a group of students in Winnipeg.

« There was one class who knew nothing. That was very disturbing, because the Holocaust is not something that was in the past. It’s something that you have to learn, so that it doesn’t repeat itself. »

Franco says over the years, she’s noticed people know less about what happened to people like her, including the knowledge that six million European Jews were killed in Nazi-run concentration camps.

Belle Jarniewski said she’s also noticed that Canadians have less knowledge than they used to.

The executive director of the Jewish Heritage Centre of Western Canada was leading the discussion with the students.

In Manitoba, students are required to learn about the Holocaust in Grade 6.

But Jarniewski said any of the tougher concepts aren’t appropriate for that age group, meaning many students don’t receive a deeper education on genocide as they get older.

Belle Jarniewski is the executive director of the Jewish Heritage Centre of Western Canada. (Trevor Brine/CBC)

She wants Manitoba to include more about the Holocaust in the curriculum, including Canada’s role in anti-Semitism, something that is less known.

« Canada had the worst record of any country in accepting Jews who were fleeing Nazi persecution, » she said.

« No one knows the story about the St. Louis, a boat that was not allowed into Canada that carried over 900 [refugee] Jews, » she said.

Jarniewski also points to boycotts against Jewish-run businesses in Quebec, graphic and racist newspaper cartoons depicting Jewish people, and rules that restricted their property ownership.

History affects today

« Unless we know our own history … I think it makes us less understanding and aware of the refugee situation today. »

Jarniewski said understanding how the Jewish population was treated in the past is especially important now.

« It teaches students what happens what happened with an abuse of power. Particularly today, when we see the rise of populism, of nationalism, of white supremacy. This is the prime example of the importance of countering that. »

The Holocaust marks an important moment in human rights, according to Jeremy Maron, curator of Holocaust and genocide content at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.

Maron said it also serves as a case study to understand how human rights abuses and genocide can occur.

« The Holocaust really shows that when human rights and human dignity are not recognized and not respected, the slope can become very slippery, » he said.

Regine Frankel says she’ll keep telling her story, hoping it won’t be forgotten.

« It’s very painful. But it’s necessary. And I just hope it has just some effect. Even if we reach just a few of them. »

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Insurer stalls on payments for elderly survivor of Toronto van attack

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“I think they don’t want to spend money on me,” the Russian-speaking Kozhevnikova said through a translator in an interview at her spartan Yonge St. apartment. “I think they believe that they’ve helped me enough.”

AIG officials declined interview requests. In a written statement, spokesperson Matthew Gallagher said, “AIG is deeply concerned for all the victims of this tragedy and we take our responsibilities very seriously. Working with an independent adjuster, we adhere to processes mandated by the Financial Services Commission of Ontario. This includes ensuring that injured individuals are receiving approved necessary care and that care companies are providing all services for which they are billing injured victims. We are restricted from publicly commenting further on individual cases.”

Meanwhile, almost $40,000 in bills for care, assessments and psychological services have gone unpaid, Kozhevnikova’s paralegal and her team of support workers told the Star.

“This case is personal to me and it should be personal to every citizen of the city and the country,” said Michael Taylor, a partner at the Toronto-based personal injury law firm Taylor, Baber and Mergui.

“She’s a victim of something that transformed Toronto — the first attack in this country using a vehicle to murder innocent victims — and when she turned to the system in place to help her, it victimized her again,” Taylor said.

“Insurance companies do routinely engage in these type of behaviours. What makes this particular case egregious is the fact that the attendant care benefits for our client were approved. Notwithstanding, AIG still managed to delay payment for almost a year, knowing that our client was a 91-year-old survivor of WWII who suffered catastrophic physical and psychological injuries as a result of one of the worst terrorist attacks in this country,” Mergui said.

“AIG owed a duty of utmost good faith to our client and failed miserably in that duty.”

Of the $23,400 worth of invoices filed to AIG for personal-support care since May, the insurer has reimbursed $3,129, according to documents obtained by the Star. Of the $26,500 worth of medical assessments and psychological services billed to AIG by another service provider, $10,800 has been paid out. Of $7,700 billed for physiotherapy services, $3,700 has been paid.

The crux of the dispute lies in a disagreement between AIG and Kozhevnikova’s advocates over how badly she was injured.

Born in a village near in the southwestern Russian city of Kazan, Kozhevnikova proudly lays out on her kitchen table the eight military medals she received from the Russian government, acknowledging her service to the war effort between 1942 and 1945 when she worked in a rifle-assembly factory.

On her dining room wall hang photos of her son and grandchildren, who she followed to Canada in 2006. In her small bedroom, a Russian Orthodox icon of Mary and Jesus sits beside two candles.

Her memory of April 23 begins clearly enough. It was a sunny day. She went out for one of her typical walks down Yonge St., stopping at the bank to pay a utility bill and then at a store to pick up eggs, which she placed in the red push cart she always brought along for groceries.

Then she headed back to her apartment, on Yonge south of Finch Ave.

Her next memory is waking up in St. Michael’s Hospital and seeing her daughter-in-law, Olga, by her side. She had been unconscious for three days.

The Toronto Paramedic report says she was struck by a vehicle travelling 60 kilometres an hour, resulting in an “obvious deformity” to her right femur that left her unable to extend her leg.

What followed were weeks of rehabilitation and tests.

“My right leg isn’t mine anymore,” she said. “I had a complete black out of my memory. My spine is painful. There was such pain in my entire body. I wanted to jump from the top of the building.”

An orthopedic assessment in June, obtained by the Star, concluded her lack of mobility due to a fractured right hip met the “catastrophic determination” for severe physical impairment. And, the report said, she was likely to suffer “mental and behavioural impairment and possibly cognitive impairments” that would meet the test for two other catastrophic categories.

The report, commissioned by Kozhevnikova’s law firm and written by orthopedic surgeon Dr. Tajedin Getahun, recommends physiotherapy, “continued attendant care benefits for self-care and housekeeping and home maintenance,” a psychological assessment for mental and behavioural impairments, and a neurological assessment for cognitive impairments.

The same month, a psychological assessment commissioned by Kozhevnikova’s law firm concluded she registered “severe” levels of depression and anxiety. The report, written by clinical psychologist Dr. Silvia Tenenbaum, recommended 18 sessions of psychotherapy treatment.

A month later, an occupational therapy assessment ordered by AIG found that while Kozhevnikova was “independent and was actively engaged in her life” before being struck by the van, she now suffered “severe” cognitive impairment, “impaired judgment and clinical reasoning related to her personal safety.” The July 26 report concluded she required assistance with everything from grooming to mobility, and recommended a monthly benefit of $10,231.69 for attendant care.

But an Aug. 1 letter to Taylor from Faber Insurance Adjusters Ltd., acting on behalf of AIG, said the medical information and documentation on Kozhevnikova’s injuries provided “insufficient evidence” of catastrophic impairment.

“They disagreed with the findings of the assessors,” said Taylor. “It’s ludicrous, but that’s how this industry operates.”

A followup psychological evaluation authored by Dr. Mohamed Khaled on behalf of the insurer and dated Aug. 29 reviewed the findings of the previous assessments, and confirmed the treatment plan proposed in them was “reasonable and necessary.”

AIG has now arranged for new assessments of Kozhevnikova this month, using its own medical assessors in order to determine future payments.

Gord Faber, who is managing Kozhevnikova’s claim, visited one of her service providers in September with a member of AIG’s “special investigation unit” to determine the extent of care she was receiving, according to an Oct. 2 email he sent to Taylor.

Faber declined to comment.

The support agencies helping Kozhevnikova have continued to provide basic care without full payment, based on assurances from Taylor that the invoices will eventually be paid — if not by the insurer, then by his law firm.

“If we didn’t do that, I don’t think she’d be alive today,” said Taylor. “Or maybe she’d be alive but in long-term care. Everyone involved is carrying enormous financial risk.”

Evgeniya Bakshy, a registered nurse and owner of Wellness Home Care and Services Inc. which has been caring for Kozhevnikova since May, says she is a vulnerable woman who can’t advocate for herself.

“She is a physically, psychologically frail client who doesn’t speak English, a person who can’t stand up for herself. This story is disgusting to me,” Bakshy said. “Her safety is being jeopardized. She’s going to break something, end up in hospital or a nursing home. It will be the government system that will be paying for her care there.”

Viktoria Ginzburg owns 101 Physio, which has been providing physiotherapy and psychological services to Kozhevnikova.

“We’ve been having trouble with (AIG) from the beginning,” Ginzburg said. “They’ve been saying she doesn’t need psychological services. Why I’m really pushing on this one is because of the trauma inflicted. She was hit by a car maliciously and the insurance company is taking the position that she doesn’t need anything. It’s ridiculous.”

Asked why she has continued to supply care without payment, Ginzburg said, “What would you suggest I do? She’s not going to get the help she needs otherwise.”

Kozhevnikova says she was more mobile when she initially came home and had a caregiver working with her steadily. “I could walk a little. The caregiver held the chair behind me. It would help me.”

Now, she’s a shadow of her former self, she says. No more walks down Yonge St. No more going out of her small apartment at all without someone to push her wheelchair.

“Doctors told me I have to walk more. I can make a couple of steps and then I have to stop,” she said, a tear falling from one eye. “I’m by myself. I don’t even go downstairs.”

On Oct. 29, a Toronto law firm acting on behalf of AIG asked to conduct an examination under oath with Kozhevnikova to get information about “the extent and type of injuries sustained” and assess “whether the attendant care was incurred.”

Taylor rejected the request.

“Examination under oath gives insurance companies an opportunity to grill claimants on every invoice and treatment,” he said. “She’s got no physical or emotional capability to go under oath. They have no moral right to put this elderly lady through this process. They’re just creating delays in paying the benefits, which are causing hardship.”

Robert Cribb can be reached at rcribb@thestar.ca and on Twitter @thecribby

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Humboldt crash survivor has PTSD triggered by truck rear-ending his bus

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A terrifying ordeal for Humboldt Broncos survivor Ryan Straschnitzki this past week as the bus carrying him home from physiotherapy was rear-ended by a truck.


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Straschnitzki, 19, was one of 13 survivors April 6 when a team bus was hit by a semi-trailer at an intersection north of Tisdale, Sask. Sixteen people died.

Straschnitzki, who was paralyzed from the chest down in the accident, has been attending physio four times a week in Calgary.

His mother says he was returning to his home in Airdrie when the accident occurred.

WATCH: Saskatchewan introduces mandatory semi driver training after Humboldt Broncos tragedy






“His transport bus was involved in a collision. In and of itself, would’ve been traumatic to anyone. To Ryan, and, ultimately Tom and I (on the other side of his SOS call), it was devastating,” his mother Michelle Straschnitzki wrote on Facebook.

“The kind of rip-your-heart-out-of-your-chest-while-you’re-still-breathing kind.”

The accident occurred on an off-ramp entering Airdrie, just north of Calgary, last Monday, she said.


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She said the impact from the vehicle was so jarring it threw him from his wheelchair, to the floor.

“More than that, it caused his severe PTSD to run to overtime. Transporting him back to April 6th. With this acute memory in his head, along with a million other thoughts, he called his Dad. Tom picked up on speaker phone,” Straschnitzki wrote.

“My mind headed into panic mode. In my defence, when your child is crying and apoplectic, with his mind on his teammates, and screaming `please live’ – Tom was the most helpful parent that night. And this wasn’t April 6th, this was November. My nightmare began again.”

WATCH: Safety report on intersection of Humboldt Broncos crash expected soon






Tom Straschnitzki says he was able to calm his son down and rushed to the accident scene to collect him. He said fortunately Ryan was none the worse for wear.

“All good,” he told The Canadian Press.

“That was a tougher call than April 6.”


READ MORE:
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Michelle Straschnitzki, who has been lobbying for seat belts on team buses, said she hopes this latest accident will serve as a warning to motorists who aren’t paying attention.

“I don’t ever want to hear another call from any of our kids, like that one. Please, people, pay attention. Drive to the conditions. Follow the signals, signs, and notices. There is no prize for getting there first,” she wrote.

“Never make another family go through this absolute HELL. Please.”

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MS St. Louis survivor says Canada’s apology ‘a good thing,’ but it won’t salve emotional scars

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Sol Messinger doesn’t like to talk about his childhood, but he forces himself to because he thinks it’s important that people know what he survived.

Born in Germany in 1932, Messinger is the child of Polish immigrants who had moved to escape the growing anti-semitism and deteriorating economic situation in Poland. They had no way of knowing then that, like so many others before and during World War Two, they’d soon be running for their lives.

« Very early in my life I realized some people didn’t like us because we were Jewish, » Messinger says. « I used to play in the courtyard of our building when I was 3 or 4, until one time kids started beating me up and calling me a dirty Jew. »

As the situation worsened in Germany, Messinger and his family were among a group of 900 Jews who secured passage out of the country in 1939. Their ship, The MS St. Louis, was headed to Cuba.

Every passenger onboard had paid for visas to settle there, and many already had family waiting for them in Cuba. They made the two-week voyage safely, but despite doing everything right, they’d never set foot on the island.

Sol Messinger, one of the Jewish refugees aboard the 1939 voyage of the MS St. Louis, looks at family photos at his home in Buffalo, N.Y., as he reflects on his family’s narrow escape from the Nazis during WWII. (Perlita Stroh/CBC)

« As they weighed the anchor in the harbour, we were immediately depressed and scared because we knew something wasn’t right — and we knew if we went back to Germany we’d have nothing to go back to, we’d be put in a camp. »

The ship’s captain tried to reassure his passengers, but after a few days of uncertainty he informed them that Cuba had reneged on its commitment to admit all but 29 of the refugees. Cuba revoked the visas of the rest of the passengers and refused to allow them to disembark.

Negotiations to settle the refugees elsewhere began immediately, but the United States refused to accept any passengers. And on Wednesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will offer a formal apology in the House of Commons for Canada’s refusal to offer sanctuary.

  • WATCH: The story about the MS St. Louis and Canada’s apology Wednesday on The National on CBC Television and streamed online

Messinger will be in Ottawa to witness it first hand. Although he welcomes the Canadian apology, Messinger adds that it doesn’t erase any of the pain of what his family experienced.

« Emotionally, I can’t say it [the apology] does anything for what we went through, but intellectually I think it’s a good thing, » he says.

Sol Messinger reflects on the luck that helped him survive the holocaust, while looking at an iconic photo of a Jewish boy surrendering to Nazi officers in the Warsaw Ghetto. 1:01

Escape by sea

« To be so close to safety and to be turned away, » says Messinger, « those events left a mark on me. To this day, travelling is very hard on me, I get very anxious … when I travel no one is chasing me to kill me, but you can’t get past those feelings. »

Messinger is one of the few remaining survivors of the MS St. Louis who is old enough to really remember the voyage.

« I had my 7th birthday on the ship, » says Messinger. « So I remember a lot, but I remember a lot from before then, too. I remember the night the Gestapo came for my father before we left Germany … you can imagine I was scared out of my mind. »

Refugees arrive in Antwerp on the MS St. Louis on June 17, 1939, after being denied entry to Cuba, the United States and Canada. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)​​Messinger was just six when his father was arrested in his home and deported back to his native Poland. He says the incident made his parents decide they had no choice but to try to leave Europe as soon as possible.

The task of arranging visas and passage was left solely to his mother, and Messinger says he has no idea how she did it. « You can imagine going to Nazi offices for a pretty Jewish woman was not an easy thing, but she did all of that. »

In fact, Messinger’s mother was able to secure visas for her family as well as passage on the MS St. Louis, but she refused to leave Germany without her husband.

« He wrote her a letter from Poland, » Messinger says. « He told her that if she didn’t go with me on that ship, whether he was back or not, she would have my blood on her hands — in those words. »

As fate would have it, Messinger’s father managed to slip back into Germany to get on the MS St. Louis with his family, and they departed together in 1939.

Messinger and his parents got so close to freedom that he even remembers spotting his extended family on a small boat near the ship as it anchored in the Havana harbour.

« I saw my cousin, who already was there — she was like my sister, and I yelled out to her, » he says. « We were that close. »

No safe haven

After the ship was refused entry and headed back to Europe, Messinger said the captain deliberately took his time getting back, sailing across the coast of Florida. He was sure that a country in the region would relent and accept a ship full of refugees headed back to a war zone.

He was wrong.

After several weeks in limbo, four European countries agreed to take the ship’s refugees — England, France, Holland and Belgium.

Messinger’s family was sent to Belgium. They landed there in June of 1939 and immediately set out for France on foot.

« My father heard on the radio the Germans were 10 miles outside of Belgium, » he says. « We started walking to France hundreds of miles away, which was insane but we had no choice. »

Police guard the gangway as officials board the German liner MS St. Louis on its arrival in Antwerp on June 17, 1939. The ship had been at sea for more than a month at that point, carrying 937 mainly German-Jewish refugees from Nazi persecution. (Gerry Cranham/Fox Photos/Getty Images)The family made it as far as a little village in the Pyrenees, where they lived among its residents. The voyage was arduous and dangerous, and Messinger says those memories are still vivid in his mind.

« I remember we stopped a few times on the way, » he says. « My mother would lie on top of me as shots rang out around us, and there were German planes overhead. »

Although the family lived in relative safety for months in France, in October of 1940 they were arrested and sent to a detention camp.

​​Messinger and his mother were again separated from his father there. They slept in barracks on the ground without blankets, were infested with lice, and went hungry.

« For dinner we would have what they called a bowl of soup, » he explains. « It was water with some greasy spots. »

Messinger looks at a display of items connected to the WWII holocaust. He says they bring up difficult memories. (Perlita Stroh/CBC)

On Christmas Eve, Messinger and his mother escaped the camp. A few days later, his father did the same. Messinger says his parents took advantage of the guards getting drunk on the holidays and relaxing their watch.

The family returned to the French village they were in before, and resumed their efforts to secure a visa out of the country.

Since they were in a part of France that still had diplomatic relations with the U.S., they were eventually able to get visas and make their way to a ship in Portugal to set sail for New York.

« We got to New York on June 24, 1942, which I celebrate as my second birthday. For good reason, because I was really reborn that day, » he says.

Messinger holds a menorah that his family took with them when they fled Berlin in 1939. They managed to hold on to it throughout their journey until they reached the U.S. in 1942. (Perlita Stroh/CBC)​​Messinger and his family eventually settled in Buffalo, with members of their extended family, and he went on to enjoy a successful career as a pathologist.

Of the Jews who were turned away from Cuba on the MS St. Louis, 288 of the lucky ones were sent to England. Another 87 managed to leave Europe in 1940. Of those who didn’t find sanctuary, 278 survived the holocaust and 254 perished in concentration camps in Europe.

Messinger knows just how lucky he and his family were to survive.

« I feel very lucky I escaped — twice, » he says. « A friend of mine who lived in the French village near me, his family was picked up six weeks after we left and sent to Auschwitz. »

  • WATCH: The story about the MS St. Louis and Canada’s apology Wednesday on The National on CBC Television and streamed online


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Holocaust survivor shares story with Toronto students, reacts to deadly synagogue massacre – Toronto

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More than 700 students pack the auditorium at Upper Canada College to listen to Holocaust survivor 92-year old Dr. Vera Schiff tell her story in a calm, quiet voice.

“Hate and intolerance only brings disaster,” said Schiff, her family’s lone survivor.

“The only way to survive is to get along and respect one another.”

In 1942, Schiff’s family was deported to Theresienstadt, a ghetto and concentration camp, where she was assigned to work in the hospital. Her parents, sister and grandmother died there.

During history’s darkest chapter, she tells the packed auditorium, she found love. Schiff met her future husband Arthur. The days were long, but Schiff kept going for her mother.

“If everybody and everything let her down, I will live up to what she expected, what she hoped I would become,” she said.

Decades have passed since the Holocaust, but still the memories for Schiff and for the other survivors who take part in Holocaust Education Week are difficult and traumatic.

READ MORE: Jewish people, community allies answer call to #ShowUpForShabbat

But as Schiff explains, “If [the students] create a better world, then our efforts were invested.”

Jordan Weiss is among the students.

“We have to keep pushing even though we’ve had setbacks, such as the Pittsburgh shooting, we have to keep pushing keep fighting keep learning,” he said.

Another student, Phillip Kong, attended a trip UCC offers to students who want to further their Holocaust education.

READ MORE: Pittsburgh mom, children thank first responders following synagogue shooting

“We went to many death camps such as Majdanek, Auschwitz-Birkenau… when you’re actually there, it’s a whole other experience,” he said.

The teacher who leads the trip, and interviewed Vera Schiff on Monday, is Rachel Metalin. She has completed extensive Holocaust education training in Poland.

“For students to learn about a tragedy that, is of course a Jewish tragedy, but it’s also a human tragedy, and when we can connect to the humanity of that it’s really the catalyst for change,” said Metalin.

She recalled a trip overseas and a moment with one particular student.


“He looked up at me with just a look of shock and sadness and innocence and said, ‘It all really happened didn’t it? They really did that to those people?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, yeah it did,” she said with tears in her eyes.

Metalin noted if she can open just one student’s eyes to the dangers of anti-Semitism, then it is all worth it.

Just over a week ago, 11 Jews were killed while worshipping at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. Law enforcement officials reported the gunman said he wanted to “kill all the Jews.” The suspect, Robert Bowers, has been indicted on 44 charges, including 11 counts of obstruction of the free exercise of religious belief and use of a firearm to commit murder during a crime of violence.


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“It is very disappointing, it is frustrating and it is also a certain degree of fear that no matter what you do you don’t seem to be able to get the message across that violence breeds violence,” said Schiff.

Yet, she insisted, it is because of the Holocaust and because of the Pittsburgh massacre that she must keep sharing her story with future generations.

“To take the kids step by step and teach them that hate (and) intolerance is a non-viable option,” she said.

There are events across the GTA this week as part of the Neuberger’s annual signature program, Holocaust Education Week, which has recognized as a “best practice” in the field by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance. A big part of the program is first hand testimony by the remaining Holocaust survivors.

© 2018 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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