Sereena Abotsway

Sereena Abotsway always chose hope while staring into the face of

By Dirk Meissner
The Canadian Press

The cold, dark ocean waters of Burrard Inlet offered Sereena Abotsway the spiritual home she sought but never found on the hopeless streets of Vancouver's Downtown Eastside.

Abotsway wanted to be baptized in an ocean-front ceremony mere steps away from the hell-hole neighbourhood where she lived.

``She asked to be baptized,'' says Cheryl Bear Barnetson, who recalls Abotsway attending the street church she ran with her husband, Randy, at Vancouver's Main and Hastings, the heart of the area known as the War Zone.

``We baptized her right near the church at what people in the Downtown Eastside called Crab Park,'' she says.

``It was good to see how the Lord was beginning to touch her and move in her life.''

Abotsway's life was always about hope even when the abyss was all she knew.

She lived and worked in one of Canada's most desolate and dangerous neighbourhoods but she fought loneliness and heartbreak with an infectious laugh and selfless acts of kindness, even though she may have guessed a dark fate awaited her and many of her friends.

Friends on the eastside remember Abotsway's raw zeal for life in the midst of human decay and despair.

``She'd gotten a grey rabbit fur coat,'' says Maggy Gisle, a recovering drug addict who spent 16 years on the Downtown Eastside streets before getting clean and getting out.

``And she wore that thing everywhere. I mean, it was just a cheap rabbit fur coat. But she just thought it was a million bucks, it was the best thing she had and she wore it all the time.''

Gisle says one time, Abotsway was seen standing on a corner, wearing the coat and high heels and nothing else.

``When I heard that, I laughed and said, `Yep, she loved it.' She absolutely loved it.''

Abotsway was 29 years old when police say she disappeared in August 2001 from the area where dealers, addicts, pimps and prostitutes wander the rain-soaked alleys like zombies.

She had participated in community marches calling for deeper investigations into the disappearances of women from the Downtown Eastside before she herself became one of them.

She wanted her missing friends to know she cared, that she was concerned.

``When you went missing each and every year, we all fought so hard to find you,'' Abotsway wrote in a poem posted on the Internet on one of several sites dedicated to the missing women of Vancouver.

``You were all part of God's plan. He probably took most of you home. But he left us with a very empty spot.''

When she disappeared, police had a warrant for her arrest for stealing chocolate bars.

Abotsway had few teeth left in her mouth _ beatings and drug use took their toll _ but she insisted on ordering steak dinners. The sight of her attempting to eat a steak was a matter of humour and tragedy whenever she would get together with her foster parents, Bert and Anna Draayers.

The Draayers say she promised to be home with them in August to celebrate her 30th birthday, but she never arrived.

She lived with the Draayers from age four until she was 17, when her violent behaviour saw her placed in a group home where she was introduced to drugs and an eventual life of soul-destroying survival on the streets.

``She was sweet and bubbly but she was very disturbed,'' Draayers told a Vancouver newspaper in 2002.

``She gave her teachers a headache and we tried to teach her at home but there was not much you could do. At that time we did not have a name for the condition but it is now known as fetal alcohol syndrome.''

Abotsway used to call the Draayers every day, but the calls stopped and then came word that her remains had been identified.

Barnetson remembers Abotsway as a regular at the church, where services _ including hot dogs _ started in the evenings and often continued well into the night.

A dry room and a compassionate ear were deeply appreciated by the eastside residents, who would pour out their hearts during the services, Barnetson says.

Barnetson, reached on her way to attend an aboriginal church gathering in Albuquerque, N.M., says she vividly recalls the night Abotsway helped a man nobody wanted to touch.

``I don't know if he was high or drunk or what, but he had ... you could just kind of smell that he had gone to the bathroom in his pants,'' Barnetson says.

``It was just ... he was a mess. She just jumped in right away with no hesitation and just started helping him. She just knew what to do.''

Gisle says Abotsway, who always had a teddy bear with her, was a special needs person.

One of Abotsway's boyfriends introduced her to drugs and then sent her out to the streets to work as a prostitute. She endured several abusive relationships and once was beaten into a coma by a bad date.

Gisle says Abotsway would spend her days in the bars looking for men who would buy her drinks and drugs. At night, she was on the streets as a prostitute.

But Abotsway took good care of herself despite her special needs and her drug addiction, says Gisle.

That seemed to come from something in her past, that she was taught to take care of herself, clean up.

``She came with Barbie dolls and teddy bears and they filled her room,'' Gisle says. ``She had a child-like innocence.''

Abotsway's biological parents both died young. Her father died drug-addicted on the Downtown Eastside.

Barnetson said she believed Abotsway considered the Main Street church a place of refuge.

There were times she would be crying at the altar and others where she was offering to help in any way she could.

``We did definitely see the bright side of Sereena,'' she said. ``It was great to know her in that short period of time. She always had a smile for everybody. A big hello.

``It was really tragic when we saw her picture on the missing women's list.''

Barnetson said the heavy cloud of despair that hangs over the Downtown Eastside was too much for many people, but Abotsway wouldn't give up. She fought the heavy weight despite her difficulties, she said.

``In the neighbourhood of the Downtown Eastside, it's a really difficult place to be and in some sense it seems like it's hopeless,'' said Barnetson.

``And yet there are moments in peoples' lives where they have such clarity and they come to this understanding of themselves and of God.''

Abotsway was one of many who were baptized in the chilly waters of Burrard Inlet.

She was seeking hope, Barnetson said, because she still understood what that meant.

``It was just a tragic ending, though.''

2006 The Canadian Press

MISSING LIVES - The Canadian Press

Five years ago a pig farm near Vancouver became one of Canada's largest crime scenes
What followed were headlines about the massive forensic investigation and 26 murder charges against Robert William Pickton.
Far from the headlines have been the stories of the dead women. Twenty-six women who lived on and disappeared from the streets of Canada's most dismal inner-city neighbourhood Vancouver's bleak Downtown Eastside. Twenty-six missing lives.

In the five years since the Pickton pig farm made national headlines, the memories of the women have faded even further from the public spotlight. When mentioned, they are usually referred to only as "drug addicts" or "street prostitutes." They are often only numbers 26 victims, their names seldom used in news reports. All of the stories behind the names have never been told. Until now.

The Canadian Press, Canada's independent news agency, felt those stories needed to be told. Six reporters from across the country spent hundreds of hours researching details not previously reported. The result is Missing Lives: profiles on each of the 26 women.

Missing Lives reveals the 26 women as daughters, sisters, mothers: troubled souls whose lives touched others in lasting ways.



Missing Women Tip Line: 1-877-687-3377

Updated: August 21, 2016