Canadians killed in Burkina Faso remembered warmly

MONTREAL — Two Canadians killed in a terror attack in Burkina Faso are being remembered for their efforts to bring about change in the West African country.

Tammy Chen and Bilel Diffalah died after the terrorist strike on a popular Turkish restaurant in downtown Ouagadougou on Sunday that claimed 18 lives.

Diffalah worked with an NGO in the West African country, while Chen helped found a charity called Bright Futures Burkina Faso and held degrees from McGill University and Queen’s University.

Odette McCarthy, director of the Centre for International Studies and Cooperation program for which Diffalah, 41, was a volunteer, remembered him as dynamic.

“He was a really dedicated volunteer,” McCarthy said Tuesday. “I had the opportunity to meet with him when I was there in May on a monitoring evaluation trip.

“I spent the day with him and I was very struck by his commitment, his passion and by his ability to really focus on building with the local partner solutions to the problems they were encountering.”

An expert in veterinary science, Diffalah was working as a volunteer at a local organization that was looking to improve the poultry industry by helping to design and improve quality control programs.

Diffalah was single and lived in Montreal prior to his posting.

He had lived in Canada for several years, studying food science and quality control at the University of Guelph, according to both McCarthy and his Facebook profile. He had a veterinary degree from University of Blida in Algeria.

Chen, who on Facebook went by her married name, Tammy Chen Fenaiche, married in July and was expecting her first child — a boy — her grandmother, Doris MacKay, told the Toronto Star.

Her husband was also listed among the dead.

The Toronto District School Board called Chen “the victim of a senseless act of violence” and said in a statement Monday she left her job as a French immersion teacher in 2013 to pursue her PhD at the University of Cambridge.

Gonville and Caius College, which is part of the university, extended its sympathies Tuesday, flying its flag at half-mast to mark the death of an “exceptional woman, passionate about her research and helping people.”

On its Twitter account, the college announced a PhD scholarship in Chen’s name.

Burkina Faso, a landlocked nation in West Africa, is one of the poorest countries in the world. It shares a northern border with Mali, which has long battled Islamic extremists.

Diffalah’s slaying was the first time the Centre for International Studies and Cooperation has lost a volunteer in a terror attack. But the organization, which has operated in the country since 1985 and has local staff and 28 volunteers on the ground, will remain, McCarthy said.

“Security and safety are our biggest priority always and whenever an event like this happens worldwide and happens in countries where we’re operating, we always take stock and revise our security measures,” she said.

“Burkina Faso remains a very stable country, it’s not a country at war, it’s a country that just transitioned to a democratically elected government, so we will remain engaged in the country.”

McCarthy said she doesn’t know why Diffalah was at the Aziz Istanbul, an upscale Turkish restaurant near the site of a January 2016 attack at another cafe that left 30 people dead, including six Quebecers.

“It was a restaurant that was for us on a list of places we recommended not to go to,” she said.

“We ask our volunteers not to go to places where there are a lot of people, masses of people or where there’s a lot of foreigners.”

In a statement, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau offered his condolences, saying he was deeply saddened by the incident and condemning what he called a heinous and cowardly attack.

“People should not have to live in fear over their safety and security — no matter where they call home or where they travel,” he said.

“We will continue to work closely with the international community to fight terrorism and bring those responsible to justice.”

In addition to the two Canadians, three Lebanese were killed, while other victims came from Kuwait, Senegal, Nigeria, Turkey and France, according to a state prosecutor. Eight of the dead were citizens of Burkina Faso, authorities said.

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