'They should be honoured as heroes': Toronto woman killed in Burkina Faso attack remembered by friends

Tammy Chen lost her life in a country she loved. The teacher worked tirelessly to empower the less fortunate and changed the lives of those she touched, say those who knew her.

Tammy Chen, slain in popular restaurant in country's capital, worked tirelessly as an educator in West Africa

Tammy Chen (right) a graduate of Queen's University, started a non-profit organization for mothers in Burkina Faso. She's being remembered as a hero by friends. (Facebook)

Tammy Chen first breezed into Tania Muller's restaurant in the bustling capital of Burkina Faso two years ago, just wanting a meal.

Instead, she made a friend. Chen's visits became a daily occurrence in Muller's restaurant — she was all smiles, "always in a good mood," Muller recalled.

The restaurateur, now in France, learned about the death of Chen and her husband in the news. The two were killed on Sunday night, in a shooting at a Turkish cafe that left 18 dead. The scene wasn't far from Muller's restaurant, where the two would often chat about Chen's upcoming wedding or Muller's young son.

Muller says the fear of terrorist attacks, while not unknown in Ouagadougou, didn't faze her during the two years she and Chen spent time together. "I think you have more chance of dying in a car accident," she said in a phone interview from France.

But attacks did happen in the city from time to time, including one last year at Cappuccino Restaurant, which killed 30 people. Those reminders always forced Muller to consider which restaurant might be next.

Muller says the obvious targets sell alcohol, serve pork, or attract large groups of tourists. But at this time of year, the sleepy rainy season, she says Chen likely wasn't concerned about violent extremism.

"I think she thought she was safe," Muller said, her voice quavering.

Tammy Chen (right) and her husband Mehsen Fenaich (left) were killed in a terrorist attack on Sunday. Chen was one of two Canadians killed in the attack, Fenaich was from Senegal. (Facebook)

Chen first fell in love with Burkina Faso as a master's student at Queen's University, when she travelled there with a student group for international development work, says Rebecca Luce-Kapler.

'She learned to love the country'

Luce-Kapler, the dean of education at Queen's, had been her thesis adviser. She watched the young woman grow from an enthusiastic adventurer keen on changing the world, to a wise educator keen on teaching others how to change it for themselves.

"It was transformative for her," she said. "She learned to love the country."

In her first three months, Luce-Kapler recalls, Chen began volunteering at a school that sheltered and taught homeless young people. She eventually founded a radio station.

Chen returned to Burkina Faso after that initial excursion to complete her thesis in education. She had given her students disposable cameras, employing a technique called "photo elicitation" — where she asked those students to explain their lives through imagery. Luce-Kapler added that Chen empowered the intrepid photographers to control their own narratives.

Founded charity for women

Chen admitted herself "how naive she was, you know, 'I'm going to change the world,'" Luce-Kapler said. "But she developed a real nuance on the challenges of development work ... she became very committed to how important it was to work alongside people."

Her time in the country led Chen to found Brighter Futures for Burkina Faso, a charity that lends money to women who want to invest in their families by starting small businesses and put their children through school.

Although Muller had only known her friend for two years, she says Chen made an impact, the way the educator and steadfast friend did with everyone else whose path she crossed.

"I was so touched by her," she said, also noting her fondness for Chen's husband, Mehsen Fenaiche. "They should be honoured as heroes."