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Muslim community seeks healing and safety amid lingering shadows of alleged terrorist attack

On this day in 2021, four out of five members of a London, Ont. family were killed while they were out for a walk and struck by a vehicle, in an apparently deliberate attack.

One day later on June 7, a man was charged with four counts of first-degree murder and one count of attempted murder — After working with the RCMP, London police were then given consent to commence with terrorism proceedings, alleging the murders and attempted murder constituted terrorist activity.

The victims were Muslim. Salman Afzaal, his wife Madiha, their 15-year-old daughter Yumna and 74-year-old grandmother Talat, along with a surviving 9-year-old boy.

Where are we today, two years later?

Sarah Elgazzar is a volunteer with the Muslim Wellness Network in London, Ont. and since the attack, she said there is still a lot of hurt among community members.

“This was an outstanding family and they touched many lives. The hurt and pain of their loss is still pretty sharp, and the fact that their killer has not been held accountable yet is a source of frustration.”

Safiyah Lawedy, 16, is a founding member of the Youth Coalition Combating Islamaphophia (YCCI) — an organization created with a goal of dismantling Islamophobia and letting other young Muslim people in the community know that they’re not alone in living in fear.

(Source: Submitted)

She told CTV News, youth are still trying to make sense of the world around them and struggling to defend their democratic right to freedom of religion and freedom from harm and hate.

“We have learned that despite our efforts, Islamophobia is still on the rise and prevalent in our society,” said Lawedy. “We have also learned that hate crimes do not happen in a vacuum. Education, legislation, social awareness and funding are important elements of cultural change.”

In a recent interview with CTV News, 16-year-old Jenna Khorshed, who is also a member of the YCCI, said Islamophobia has not been eradicated and the organization will continue to combat it until everyone feels safe going for a walk on the streets.

“Islamophobia is very real and it kills. It has to stop,” said Khorshed. “Many of the youth in YCCI were around 14 [years old] when the Afzaal family was killed. A normal 14 year old’s biggest struggle is navigating through high school, but for many members of YCCI it was dealing with the loss of a friend or family member. Fourteen is a very young age to carry the burden of combating Islamophobia. This battle against Islamophobia should not have been ours to fight but if we don’t do it, then who will?”

Do people in the local Muslim community feel safe?

In the two years since the attack, do Muslim people in the city feel safe to go for a walk with their family and feel the warm gentle breeze of a Sunday evening, just as the Afzaal family was doing?

Khorshed told CTV News there will always be a feeling of fear when walking on the street, that a vehicle might try to run them over.

“Some may feel this more strongly than others but our sense of safety was taken from us on June 6, 2021 and the effect of what happened that day will always loom over us,” she added. “We all deserve to live in peace as we live our lives but it is these acts of hatred that have taken that safety from us. The safety we deserve. The safety every community deserves.”

Thousands of people marched down Oxford Street on from Oakridge Secondary School to the London Muslim Mosque on June 5, 2022 for Our London Family events to honour the Afzaal family. (Brent Lale/CTV News London)For Lawendy, who was 14 years old when the attack happened, she said the feeling of safety is very personal and different for everyone in society.

“Essentially, it’s a moving target. A visibly Muslim woman in Hijab may experience safety in a unique way when she walks down the street. She is a continual target in our society,” she said. “These issues did not begin with the June 6 mass murder. A sincere conversation has to occur to understand what factors have led to deep-rooted racism in our society, despite how Canada views itself.”

Moving forward

Elgazzar expressed to CTV News that the "us and them" narratives that try to divide our communities, hurt us all.

“We belong here and our London community has to work hand in hand to stop hate from festering inside of people. We need more educational initiatives to showcase the meaningful ways in which London's Muslims contribute to our community, and finally, we need more ways for people to just meet and get to know one another, so that we can all move on from this tragedy and hopefully build a kinder, more compassionate London together.”

In the two years since the attack, multiple local agencies and organizations as well as the YCCI have worked to educate and promote peace and safety.

(Source: London Public Library)

An educational video was created called “To Yumnah, With Love,” and an education package was put together for teachers to use in hopes of educating students on what Islamophobia is and how to overcome it.

There is also a Hexagon art project called “London Remembers,” where community members were invited to share messages of remembrance, love, and healing on purple wooden hexagons that are being displayed at Museum London until Dec. 10.

The annual vigil for the Afzaal family will be held Tuesday at 7 p.m. at the Memorial Plaza near Hyde Park Road and South Carriage Road.

Nathaniel Veltman faces the following charges in relation to the 2021 deaths:

First-Degree murder, contrary to s.235 of the Criminal Code (4 counts) which, in addition to being planned and deliberate murders pursuant to s.231(2) of the Criminal Code, also constitute terrorism offences pursuant to sections 2, 83.01(1)(b) and 231(6.01) of the Criminal Code; and

Attempt to commit murder, contrary to section 239(1) of the Criminal Code (1 count) which, in addition to being an attempted murder, also constitutes a terrorism offence pursuant to sections 2, 83.01(1)(b) and 83.27 of the Criminal Code.

After a court ordered change of venue, the trial is set to proceed on Sept. 5, 2023 in a Windsor courthouse. Top Stories

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