Friends, family and members of the Ethiopian community gathered at a packed church on Saturday to grieve and remember Michael Gebru — a man they say remained a generous soul concerned about his community despite going from laid-off assembly plant worker to multi-millionaire. 

Gebru, 41, died under mysterious circumstances in his home country of Ethiopia last week. Just two years ago, his life changed in an instant when he won the lottery, thinking at first that he’d netted about $15, only to realize he’d won $10.7 million.

Asked at the time what he planned to do with the money, the Scarborough resident said, “I’ve always said that if I won the lottery, I’d help people in need.”

That’s exactly what he did, say those who knew him. Gebru only bought a home for himself a few weeks ago — one he would never get to live in, they say. 

Michael Gebru, 41, died under mysterious circumstances in his home country, his cousin Sosuna Asefaw told CBC News. (Submitted by Sosuna Asefaw )

“It took him a long time to think about himself,” said family member Atakilti Asefaw.

Community and church were Gebru’s first priority, said Asefaw, adding he donated to several churches in Toronto, Ethiopia and Somalia after acquiring his newfound wealth.

Questions still swirling

“Some people would change because they have money, so they’d go a different way,” said Asefaw. “He didn’t change.”

Amid the mourning are a string of questions still swirling around Gebru’s death. Friends and family say they still don’t know exactly what happened to him, but told CBC News they worry he was targeted for his money.

The exact circumstances of his death remain under investigation. 

“I remember when Mickey had the good fortune of winning the lottery. He was very concerned at first that everybody, if they heard the news, of course, would be coming to him expecting to get some assistance. And so he was trying to manage the information. Unfortunately that didn’t happen,” said Everton Gordon, a close friend of Gebru’s.

Hanna Tegegne, middle, was Gebru’s niece. She says she last saw him two weeks ago when they talked about back to school shopping and spending time together after his return from Ethiopia. (Martin Trainor/CBC)

The family is now appealing to the Canadian Embassy in Ethiopia for help, saying they’ve heard little from local police. CBC News contacted the embassy but has yet to receive a response.

In a statement to CBC News on Friday Global Affairs Canada said, “Our thoughts and sympathies are with the family of a Canadian citizen who died in Ethiopia. Consular services are being provided to the family.”

Spokesperson Angela Savard said the department could not provide further information, citing the Privacy Act.

‘We celebrate his life’

Gebru was buried in Ethiopia on Monday, but those who knew and loved him back at home in Scarborough wanted to do something to honour him at his home church, holding a prayer service and vigil there Saturday. 

His niece, Hanna Tegegne, said she last saw Gebru about two weeks ago, before he flew to Ethiopia. 

Gebru was a close friend of Everton Gordon, who affectionately called him ‘Mickey.’ Gordon said Gebru always wanted to go back to Ethiopia to try to make a difference there and also spoke of visiting Gordon’s home country, Jamaica. (Martin Trainor/CBC)

The two spoke about the start of the new school year and spending time together when he got back.

“That never happened,” the 14-year-old told CBC News through tears, adding she’s missed school since her uncle’s death.

For now, friends and family are remembering Gebru as humble, generous, someone who loved laugh and brought joy to those around him.

“We mourn his death, but we celebrate his life,” said Gordon. “Because those of us who were part of his life, we enjoyed every minute.”