Solmeltha Gabriel is grateful to the many people who gave her courage in her journey to escape domestic violence.
The neighbour who brought her into her home and encouraged her to call police when she was found huddled with her seven-day-old son sleeping in a stairwell after being locked out of her apartment by her abuser.
The doctor who recorded her physical abuse after being thrown through a window.
The Canada immigration employee who did not accept the withdrawl of her citizenship application when she heard that Gabriel was trying to escape an abusive relationship.
The police officers who treated her dignity and without judgement after reporting her abuse several times and returning to the relationship.
The Victims Services Toronto crisis counsellors who became family, showing her how to be safe and supporting her as she left the relationship.
But in the end, it was Gabriel who was recognized by the Toronto Police Service with the Leading the Path Award on May 29 for being the one who took a stand for herself and her children during National Victims and Survivors of Crime Week.
“I never thought of myself as a strong person and I’m humbled that others think that of me. What I do, I do for my kids,” said Gabriel, who thanked both Victim Services Toronto and the Toronto Police Service for their commitment to her case. “Victim Services was there for me when I had no one else. With them I built the courage and as we know, courage is the first commitment to success and I so much wanted to succeed.”
She said the police officers who responded to her calls listened without interruption and encouraged her to move forward with her case, ensuring she knew who to call if she felt unsafe.
“At first I hesitated to call through my ordeal. But when I did my experience was nothing like I was told,” she said. “To me, the Toronto Police they have treated me always with respect and have showed up and listened without any judgement and they encouraged me to leave.”
Constable Patty Retsinas, who met Gabriel along with her sons at a youth painting program, nominated her for the award, recognizing the courage it took.
“You are showing others the way to a better life through self-improvement by leading the path. It takes a lot of courage to ask for help,” said Retsinas, who also recognized the community’s role in Gabriel’s success story.
“I don’t know that neighbour is that helped Solmeltha that day but that person had a huge impact on Solmeltha’s life and helped start the process to safety and may have very well saved the lives of her and her baby,” said Retsinas, who noted it is people like that in the community who make the work of police easier. “It’s important we work together with our communities to make it safe for each other and everyone. Thank you to everyone for stepping up and speaking up.”
Gabriel came to Canada in 1998 at age 24, meeting the man who would become her husband and sponsor her to stay.
“Little things started to not feel right,” she said, of the man who left marks on the door to note if she left and was jealous when she was hugged by another man.
“Eventually we got married and things escalated,” Gabriel said, of the physical and emotional violence. “I was too ashamed to tell my parents.”
With no family to turn to and with her immigration status in limbo she endured abuse until leaving for good with her two children in 2004 after reaching out to police several times in the interim.
Victim Services Toronto gave her support, a safety assessment and equipped her with a phone that linked directly to 9-1-1.
She now has three children and a full-time job and is far enough from the abuse to speak out and encourage those in abusive relationships to seek out help.
“Don’t stay thinking this person is going to change,” said Gabriel, believing it herself for many years until the torment became too much to bear. “You have to have the willpower to leave, you weren’t designed for abuse.”
She encouraged victims to seek out the help that they need emotionally and with the practical, including housing or financial assistance.
“You need to speak up and you’ll be heard,” she said. “Discover what you need and ask somebody to help you find it.”
Chief Mark Saunders said listening to Gabriel speak is inspiring.
“As police officers, these are the stories that make us want to come in everyday and do what we do. It’s people like you that inspire others. Thank you for your leadership, your compassion.”
To learn more about victim support services, visit tps.on.ca/tpsconnects