Construction worker who fell to death was refugee from Iraq
Young construction worker dreamed of bringing his brother to Canada and reuniting his family.
Toronto Star, 27/6/2014
Sarmad Iskander didn’t always have time to eat after work before rushing off to night school twice a week to improve his English.
Iskander had good reason to keep so busy: he wanted to reunite all his family in Toronto, where his mother and sister live, and that would mean sponsoring his older brother, who was in Sweden.
But on Monday the 22-year-old construction worker from Baghdad died when he toppled from the 28th floor of a downtown condo project where he had been installing balcony railings.
Two days later Iskander’s friends and cousins gathered in a second-floor office of the Iraqi Community Services of Ontario (ICS) to remember him.
“Because we are Christian from Iraq, we have very close relationships with our families, brother, sisters, mother, father — we need to be together all the time,” explains Bassam Eskander, one of Iskander’s cousins. “This is our thing, and the other things are not that important.”
Some were eager to show the Star reporter photos of Iskander on their phones. There were fond memories, pain and tears as they remembered the man who was like a brother to all of them — quick to help others in need and possessing a ready sense of humour.
Iskander, they said, fled Iraq in 2009 for Syria with his family to live in Damascus, part of a larger Christian community that has faced persecution and displacement in Iraq’s ongoing tumult.
And now his death Monday has devastated a family already stricken by loss and separation. Iskander’s father died in Iraq in 2007 while defending himself from an attack in his mini-mart, Eskander said. The family sent his older brother, Sami, to live in Sweden following a kidnapping attempt.
In December 2010 the rest of the family arrived in Toronto, sponsored as refugees. Iskander worked at a cheese factory and built wooden pallets. He eventually got hired by Ramzi Installations and was putting in the glass railings at a condo near Bay and Bloor Sts. the day he fell.
He was single, without a girlfriend, and lived in Etobicoke with his mother, whom he supported. (His sister had moved out after she got married.) His mother was taken to the hospital upon hearing of her son’s death, said George Yako of ICS.
A cousin, Philip Odeesh, recalled they spent last Sunday in a park last Sunday, playing soccer, drinking tea and talking about work. At one point, Iskander told him: “Phillip, I wish, I wish, that’s the only dream I have, I want my brother to be here with me.”
The two brothers had a friendly soccer rivalry, he said. Iskander rooted for Brazil and Real Madrid and Sami for Argentina and FC Barcelona. Among those close to him in Toronto, there could be friendly bets on soccer matches for a cup of coffee or a sandwich.
“He didn’t get what he was dreaming for … his brother to be with him,” said Odeesh, his voice strained.
Odeesh has a job similar to Iskander’s, but for a different company. On Monday he was driving back to the company shop when his manager called with news of the accident.
He tried dialing Iskander’s cell. “I’m hoping, like, please God … and nothing. I can’t explain to you what is it, how I feel.”
It is still unclear how Iskander fell. Ontario Ministry of Labour is still investigating the accident. (Falls are the leading cause of death among construction workers in Ontario.)
Friends did not remember Iskander as someone who took unnecessary risks. Odeesh said that if he were driving above the speed limit, Iskander would tell him to slow down.
The day Iskander died, Odeesh handed over the keys for the work truck and quit his job.
But he explained the safety rules that railing installers are supposed to follow: how they could not drop even a single screw because it could seriously injure someone on the ground; how they were to wear a safety harness at all times while on the balcony. The harness is secured to a pier or to an anchor drilled into concrete and rated at 5,000 pounds.
He said when he goes out now to his own condo balcony to have a cigarette, he can’t look down. “You try to find a better life for yourself — but we are the same time killing ourselves.”
Ramzi Benyamen, the owner of Ramzi Installations, said he’s not sure if he can continue with the job at the condo where Iskander fell.
“I’m not thinking about going back to work — like, it’s very hard for me, for my guys,” said Benyamen, who remembered Iskander as a nice guy and a hard worker. “We sit together, all the guys together, we are really, really very, very upset.”
According to Benyamen, Iskander was not working alone when he fell but that they don’t yet know exactly what happened. “(The) ministry, they (are) checking everything.”
Iskander’s family and friends are hoping that Ottawa will allow his brother to join his mother in Toronto.