Austin Grabish

Making things right

‘I was just so scared,’ Winnipeg woman caught in middle of violent clash in South Sudan

Hundreds are dead as tensions continue to rise in the country

By Austin Grabish, CBC News

Posted: Jul 22, 2016 5:00 AM CT
Last Updated: Jul 22, 2016 5:00 AM CT

Elizabeth Andrea, 51, returned to Winnipeg from South Sudan on Thursday, July 21st. The Winnipeg grandma had to take cover during a violent clash between South Sudan’s government and rebel forces earlier this month.
Elizabeth Andrea, 51, returned to Winnipeg from South Sudan on Thursday, July 21st. The Winnipeg grandma had to take cover during a violent clash between South Sudan’s government and rebel forces earlier this month. (Austin Grabish/CBC)

When Elizabeth Andrea saw the armoured car, she knew something wasn’t right. But when she saw people running, she knew she had to take cover.

The Winnipeg grandmother returned home Thursday from a peacekeeping trip to Rumbek that came to a crashing halt due to escalating violence in South Sudan.

Recent clashes between the country’s military and rebel forces have left at least 300 dead. Andrea was in Juba, South Sudan’s capital when fighting erupted on July 7th.

“We saw people running,” she said. “We saw the bodies.”

Andrea said she ran to the concrete home she was staying in when the violent clash happened and credits it with saving her life.

“I was just so scared.”

Speaking in her Winnipeg home Thursday, she said she thought to herself, “I’m there. My children are here, and somebody could die anytime.”

She said she worried she was going to be caught in the crossfire when she was trying to make it home to Winnipeg. The country’s airport was shut down due to the escalating violence, and the Canadian embassy was also closed.

‘We didn’t expect that kind of thing would happen again’

Andrea, who immigrated to Winnipeg in 1998 from South Sudan, said the killings in her country shocked her.

“We didn’t expect that kind of thing would happen again.”

“It’s out of control,” she said as a poster of Nelson Mandela hanging in her living room peeked over her shoulder.

South Sudanese community grappling with news

Reuben Garang, a South Sudanese man, who is better known as a ‘Lost Boy’ for fleeing his country in 1987 with thousands of other children, said the news coming from home is “very disturbing.”

lost boy
Reuben Garang, who is known as a ‘Lost Boy’ for fleeing South Sudan in 1987 with thousands of other children, said Winnipeg’s South Sudanese community is trying to stay united. (Austin Grabish/CBC)

“For a long time, I have never lost hope. This time, it’s very difficult for me not to say that I’m not losing hope, and this is because of the complexity of the situation,” Garang told CBC Radio Thursday.

Garang said the war is creating division in the South Sudanese community, and its local leaders are trying to keep people united.

“It is very difficult to imagine that our own leaders, people that have helped in the struggle (for independence) have turned the country into a killing ground.”

Andrea said despite the violence, she remains hopeful the government and opposition forces will be able to work out a peace agreement.

“We want our people to live in peace.”

‘Lost girl’ returns to South Sudan to find hundreds slaughtered

Rebecca Deng, who fled to Winnipeg in 2005, back in South Sudan to start women’s centre

By Austin Grabish, CBC News

Posted: Jul 19, 2016 1:34 PM CT
Last Updated: Jul 19, 2016 7:42 PM CT
Rebecca Deng, who fled to Winnipeg more than a decade ago, says she was shocked to return home to South Sudan to find hundreds of people slaughtered.

A South Sudanese woman who fled to Winnipeg a decade ago says she’s in shock after returning home to find hundreds of people slaughtered.

“I thought my country would be in peace. I thought nothing would happen again,” Rebecca Deng told CBC when reached by phone in Juba, South Sudan.

Deng arrived in South Sudan, on July 6 to help start a women’s resource centre in the city.

But a clash between rebel forces and the country’s military, which has left hundreds dead, including women and children, has stalled her plan to empower women.

When Deng arrived, bodies lay outside the compound where she’s staying, and heavy fighting continued until Sunday.

“You don’t even know who’s fighting with who. People are wearing the same uniform and carrying the same gun,” she said.

During the violence, soldiers were drinking and then raping women, Deng said.

“It’s so, so painful seeing a pregnant woman being raped and you can’t talk. If you talk, you got shot,” Deng said.

Troops took Deng’s cellphone away and detained her for over an hour for taking a photo of women crossing the road.

“Not even take a picture of the body,” she said, speaking of the many bodies that have littered the ground.

“It’s easy to get shot, so you have to be careful,”

‘I’m not giving up’

The mood has calmed in Juba, but people are now searching for food because thieves looted homes and markets during the violence, said Deng.

“For the children and women, there is no food,” she said.

Deng is leaving Juba Wednesday but is to return to South Sudan in a few weeks to start work on a women’s centre in Bor, where 33 women were killed in 2013.

“I’m not giving up. I’m still carrying on my vision with other women.… I want to support the women. I want to show them that we share the same pain.”

In 1987, when she was 13, Deng and thousands of other South Sudanese children fled for an Ethiopian refugee camp.

The children became known as the lost boys and girls of South Sudan.

Deng has lived in Winnipeg since 2005 and is a human rights student at the University of Winnipeg.

APTOPIX South Sudan Rebels Return

South Sudanese rebel soldiers raise their weapons at a military camp in the capital Juba, South Sudan, on April 7. (Jason Patinkin/Associated Press)

Thousands flock to support love in Manitoba’s Bible Belt at inaugural Pride

Steinbach_pride_sign_DX.jpg
Jennifer Schroeder, 24, is from Steinbach and said she went against her family’s beliefs by attending the city’s first Pride. Austin Grabish / Daily Xtra

You might say it was worth the trip.

By Austin Grabish, Daily Xtra

STEINBACH, Man. – They got their march, and there were no protesters.

“Love always wins,” said Michelle McHale, the driving force behind Steinbach’s first Pride March.

“I never in a million years dreamed that I would see this before me,” McHale said.

“We kind of thought that if we got all our friends together, family members maybe we’d have 200 people.”

 

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Steinbach Pride organzier Michelle McHale and her partner Karen Phillips lead Steinbach’s first Pride march.

There was no official tally of those in attendance, but an RCMP spokesman estimated as many as 3,000 came out to today’s march and rally.

There were so many people out in support of Steinbach’s first Pride, the march and a rally that followed at city hall were delayed twice.

“Apparently, our roads are not designed for love,” one man shouted.

 

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Many supporters showed up with signs.

 

McHale told a packed children’s park, where the march started, traffic was bumper to bumper backed up all the way to Ste. Anne Man., located some 15 minutes outside the city.

Numbers aside, history was made today in this rural Manitoba city.

Many in Steinbach, a staunchly Conservative community, have fought for months against today’s march. Some threatened to protest.

 

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Supporters of Steinbach Pride came out in droves.

 

But there were no protesters seen on city streets here today.

Instead, a sea of rainbow colours and signs denouncing homophobic comments made by some community members brushed over this normally quiet city.

 

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Months of controversy surrounded today’s march.

 

Some criticized the noticeable absence of local politicians like Conservative MP Ted Falk, who said attending Pride would go against his beliefs. Others held signs saying, “God loves gays” and “cancer is not caused by homosexuality.”

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Some held signs denouncing the decision by local politicians like Conservative MP Ted Falk to skip Steinbach’s first Pride. 

 

Lynn Barkman, a local school trustee, had suggested cancer was caused by homosexuality in June when explaining her reason for opposing LGBT talk in middle school.

Many said today marked a new day for local queer people.

“I’m going to say something that I never thought I’d say in a million years: Happy Steinbach Pride everyone,” said Chris Plett, a local Mennonite.

“A new Steinbach is being born in this moment and freedom for the LGBTTQ community is on its way,” McHale said.

 

Saint Boniface—Saint Vital MP Dan Vandal read a speech on behalf of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and left a signed copy with Pride organizers.

“We must continue to support those who have experienced discrimination and remember that we cannot let up on the fight against bigotry,” Vandal said on behalf of Trudeau.

Jennifer Schroeder, 24, is from Steinbach and held a pink sign that said “Jesus had two dads and turned out fine.”

Schroeder said she knew holding the sign went against her family’s beliefs.

“We need to break the lines,” “You know there’s tension here in the community, and we need change to happen.”

Mason Godwaldt, 18, was instrumental in organizing Saturday’s march.

The trans man came out last June and said although there’s lots of positive change happening in Steinbach many are still scared to admit they are part of the LGBT community.

“That’s because there are still so many people that don’t agree with it. So instead of being shunned by family and friends they hide who they are. They put on a mask and deny them true selves. I know this because I lived that life,” Godwaldt said.

 

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Michelle McHale gets ready to speak on the steps of Steinbach City Hall, which refused to support its community’s first Pride.

 

Most of the supporters at Pride that spoke with Daily Xtra were from Winnipeg, but McHale said there were plenty from Steinbach.

She said she was surprised there were no protesters since some had threatened to take to the streets.

Still, McHale said she expects local queer people will be shunned in the future, but she left those people with a strong message.

“We will not be silent any longer.”

“Love is love is love,” shouted a woman in the crowd after McHale made the comment.

IMG_5501.jpg

McHale said her message to local LGBT people living in the area to find their allies.

“Allies want to help, but they don’t always know to do,” she said.

Steinbach Mayor Chris Goertzen was also absent from Saturday’s Pride. He didn’t return requests for comment.

McHale said there will be a Pride celebration again next year.

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First Pride divides community in Manitoba’s Bible Belt

Homosexual sin ‘disgusts me,’ says one Steinbach local, as others prepare for historic march

Michelle McHale is organizing Steinbach’s first Pride march on July 9, 2016. Many in Steinbach, a staunchly Conservative and predominately Mennonite city, are opposed to homosexuality. (Austin Grabish/Daily Xtra)
 Gay history is expected to be made this weekend in the Bible Belt of Manitoba.

Steinbach, Manitoba’s third largest city, is gearing up for its very first Pride march and the celebration is already rife with controversy.

The march, scheduled to take place Saturday, July 9, 2016, is the result of a long-fought battle in the predominantly Mennonite community.

Organizer Michelle McHale doesn’t think it will become violent but says to expect resistance.

I do expect protesters. I expect that to happen just given some of the things that we’ve heard,” she says.

“It’s all kind of surreal,” she adds of the parade she never thought would come to Steinbach.

The battle to this point

The battle over LGBT rights in Steinbach boiled over this spring after school board trustees bristled first at McHale’s request, then at a student’s request to revise their guidelines prohibiting discussion of LGBT issues until high school.

Steinbach’s newspaper the Carillon reported that trustee Lynn Barkman opposed introducing LGBT issues in middle school because, she believes, students are not equipped to understand the complexities of sexuality.

Teachers, students and parents in the district “know that our culture is changing,” she said according to the Carillon, but “that does not suggest that we should abandon truth.”

Barkman, who is a nurse, then linked the rise of sex education in Toronto to a heightened risk of cancer, the Carillon reported.

“I just feel that there is enough cancer around and the increase in cancer is phenomenal,” she said.

Carillon reporter Ian Froese told Daily Xtra some applauded after Barkman made the comment.

“I thought it was one of the loudest cheers any trustee got,” Froese said in a message.

McHale and her partner, who left Steinbach in May, have now filed a human rights complaint against the Hanover School Division for its ongoing refusal to allow classroom discussions of LGBT issues until high school due to their “sensitive” nature.

(Michelle McHale left Steinbach after facing backlash for her attempt to bring LGBT issues into school curriculum. She says her son was also bullied for having two moms./Austin Grabish/Daily Xtra)

School board confrontation only the latest

In 2003, a federal committee visited Steinbach to talk about legalizing same-sex marriage. Those vehemently opposed to homosexuality came out in droves to voice their opposition to gay marriage.

Their concerns, along with gay marriage proponents’ voices, are documented in over 200 archived pages online.

The road to Pride

Proponents of Steinbach Pride have fought for months and have had to cut through bureaucratic hoops to get here.

After initially refusing to issue a permit for the Pride march, Manitoba RCMP say their commanding officer will now attend the event.

McHale says police have reassured her they’ll keep Saturday’s march safe.

She reiterates Saturday’s event is about love.

“We will not engage in protesters. That’s not what we’re there for.”

‘The politicians not showing is really disappointing’

Steinbach’s local politicians are skipping out on Saturday’s event.

The region’s Conservative MP Ted Falk says he won’t attend due to personal family values — though he initially blamed his upcoming absence on a commitment to attend a Frog Follies festival, before the festival’s organizer publicly urged him to attend Pride instead.

The area’s provincial MLA, Kelvin Goertzen, won’t attend Pride either, and has balked at media queries about his absence.

Steinbach’s mayor won’t be there either.

(steinbachonline.com)

“The politicians not showing is really disappointing to me,” says Evan Wiens, 20.

Wiens brought Steinbach into the spotlight in 2013 when he tried to start a gay-straight alliance in the city’s high school.

He says he knows progress is being slowly made, but was still shocked to learn there’d be a Pride march in Steinbach.

“I didn’t think I would ever hear the words Steinbach Pride, at least this soon,” he says.

‘There are lots of good people there’

Wiens says it’s been touching to see public support for the march and broader LGBT acceptance.

“People always viewed me as the lone gay person in the town,” he says.

He makes a point of saying not everyone in Southeastern Manitoba is homophobic.

“At the end of the day, I don’t like to personally paint Steinbach with an ugly brush, because I know that there are lots of good people there.”

But opposition remains widespread

Those opposed to Saturday’s Pride march, and homosexuality in general, have been vocal about their outrage, often taking to social media to vent their concerns.

 

‘I don’t feel it’s right they push their agenda like that’

Marcy Kornelsen, 59, is one of several locals who’ve expressed outrage about the march on Facebook.

Reached by phone in Steinbach, she told Daily Xtra she would be staying far away from the march. “I’m outraged,” she says.

“I’m a Christian. I believe the Bible and the Bible says that homosexuality is a sin and so that is why I don’t agree with the promotion of it.”

Kornelsen likened gay people to thieves. “Stealing is wrong, and homosexuality is wrong. It’s all on the same page.”

“I don’t feel it’s right that they push their agenda like that.”

Asked if gay people disgust her, she had this to say:

“I don’t know if the people itself disgust me. It’s the whole idea of the homosexual sin that disgusts me.”

“That part I’m just like, ‘really how can anybody even want to do something like that?’”

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‘People don’t move’: Strollers vs. wheelchairs on Winnipeg Transit

Advocates say overcrowded buses and parents with strollers are leaving wheelchair users on the curb, so who should get a seat?

Posted: Jul 04, 2016 5:45 AM CT
Last Updated: Jul 04, 2016 6:07 AM CT

Libby Zdriluk, 30, says finding a spot on Winnipeg Transit is becoming harder due to crammed buses and parents with strollers taking up accessible spots.  Libby Zdriluk, 30, says finding a spot on Winnipeg Transit is becoming harder due to crammed buses and parents with strollers taking up accessible spots. (Austin Grabish/CBC)

By Austin Grabish, CBC News

People living with disabilities are calling on the City of Winnipeg to make sure they can catch a seat on the bus hassle-free.

Advocates say overcrowded buses and parents with strollers are leaving wheelchair users on the curb.

The Independent Living Resource Centre said parents with strollers are taking up accessibility spots on buses on a daily basis.

Allen Mankewich, a wheelchair user and consultant with the Independent Living Resource Centre, said it’s an issue he deals with regularly.

“I had an issue myself the other day. There was myself on the bus, one of my colleagues [and an] oversized stroller with three wheels on the bus,” Mankewich said.

Allen Mankewich Allen Mankewich, a wheelchair user and consultant with the Independent Living Resource Centre, said Winnipeg Transit should create a policy so oversized strollers don’t take wheelchair spots on Winnipeg Transit buses. (Austin Grabish/CBC)

“We basically had to play Tetris to get ourselves in and out of the bus.”

Libby Zdriluk, 30, uses a power wheelchair to get around and said she’s had to wait in frigid temperatures during the winter because strollers have taken the only space available for wheelchairs.

She wants Winnipeg Transit drivers to make sure wheelchair users get on the bus hassle- and confrontation-free.

Currently people with disabilities are being left to fend for themselves, she said.

“I just wish the drivers would automatically say ‘move over’ or ‘get off the bus for a minute,’ but they just don’t seem to do that,” she said.

The City of Winnipeg said it has decals on all of its low-floor buses to indicate designated areas for wheelchairs and strollers.

Spokeswoman Alissa Clark said drivers are trained to help passengers with wheelchairs or strollers and are supposed to ask riders without mobility issues to move if a seat is needed.

But Eva Beaudoin, 58, said it’s always a struggle finding room on the bus when there’s a stroller. She said she finds it awkward asking people to move so she can ride the bus.

“I have to practically ask for a seat and then I get a dirty look,” Beaudoin said.

“People don’t move.”

But not everyone in the disability community feels wheelchairs should be given priority over strollers.

Winnipeg disability advocate Jim Derksen said he wants the City of Winnipeg to add more flexible seating on its buses, so both wheelchairs and strollers have more room.

“I believe in universal design and don’t think our needs are any more important than parents with children,” Derksen said.

John Callahan, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1505, which represents Winnipeg bus drivers, said the union wants more buses put on the street to help deal with the issue.

He said drivers have raised concerns about strollers taking accessibility spots on the bus and the absence of a policy instructing drivers what to do about it.

“It’s something that’s been around for a long time, but there’s been no official stand on how to approach it,” Callahan said.

“I think they need to look real seriously at it.”

U.K. Supreme Court case

In the U.K., the battle between a wheelchair user and a bus firm has gone to the country’s Supreme Court.

Disability activist Doug Paulley took his case to a lower court in 2012 after being told he could not get on a bus when a mother with a stroller refused to move.

The Supreme Court held a hearing into the case in June and Paulley said he hopes to receive a ruling from the court in the coming months.

He said he is optimistic about the case and hopes it will end with better enforcement of the rights of people with disabilities.

“Public transport should be available for everybody,” Paulley, 38, told CBC News via Skype from Wetherby, England.

Raw sewage plagues Shoal Lake 40

Austin Grabish / For Metro                                   Kavin Redsky, a Shoal Lake contractor, takes a break from clearing garbage at Shoal Lake 40's only garbage dump. The dump is close to homes and is leaking into the community's only untreated water souce, a new report by Human Rights Watch has found.
Kavin Redsky, a Shoal Lake contractor, takes a break from clearing garbage at Shoal Lake 40’s only garbage dump. The dump is close to homes and is leaking into the community’s only untreated water source, a new report by Human Rights Watch has found.
By Austin Grabish For Metro

SHOAL LAKE, Ont. — Kavin Redsky is pushing a front-loader trying to keep garbage off the road.

Down the street, untreated raw sewage is seeping into the ground.

“This is our main road,” Redsky says. ”It’s pretty nasty eh?”

Sewage leakage on Shoal Lake 40 and the absence of clean drinking water are two of several issues documented in a 92-page report Human Rights Watch is set to release Tuesday in Toronto.

The New York-based human rights watchdog’s report titled, “Make It Safe: Canada’s Obligation to End the First Nations Water Crisis,” has found tainted water and broken septic systems are “jeopardizing” health for First Nations people living on five reserves in Ontario.

In Shoal Lake 40, families are using bleach in baths, children are growing up without clean water, and sewage is leaking into the community’s only water source, according to the report.

“The septic fields, the tanks, the pumps, everything is failing,” said Chief Erwin Redsky.

The human rights group said the federal government’s failure to provide First Nations with water and septic systems that are on par with what other Canadians enjoy is “discriminatory and violates the rights of First Nations persons to equality before the law.”

It also said the water crisis is impeding on First Nations’ cultural rights recognized by international law.

“The water crisis is the result of years of discrimination compounded by lack of accountability,” said Amanda Klasing, the Human Rights Watch researcher, who penned the report.

Shoal Lake 40, located near the Manitoba-Ontario border, was severed from the mainland a century ago during the construction of an aqueduct to carry fresh water to the City of Winnipeg.

While clean water flows into Winnipeggers’ taps, members of the First Nation have been under a boil water advisory for 18 years — an irony that has brought national attention to the issue of water access on First Nation communities.

Metro visited the reserve last week and spotted green liquid sewage dumped in grass just steps off of the community’s main road, where homes are located at the end.

Garbage left by community members, who have nowhere else to take it, was also seen floating in ditches and spread across the main road.

“It’s not pretty,” said Stewart Redsky, who is a community social worker.
Redsky said Shoal Lake 40’s sewer truck operator is embarrassed to show visitors the sewage that Metro found.

“He says himself ‘I don’t want to show anybody what we are forced to do,’’ he said.

Redsky said many visitors who come to Shoal Lake 40 come thinking the reserve’s problems have been corrected, but the community’s struggles are far from over.

“I actually get a little bit emotionally stirred up when people come in with that perception,” he said.

“It’s just the beginning.”

 

Kenneth Redsky, a Shoal Lake 40 sewer operator, stands next to a septic truck that collects waste in the community. The truck has been dumping raw sewage on land across the reserve, which has no working sewage plant.
Kenneth Redsky, a Shoal Lake 40 sewer operator, stands next to a septic truck that collects waste in the community. The truck has been dumping raw sewage on land across the reserve, which has no working sewage plant.
In April, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spent a day touring Shoal Lake, but Chief Redsky said despite the high-profile visit, nothing’s changed.

“We’re still isolated. Our road’s still not passable right now,” he said.

“We can’t dispose of our waste. We’re on this artificial island with nowhere to take it.”

But still, Redsky said he remains optimistic about his community’s plight.

The design for an all-year road dubbed ‘Freedom Road,’ which would take the community out of isolation and provide access to the reserve all year, is almost done, and construction on it could start as early as October, he said.

Currently, the only way into the community is through a barge or a deadly winter road, which has claimed the lives of band members, who have died falling through the ice.

“Everybody takes roads for granted. For us it’s life and death,” the chief said.

‘I don’t want to go home in a coffin’: Five years on, Lake St. Martin residents dying to go home

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Margaret Traverse (left), 77, weeps as she offers her condolences to Edee O’Meara, whose mother Maryanne O’Meara passed away on Mother’s Day.

By Austin Grabish For Metro

Edee O’Meara stands in a hotel room preparing to say goodbye to her mom, wearing a shimmering black dress and sparkling new high heels.

Her mother Shee Sheeb, a Lake St. Martin elder, left specific instructions and a prepaid debit card for this night.

“She said make sure all my grandchildren are dressed nice.” So, her three daughters are in “pretty dresses” for the funeral.

Shee Sheeb, known only on paper as Maryanne O’Meara, died in St. Boniface Hospital on Mother’s Day. She had a heart attack in March and was suffering from anxiety. She was 68.

She is the latest band member from Lake St. Martin to die.

It’s gone now, but a portable hospital bed once filled the cramped hotel room that She Sheeb called home.

O’Meara said her mom developed stress-related illness and anxiety two years after Lake St. Martin flooded in 2011, which left the band’s 2,000 members homeless.

“She was a picture of health,” she said. “If we were not evacuated we would not be doing this right now.”

Austin Grabish / For Metro
Edee O’Meara prepares the blanket to go over her mother’s casket in the hotel room she lived in before she died. Shee Sheeb is the latest band member to pass away.

A ground-breaking ceremony was held in June of last year to symbolize the rebuilding of the community. However, hundreds are still waiting for their homes to be rebuilt, and there is no firm completion date, according to the federal government.

The province is also cutting a channel from Lake St. Martin to Lake Manitoba, to help it drain more quickly in times of higher water.

In the meantime, the community is suffering dramatic losses due to suicide and to their people being exposed to higher-risk lifestyles in the city.

There’s a knock at the door. Lake St. Martin’s oldest elder Margaret Traverse, 77, arrives to offer her condolences.

Traverse lives two doors down from Shee Sheeb and is frail as she weeps. “It never used to be like this.”

Shee Sheeb’s body arrives and is waiting down the hall outside.
Women drum asking the Creator for help as the casket makes its way into the hotel’s ballroom – the same room evacuees pick up their monthly living allowance.

It becomes standing room only as hundreds come to say their goodbyes.
Standing in front of the casket, Lanna Moon, 7, stands proud and sings, “I love my granny.”

She’s so small you can’t see her at the back of the room, but her voice still manages to bring the room to tears.

“I don’t want to go home in a coffin,” said Traverse, staring ahead at Shee Sheeb’s casket.

“That’s what they all say,” a relative sitting next to Traverse replied.