Kenzu Abdella was staring so intently at the television that he at first didn’t notice his 10-year-old daughter Hannah had slipped into the family room.
He immediately shut off the news, but it was too late. She had seen the early reports coming out of Quebec City.
“Did someone attack their mosque?” she asked.
“Were people killed?”
“I thought I was right back to Nov. 14, 2015,” Mr. Abdella says. “There was this feeling of ‘Oh, here we go again.’”
Sunday’s murderous attack on the Quebec City mosque had eerie similarities to a firebombing attack on Masjid Al-Salaam, Peterborough, Ont.’s only mosque, less than 15 months ago. There was one profound difference – six lives lost in Quebec, none in Peterborough – but both attacks came around evening prayer, the fortunate difference in Peterborough being that the people had left before the attacker smashed through a window and set an accelerant on fire.
The Peterborough incident had taken place the day after ISIS-claimed terrorist attacks in Paris had killed 130 people. Unlike in Quebec City, where 27-year-old Alexandre Bissonnette was quickly arrested and charged with six counts of murder and five of attempted murder, the firebomber in Peterborough has never been found.
“This person is out there still,” says Mr. Abdella, an associate professor of mathematics at Trent University who served as president of the Kawartha Muslim Religious Association at the time of the attack.
The morning after the Quebec tragedy, the same anxious questions were being asked in Peterborough that had been asked more than a year earlier. What more can we do to protect our mosque? Can we send our children to school?
This time, however, there was one enormous difference. No sooner had news of the Quebec attack broken that Mr. Abdella’s cellphone began pinging with e-mails and texts from all over the region – municipal leaders, politicians, church leaders, the local synagogue – offering support and any help that might be needed.
In the morning after the Quebec tragedy, there were flowers and notes on the steps of the refurbished Peterborough mosque.
“We are your friends, Stay Strong! – the Thompsons,” read one. “Thinking of all of you. Know that Peterborough supports people of all faiths and backgrounds – Heather,” read another.
Something very unusual and somewhat unexpected happened in the days and weeks after Nov. 14, 2015, and it profoundly changed this city of 82,000 that Mayor Daryl Bennett likes to call “The Biggest Small Town in the World.”
Whoever firebombed the mosque was out to unleash hate and divide the community, says Mr. Bennett: “It backfired entirely – it had the effect of bringing the whole community together.”
One of the first calls Mr. Abdella received came from Larry Gillman, an investment adviser and local football coach who also serves as president of Beth Israel Synagogue. Mr. Gillman knew that the Muslim community was now without a place for prayer, at least temporarily, and on behalf of the Jewish community was offering the synagogue.
“An assault on any minority is an assault on all of us,” Mr. Gillman says. “I said, ‘use the synagogue as long as you need it.’ And they accepted – that speaks volumes.”
Neither he nor Mr. Abdella thought the offer strange, though others around the world certainly did. The arrangement hit social media and spread quickly. One media clip of a television interview was shared four million times. E-mails flooded in to both men, the vast majority applauding, a small minority nasty, vindictive and condemning.
“With all the negative stuff between Muslims and Jews, people were inspired,” Mr. Gillman says.
“To us, it was a small act, but worldwide it got so much attention. It’s a little bit disturbing that it would be this way. It’s just about people opening their door and looking after their neighbour – checking up on them.”
Peterborough police immediately labelled the attack on the mosque a “hate crime,” which it was. Mayor Bennett would have preferred another term, as he prefers to think of it as “just a stupid act of violence – an idiotic moment in somebody’s life.”
However it should be thought of, it rallied the town around the Muslim community. Along with the synagogue, 15 churches offered space for morning and evening prayers. The members of Masjid Al-Salaam chose five churches of varying faith and accepted the offers.
“I hope in Quebec they get the same kind of support we got here,” Mr. Abdella says. “This is your home. To know your neighbours stand with you is really important. I received calls from all over, but when people here came and said ‘Come pray at our church,’ it matters.”
Duane Rousselle started crowd-funding online, hoping he might pull in a few hundred dollars to help with repairs. By the Monday following the weekend attack the amount had crested $90,000.
“I had to say ‘Stop!’” laughs Mr. Abdella. “What would we do with the money?”
They cut the fundraising off at $110,000. As insurance covered some of the cost of repairs, they took only what was needed and gave away the rest: nearly $30,000 each to the Five Counties Children’s Centre and the YWCA Crossroads Shelter.
“This is an amazing country,” Mr. Abdella says. “We definitely have work to do. Peterborough and Quebec City are an example. But in the big picture, it is still a good country. We have all done a pretty good job.”
With some 300 Syrian refugees relocating in the Peterborough area, the mosque, even repaired and refurbished, is too small. During Ramadan, the place was so packed 200 worshippers had to kneel and pray in the grass outside. A major expansion is now being planned.
A lot has changed for the good in Peterborough, but also some for the not-so-good. The firebomber felt he had to smash through a window to do his damage. All he had to do was walk in the unlocked door. That door is now locked. There are security cameras in the building. A chain-link fence now surrounds the building. There is a police presence during prayer time.
“It changed our lives,” Mr. Abdella says. “It’s very challenging for everybody. The last few months Muslims have been worried.
“The rhetoric from the south has a lot to do with it. There’s been a feeling that something would happen – but just when it would happen, no one knew.”
“When” turned out to be Sunday night in Quebec City.
“People feel this is just the beginning because of what’s going on in the south,” Mr. Abdella adds. “This concerns not just Muslims, but all minorities.
Friday afternoon in Peterborough, the Beth Israel Synagogue sent out an invitation to attend a fundraiser for the families of those who died or were wounded in the Quebec tragedy.
“Everyone is welcome,” said the notice, which went on to give the day, the time (“following the Muslim evening prayers”) and the synagogue’s address.
“This is what neighbours do,” Mr. Gillman says.
“This is what Canadians do.”Report Typo/Error