I’m looking at a broken man.
Osman Halane stands in his doorway, barefoot, dressed in a black suit jacket and pants. He’s just returned home from work, rain is battering at his walls and it’s black outside.
He looks at his wife and daughters, treads across his carpet and sinks into a chair beside me.
I’ve sat in many living rooms over the years, scribbling notes while the bereaved bare their unhealing wounds to me, a stranger. Osman’s pain is formidable. Meeting his bloodshot eyes, I’m trying not to tear up myself.
"I’m very sorry that tonight you will never sleep too," he says, clasping his hands. "It’s a nightmare, to be honest."
We’re talking about his son, Mahdi.
First, some background. With their homeland embroiled in civil war, Osman, wife Safia and family emigrated from Somalia in 1997. He was a referee for the Federation Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) and some colleagues here in Canada were kind enough to sponsor them.
The Halane’s chose Canada for its relative peace and settled in Surrey, hoping for a prosperous future for their five children.
Fast forward to 2006. Their son Mahdi, by now 18, was a tall, athletic young man who loved basketball. Filled with life, he was a practical joker who easily made friends.
"He was just like a typical brother who annoyed you when things went wrong and kind of was there to support you when you needed him too," his sister Juweria recalled.
After Mahdi’s graduation from Whalley’s Queen Elizabeth secondary school in June 2006, he worked at a call centre at the bottom of Peterson Hill and had planned to make some cash to attend college.
Later that summer, his dad sent him to Europe for a graduation gift, and he toured England and Denmark for the next couple of months before returning to Surrey.
With autumn came Ramadan and on Oct. 13th Safia wanted Mahdi to dine at home, but he had already made plans to celebrate a pal’s birthday at Boston Pizza. A friend picked him up in his car and off they went.
After the clock struck midnight, Mahdi called home to say he’d be another hour and his friend would drop him off.
Roughly four hours later, a Mountie was at the Halane’s door to tell them there had been a shooting and they needed to go to Royal Columbian Hospital.
"We didn’t know what to expect," Juweria recalled. "We didn’t know whether he was dead, alive, what was going to happen."
At RCH they were led to a room where a doctor came to tell them Mahdi had been shot, was in a coma and might die.
"My dad collapsed in the room. He just couldn’t fathom the idea that his son, who was just walking hours ago, is now in a coma, paralyzed, and possibly might not make it."
"It was shock," Osman explained.
"When they told us, like four o’clock in the morning, something like that. We took our car and we went to the hospital, I fell down. I collapsed.
"From there, we suffered like you can’t imagine. Six years, the young boy, he doesn’t move, and he’s moving from the neck only. Six years. You can feel how hard, the life he passed. He was in between death and life for six years. Still, he’s our son; we have hope he becomes, at least he’s moving his hand or his leg or some of his body," he says, rubbing his hands.
"But unfortunately, it doesn’t happen the way that we want it to. For these six years, we were out of control. For the first year, I stopped the work that I was doing. I was six months in a hospital."
The rest of Mahdi’s life, and that of his family, was marked by soul-crushing suffering and frustration.
"I think he was an innocent victim," Surrey RCMP Sgt. Mike Hall said of Mahdi. "He wasn’t involved in anything criminal."
Hall is in charge of Surrey RCMP’s Unsolved Homicides Unit and has been investigating this case since the night Mahdi was shot. "Through the years I have spent time with both Mahdi and his family and have seen the impact that this senseless shooting has had on all of them," Hall said.
"The persons responsible for the shooting likely have no idea the destructive effect their actions have had. Crimes like this, where innocent young people with their entire lives in front of them are subjected to unprovoked acts of deadly violence, are a priority for the police. Given the tragic circumstances of this particular case, the resolve of the police will not waiver until the persons responsible for this cowardly act are brought to justice."
In truth, to describe the crime as "stupid" would be an insult to stupidity itself.
The events that led to Mahdi’s shooting took place in the wee hours of Oct. 14th, 2006 at and near the Chevron gas station at 96th Avenue and 128th Street in Cedar Hills.
At 12:55 a.m. three of his buddies, all of them black, were waiting in line to buy something at the gas station’s after-hours window when a blue Chrysler 300 pulled up.
An East Indian man got out of the car, and joined the queue. He spat at the ground, and some of his gob hit the pants of one of Mahdi’s buddies. Hall doesn’t believe it was deliberate. Words were exchanged. The East Indian man called one of Mahdi’s buddies a "nigger" and Mahdi’s buddy punched the spitter, thinking it inevitable that fists would fly anyway.
"It spiraled downward from there."
Part of this confrontation was captured by the gas station’s surveillance camera.
The East Indian man and his friends then got back into the Chrysler and chased Mahdi’s pals, who had run away. They pursued them through the neighbourhood, yelling and calling them "niggers," but lost them. The three then called Mahdi, who had been driving around with two other buddies, and asked them to come help them as they’d just been in a fight.
At about 1:20 a.m. the six met, talked at the roadside for a few minutes, and then the first group walked back to the gas station. Meanwhile, Mahdi and his two pals were still standing at the roadside when the Chrysler 300 came roaring up and two East Indian men got out and confronted them, but quickly realized they weren’t the same group from the gas station fight. During this confrontation, Mahdi’s friends who were heading back to the gas station saw what was going on and ran back to where Mahdi was. The East Indian men talked about going to get a gun, got back into the Chrysler and took off.
At about 1:30 a.m. Mahdi’s pals involved in the gas station scrap walked to a house and Mahdi and his other friends drove off. Mahdi was in the front passenger seat. They happened to pass the Chrysler 300, which was heading in the opposite direction, and it pulled a U-turn and chased them. The Chrysler started to overtake them on the passenger side and shots were fired at the car Mahdi was in, hitting it several times.
Juweria said one of Mahdi’s friends later described the scene to her. She said he told her he heard yelling and all he saw was this vehicle coming at them, shooting at them, and they all ducked.
"He was like, ‘It just happened way too fast for me to even think,’ Juweria said, "And he was like, ‘We all ducked,’ and then he was like, ‘Your brother lifted his head up to see if they passed, and that’s when he got hit.’" Hall said it will ultimately be up to the courts to determine if the case, once charges are laid, will be prosecuted as a hate crime.
"During the initial investigation, we consulted the Hate Crime Unit on what happened," he said. "The evidence that we collect throughout the investigation, specifically on whether the shooting was racially motivated, will dictate the charges at the end of the day and whether the courts will take that into consideration whether there is evidence that the offence was motivated by, among other things, hate based on race or ethnic origin."
FAITH AND FRIENDS WERE VITAL
Mahdi had been shot in the neck, right below his right ear. The bullet grazed his left ear on its way out, after smashing his vertebrae.
He spent the rest of his life paralyzed from the neck down, with a ventilation machine breathing for him. Shot at 18, he died of kidney failure on March 25, 2012, at the age of 24.
"For six years he was paralyzed, and he died," Osman said, contemplating the horror of his son’s fate. "A lot of disaster we passed, and nightmare. We don’t know how to sleep."
Sitting down with the Halane family, even for a short while, you soon realize that they are what you call "good people." It’s difficult not to commiserate with them, feel angry at the lousy hand they’ve been dealt.
Faithfully, often three times a day, they visited Mahdi wherever he was, be it RCH, Vancouver General Hospital, GF Strong Rehabilitation Centre or George Pearson Centre, where he died.
At one point the family moved to Richmond from Surrey to be closer to him, as the commute was so expensive.
Osman said his daughters Juweria and Ramlo put their education on hold to help their brother.
"Because of this six years they are way behind," he said. "Way behind, way behind. It destroyed everything. Health, economically, education, everywhere. Everywhere."
Safia developed health problems, and Osman developed diabetes. He said in the months that followed the shooting Victim Services told him he should see a counsellor.
"What’s the benefit of that? I’m in a disaster. For six months, I didn’t have a mind. You ask me what I had for breakfast, I don’t know."
Juweria said Mahdi had a strong Sunni Muslim faith that got stronger after the shooting.
"He became really grounded." People would come every Friday to pray with him, and he made new friends that way. He also found some good friends in nurses, who celebrated his birthdays with him.
"We still kind of keep in touch with them until now," Juweria said.
He also had a good core of friends that remained loyal to him after the shooting. Right after it happened, they flooded into RCH.
"He always surrounded himself with good people," his sister Ramlo said. "He was friends with everybody. For something like that to happen was a shock to everybody. If you saw the amount of people that showed up to the hospital that night that he got shot, security couldn’t even handle the amount of people. They were telling people ‘You guys cannot have this many people here, you have to leave.’ We had so many people there that we didn’t realize he had this many friends. Friends from elementary school came. He never let friends go -he always had friends."
Mike Hall was also there, with other police officers.
‘HE ALWAYS HAD A SMILE’
Four days after the shooting, Mahdi woke up out of his coma, looking around and trying to figure out where he was. He was then transferred to VGH, where he spent almost a year before being transferred to GF Strong and finally George Pearson.
After Mahdi’s first surgery, his doctor told his family he might lose his ability to talk, will definitely never walk again, and that they should expect him to have respiratory, heart, digestive and kidney problems, and constant infections.
Despite Mahdi’s predicament, Juweria said, he never talked about giving up.
"He always said ‘I don’t want to die.’ That was his big thing."
"I think he was afraid of death," Ramlo added.
Juweria recalled that "weeks before he passed we were talking to him and he was like, ‘I don’t want to die.’" He’d get frustrated. Grand Mal seizures scared him. Ramlo said that’s because when he was out, he didn’t know if he’d come back.
She said the seizures were frightening for everyone.
"Because he was gone, and you’d think he was dead. He’d have five nurses on top of him, one of them is giving him CPR, the other one is doing this…"
Code Blue revivals were commonplace. "All these nurses and doctors are running, and then we’re like praying that he’s going to come out of it."
Juweria recalled once talking to him in the intensive care unit.
"He went into code, came back out of it and then he had a seizure shortly after and he was like ‘I felt like I was at peace.’ And he was like, ‘I kind of felt like people were bombarding me, in trying to get me out of this state,’ and he was like, ‘I felt like I wanted to just be in there for a little bit longer.’" He’d also get vicious headaches from the nurses pointing a flashlight in his eyes to bring him back. "He hated that."
Mahdi had a sip and puff for his phone and call bells, and a chin-controlled joystick for his wheelchair, provided by Victim Services.
Sometimes he fell into depression, Juweria said, "but he would never admit it."
Sometimes he’d get frustrated and shut down.
"More than anything, he put a big happy face on. He always had a smile on his face."
The Halanes were also provided with a special car to transport Mahdi to family gatherings, barbeques, concerts, movies and Playland.
"We tried as much as possible to act as a normal family, as if nothing was wrong with him, like he was still the same Mahdi," Juweria said.
It was a struggle for him to hold a conversation.
"He could, but it was very jagged-y, like his conversations would be cut through his breathing, because he had to learn how to talk again, in a sense, how to control his breathing," Juweria explained.
"When you’re naturally just talking, you’re breathing and you don’t think about your breathing, right, but when you’re on a ventilator you have to think about your breathing because it’s pushing air into you, and that air is not fully coming out. Sometimes it was really hard trying to understand him."
MORALE, DREAMS DESTROYED
Mahdi died at the residential care centre early on a Monday morning, ironically, when his doting family was not there.
Juweria saw him a few hours earlier on Sunday night, not knowing it would be their last. He was exhausted and off his food. She had brought him some Subway, put it in the fridge, and told him "Good night, I love you and will see you tomorrow."
Had he not been shot, she said, "I think he would either be in college or finished college and figuring out what kind of career path he wants to take, or he would be working or be in Europe, because when he went to London I know he loved it. I always thought he was going to go back some day.
"It’s difficult, it’s really hard. Let’s just say that when the day comes that somebody is actually charged with all of this, it’s not going to take away the pain, and it’s not going to bring Mahdi back."
He is buried in Chilliwack. "We couldn’t find anything close by," Juweria said. "We go there every month to visit him and say prayers for him."
Safia sat quietly through most of our interviewing. When she had something to say, Juweria translated for her.
"Mom says we left Somalia because of that civil war that was happening at the time, in the early ’90s, and coming here and going through that whole entire journey of being outside of the country was so that way we could have a better life and live as peaceful as possible, never did it ever cross her mind that one of her children was going to be gunned down. And that’s where a lot of the frustration is coming from," Juweria translated.
"Mom says that if you were to see their journey, mom and dad’s journey, coming from there to here, and the struggles that she’s gone through to ensure that we would have a better life, it doesn’t add up and it doesn’t give her the hopes that she’s had for us. This kind of destroys her morale, in a sense, and her dreams."