LONDON, Ont. – Relatives, community members and dignitaries called for an end to racism and Islamophobia on Sunday during an emotional tribute marking the one-year anniversary of a deadly attack on a Muslim family in London, Ont.
Leaders from the Muslim community and friends of the victims called on all levels of government for action to address Islamophobia.
Pleas for compassion and tolerance mixed with expressions of grief and mourning for the four people killed in what prosecutors have described as a hate-motivated act of terrorism.
Salman Afzaal, 46, his wife Madiha Salman, 44, their 15-year-old daughter Yumnah and her 74-year-old grandmother, Talat Afzaal, died after police say they were deliberately hit by a truck during an evening walk in London on June 6, 2021. The family’s nine-year-old son was hurt, but survived.
Esa Islam, a cousin of the Afzaal family, said the attack has left a gaping wound in his heart.
“Last year, I would never be able to understand how all it took was one act of hatred to change my entire life,” he said.
Islam made his remarks before hundreds of mourners who gathered at the football field of the high school his cousin Yumnah attended before her death.
“I miss being able to go over to their house and have fun conversations about Harry Potter with Yumnah,” Islam said.
“I miss the simple things, the things we always take for granted until they’re gone.”
Maryam AlSabawi, a close friend of Yumnah, said she misses having lunch and going to the mall with her.
“I miss talking about our plans for the future,” she said. “I just miss your presence, the sound of your laughter, the stories you would tell me and the 3 a.m. texts about the most random things.”
AlSabawi said she has been struggling with sleepless nights, fear of trucks and an inability to go for walks.
“We didn’t just lose you and your beautiful family, but we lost our sense of belonging, our sense of community, our sense of safety, our sense of self,” the 16-year-old girl said.
“We even lost our innocence. The world isn’t as kind as we had believed it to be.”
She said she and a group of friends have started a group called the Youth Coalition Combating Islamophobia.
“The world placed the responsibility on our shoulders that would have crushed a mountain, but we will carry it because others haven’t,” she said.
The coalition organized the event and a march that took place in London on Sunday, where hundreds walked to the school of the London Islamic Centre.
“It’s been a very difficult year for the Muslim community here in London,” said Asad Choudhary, a former principal at the London Islamic Centre and youth mentor.
On top of organizing events to raise awareness about Islamophobia, the youth coalition has developed a lesson plan on the issue of Islamophobia, with the help of educators, for teachers to use in their classes in London, Ont.
“Essentially, it talks about what Islamophobia is, what happened on June 6, 2021, here in our city, and how do we support the combating of Islamophobia,” he said.
“What the youth came up with is that people need to understand what a stereotype is, when people look at Muslims and that stereotype that … comes forth, and that creates implicit biases, which creates hate.”
Islam said politicians should follow their supportive words with action to prevent similar attacks in the future.
“I’m tired of not seeing action by the politicians that we elect to lead us, hearing them make unfulfilled promises and speak hollow words of sorrow,” he said.
He singled out Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservative government for not committing to pass a law to fight Islamophobia and other forms of hate.
A bill tabled by the Ontario NDP earlier this year – called the Our London Family Act – would have established a provincial review of hate crimes and hate motivated incidents in Ontario.
The bill would also have designated safe zones around houses of worship, prevented white supremacist groups from registering as societies and established an anti-racism council that would provide input on government policies.
However, it was defeated shortly after being introduced.
The bill was created with the National Council of Canadian Muslims and follows recommendations put forward by that organization.
“Despite all of the promises we heard last year, one year later, it feels there’s still an unwillingness by our elected leaders to take concrete action against … Islamophobia,” Islam said.
While Ford didn’t attend the Sunday event, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and federal Transport Minister Omar Alghabra were among the attendees.
Trudeau said people should not ignore the reality that millions of Canadians are facing microaggression, discrimination and systemic racism every day.
He said the government has taken action to address hate and racism in Canada and added that there is more work to be done.
“On this day that we grieve, we also come together in commitment and resolve to make sure that tomorrow and next year, and all the days in the future, are also better,” said Trudeau.
“The lives of three generations of the Afzaal family were taken by a brutal, cowardly and brazen act of terrorist violence.”
He said his government has launched a new anti-racism strategy and a national action plan to combat hate and has allocated millions of dollars in funding to grassroots organizations, many led by Muslims, to combat hate.
“We’re also launching a process to appoint Canada’s very first special representative on combating Islamophobia,” he said.
There are several other events planned to commemorate the first anniversary of the June 6 tragedy, including a vigil on Monday.
A 21-year-old man faces four counts of first-degree murder in the attack. The case has not yet gone to trial.