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‘Islamophobia is real’: Victims of London, Ont. vehicle attack mourned at vigil

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Thousands gathered for a vigil mourning the four Muslim family members killed in what police say was a targeted attack in London, Ont., with politicians and community leaders condemning Islamophobia in Canada and promising change.

Just before a moment of silence, a family friend of the victims spoke a few words about her young friend, Yumna, who was killed in the attack.

“My sister would not have wanted us to live in fear with wearing our hijabs, she would have wanted us to be proud of our identities,” said Yasmin Khan.

“She would have wanted us to unite together, to stand for what is right, she would have wanted us to be kind to one another. That’s all I ask. Take pride in your hijab and your religion, be humble and be kind.”

A statement released to the media by a family spokesperson names the deceased as Salman Afzaal, his wife Madiha Salman, their daughter Yumna, and Salman Afzaal’s mother.

The couple’s son, Fayez, 9, survived the attack. He “is on the road to recovery from serious injuries,” the statement reads.

Nathaniel Veltman, a 20-year-old London man, is charged with four counts of first-degree murder and one count of attempted murder in connection with Sunday’s attack. London police said Tuesday that they have been in contact with the RCMP and would not comment on whether further charges may be laid.

“While we understand the public’s desire for information, we are mindful that there are serious charges before the courts and that we must let the judicial process unfold,” they said in a statement.

Police allege that Veltman was driving a pickup truck that mounted a curb and hit the family, who were out for a walk. Police said Monday that they were not aware of any connections between Veltman and the Afzaal family, or any link between the suspect and organized hate groups.

Speaking in the House of Commons on Tuesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau described Veltman’s actions as “a terrorist attack, motivated by hatred.”

POLITICAL LEADERS PROMISE ACTION

Canadian political leaders attended the vigil held for the family and said some words to the community and mourners gathered in remembrance.

“Islamophobia is real, racism is real. You should not have to face that hate in your communities, in your country. We can and we will act,” said Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

“We must all stand together and say, no, no, to hatred and to Islamophobia, no to terror and to racism.”

Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole shared a similar message: that party leaders need to put politics aside to deal with Islamophobia in Canada.

“We have to commit ourselves to working across party lines. With premiers, with mayors, with faith leaders, to end the kind of violence and hatred that took these lives,” he said at the vigil.

“The rise in Islamophobia and other forms of hate in this last year are the pandemic of darkness.”

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh took to the podium amid cheers from the mourning crowd.

“We will not let terror win,” he told mourners.

And like many of the people attending the vigil, he emphasized that words are not enough.

“What we need to do now is real action after this act. How many more lives have to be taken before we act? How many more Muslim brothers and sisters have to lose their lives before real change is put in place? We need real action.”

Green Party Leader Annamie Paul said that she wants to be a voice for the community after this attack.

“As the leader of our party, I stand in solidarity and I also promise you this, that my voice will be your voice. I am not there to impose my agenda, I am there to reflect what you tell me you need at this moment. That is my commitment to you.”

Ontario Premier Doug Ford also spoke to mourners at the vigil. He thanked those who rushed to the scene and first responders and called the attack terrorism and a hate crime.

“We know only that this awful crime was motivated purely by hatred and racism. As Mayor Holder has said, this was murder. It was a hate crime. It was an act of terrorism against a family,” he said.

Ontario’s NDP and official opposition leader Andrea Horwath told mourners that these types of attacks must end and that no one should have to be afraid to go about their life.

“These hate fueled acts of terrorism must stop. No one should fear walking with their loved ones on a street, on a spring evening,” she said.

Horwath added that people in Ontario must acknowledge the existence of this hatred in the province and the fear that Muslim people deal with in Canada.

“We must admit this, that is the first step, we must as Ontarians admit this. It is a very real, very familiar fear facing Muslims because of Islamophobic, white supremacist violence and hate.

REMEMBERING THE AFZAALS

Dr. Ahmed Hegazy, a family friend, told CTV News Channel on Tuesday that he had first met the Afzaals 14 years ago at the mosque, and that two days after their deaths, his shock had yet to dissipate.

He described Salman Afzaal as “very helpful to everybody, really just somebody who’d go out of his way to help people. His wife was no different.”

Another family friend, Saboor Khan, described them as “gems in our community” and “the best of people.”

“Everybody looked up to them, because of how hard they worked,” he said.

Yasmin Khan, a family friend and activist who is speaking at Tuesday night’s vigil, called the family “amazing people” and “pure souls”

“They were the type of people that wouldn’t even hurt an insect,” she told CTV News Channel’s Power Play. “They were always there for people. If you did wrong upon them, and the next day you needed help, they would be first at your doorstep.”

Khan added that the community will do its best to raise Fayez, who is now orphaned because of the attack.

“Family is here and we are all doing what we can to support him,” she said. “He is everyone’s son now… We will do as much as we can, because that is what our sister and brother would’ve wanted.”

Dozens visited the crash scene on Monday night to pay their own tributes to the family, many placing flowers and teddy bears in their memory. The scene continued to draw visitors on Tuesday, with one man telling reporters that he brought his young son there “to make clear to him that hatred has no place here.”

The mayor of London, Ed Holder, told CTV’s Your Morning on Tuesday that the city is supporting its Muslim community in its grief.

“This kind of thing, you always imagine, happens somewhere else,” he said.

“This is the time when we’ve lost our innocence.”

FAMILY URGES ALL TO ‘STAND AGAINST HATE’

The family’s statement calls for everyone, from politicians to the public, to “stand against hate and Islamophobia” in favour of humanity.

“We need to understand that the destruction of a family in the brutal and horrific manner like this is something we must all stand against,” the statement reads.

Yasmin Khan, who began wearing a hijab at age 14, said she routinely deals with rude comments or anger because of what she’s wearing.

“It’s something that’s normal for me now to have people uncomfortable with me, to have people speak to me rudely,” she said.

Khan has now committed to wearing her hijab with pride, as Yumna had done.

“She was walking with so much pride and love for (her hijab), I’m going to walk every single day with so much love for this,” she said. “The moment we let people know that we have fear, we let people win. I’m not going to let anyone win.”

Monday’s attack has been condemned by politicians across Canada and around the world, including Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan, who called it a sign of growing Islamophobia in Western countries. Friends say the Afzaals were well known within London’s Pakistani-Muslim community.

Samer Majzoub, president of the Canadian Muslim Forum, told CTV’s Your Morning on Tuesday that the attack should be considered domestic terrorism.

“We have to name it in order to be able to address it,” he said.

“Innocent people have just been killed for what they are, and still we are hesitant to call it what it is.”

Majzoub said that he has seen progress on fighting Islamophobia since the deadly 2017 shooting at a mosque in Quebec City, but that it has mainly come in the form of words, not actions.

“I do not deny that we have advanced in fighting hate and xenophobia, at least on the rhetoric side, but so far we haven’t seen … policies addressing [them],” he said.

Saboor Khan, who is also the president of the London chapter of the Muslim Association of Canada, echoed those sentiments, saying that his family lives in the same neighbourhood as the Afzaal family and goes out for walks every day.

“This could have been any one of us,” he said.

“We have to think about what actions are needed to stop this kind of hate and this kind of violence.”

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