For international students who live in the Progress Campus residence at Centennial College and are spending the holidays in Toronto, there is no escaping the reminder that two of their residence mates were killed on Sunday.
Those studying at the school have little choice but to walk west down Progress Avenue from the residence towards Markham Road to get to the bus stop, the supermarket or a McDonald’s on the corner where many students eat.
Along the way, they must pass the spot and small memorial of flowers and playing cards where 19-year-old Wei Jie Zhu Li and his friend 19-year-old Damir Kussain were killed, and where Zhu Li’s older brother, 20-year-old Jun Jie Zhu Li, was injured.
Kussain’s friends are remembering him as a young man from Kazakhstan who loved to talk, play poker, and study robotics. He also talked about his mother who encouraged him to come to Canada for a better life, those dreams shattered when he was struck and killed by an alleged impaired driver.
Carlos Hinojosa, from Peru, was near tears when he talked about the sudden death of his friend Kussain. Hinojosa said he received a text message from him at 6:28 p.m. on Sunday that said, “Hi. Poker?”
Hinojosa said the two frequently played cards and he expected his friend to join him with others that evening, but never realized something had happened until much later.
It was at 6:34 p.m. when police said they got a call for a crash at the corner of Markham Road and Progress Avenue. When investigators arrived, they found the two teens without vital signs and a third in serious condition.
Hinojosa said he is still in shock and called it incredible that just minutes after sending that text, Kussain was fatally struck.
On Damir Kussain’s mother’s Instagram page, she frequently posted about her son. On Sept. 13, just a month after her son moved to Toronto to begin his studies in robotics, she wrote proudly about his journey.
“I’m so glad to have a lot of prospects and happy days waiting for him! A better future for his child – what else can a parent dream of,” she wrote.
Hinojosa said Kussain frequently spoke about his mother and her support.
“(She) encouraged him to stay here because it’s a great opportunity for him. However, he also says his mother is struggling with the fees,” he said.
Stuart O’Brien, who lived in residence with Kussain, spoke to Global News from his home in Guelph. He said he’s heartbroken that his friend was killed.
“He was just the nicest person you could have ever met,” O’Brien recalled, adding Kussain told him he was planning on exchanging secret Santa gifts with some of his residence mates and having a Christmas dinner over the holidays.
Meanwhile, the accused, Michael Johnson of Pickering, is facing nine charges — including two counts of impaired operation causing death, two counts of having more than 80 milligrams of alcohol in 100 millilitres of blood causing death and two counts of dangerous operation causing bodily harm.
On Monday, the 40-year-old was denied bail. He was remanded in custody and will be back in court by video on Jan. 3.
Centennial College officials said on-site grief counselling will be provided for the approximately 250 students living on campus over the holiday break — many of them too far from home to make the trip.