12/03/2014 11:58 EST | Updated 02/02/2015 05:59 EST

Mother, sons slain in Thorncliffe Park spent time in shelter

The head of a Toronto women's shelter says a woman found dead in a Thorncliffe Park apartment with her two sons had fled her abusive spouse last year.

Zahra Mohamoud Abdille, 43, and her sons Faris, 13 and Zain, 8, were found dead inside their Thorncliffe Park highrise apartment on Saturday. 

In 2013, the trio stayed at Dr. Roz's Healing Place, a centre for abused women and their families in Scarborough, for several weeks, according to Roz Roach, the facility's executive director. 

"The family came to the centre because they were fleeing abuse — physical abuse, emotional abuse, financial abuse," Roach told Metro Morning on Wednesday. 

'She was in a trap'

Roach said Zahra married her husband in the late 1990s, after coming to Canada alone and without any "support systems."

"He owned her. He claimed her. He controlled her income. He abused her in so many different ways."

​Zahra, who worked as a nurse with Toronto Public Health, attempted to gain custody of her sons while she was staying at the facility. That effort eventually failed, and she was forced to seek out a new place to live on the private market because she did not qualify for affordable housing due to her income. 

Roach said she thinks Zahra went back to her home with her husband because she didn't earn enough to afford a place on the private market, but also did not qualify for social assistance. 

"She was in a trap. So many women are in a trap. If they are working, they don't get the support," Roach said. 

The mother and her boys were mourned by the community at a candlelight vigil in Thorncliffe Park Tuesday night. Roach said she has intimate memories of the family.

Faris tried to protect his mom

"The kids were bright and energetic, and her eldest son was her protector. He would intervene in the abuse and they spoke about that often ... He was the protector for his mom."

Roach said Zahra was hesitant to reach out to anyone in her tight-knit immigrant community for help.

"For her, she did not speak about it. She did not want her community to know about it. She had no family here, she did not have much support here," Roach recalled. 

Roach said her staff at the centre feel as though they've lost members of their own families.

Toronto police are still exploring a possible link between the homicides and another death later that day, when an unidentified man threw himself off the Leaside Bridge onto the Don Valley Parkway. 

Staff Sgt. Matt Moyer said the case has been tough on the officers, too.

"I will tell you on a personal note, it's affected the members of the Toronto police."