Some came bearing flowers, others softly recited verses of the Qur’an and many quietly reminisced about the lives of the loved ones they’d lost.
At several events in London, Ont., on Monday, local residents and members of the Muslim community gathered to remember a family killed in what prosecutors have called a hate-motivated attack.
The deaths of the Afzaal family, who were driven down while out for a walk on June 6, 2021, sent shock waves across the country and have since prompted repeated calls to fight Islamophobia.
For Tariq Bhatti, life as a Muslim in London has changed since the attack.
“When you walk on the street now, I mean, it’s not the same,” he said on Monday following an event to mark the tragedy. “I just heard a transport truck and I just felt something in my spine.”
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 while out for an evening walk. The family’s nine-year-old son was hurt but survived.
Bhatti, who was among those who attended a prayer service Monday morning for the Afzaal family, said he used to play cricket with Salman Afzaal.
“He was a gentleman. He was a great Pakistani. He was a great Muslim, and a man of principles. Very, very friendly,” he said.
Relatives of the Afzaal family placed flowers Monday on the graves of their loved ones, which were marked with small Canadian flags.
Munir El-Kassem, imam of the Islamic Centre of Southwest Ontario, who led a prayer during the morning service, said last summer’s attack hit hard.
“The impact was very strong on the community,” he said.
“Yet we did stand on our feet again and we are using this experience to basically send messages to the world that Islamophobia … is something we should eliminate once and for all. Because how many times are we going to bid farewell people to the other side of life before we wake up and say enough is enough?”
Shams Syed, who had been close with Salman Afzaal, said the prayer service was a way for the community to pay its respects to those who had died while also taking a stand against Islamophobia.
He remembered Afzaal as a “great guy” who would refrain from getting into arguments, choosing instead to “keep smiling and listening.”
“It’s a straight knife into your heart,” he said while recalling the deaths of the Afzaal family.
Syed, like others, said that last year’s tragedy has taken a toll.
“Mainly the youth got affected very badly because they didn’t feel safe,” said Syed, who is also a trustee with the Pakistani Canadian Association.
“My daughter wears hijab, we were always concerned when she goes out … Anything can happen.”
The City of London dedicated a garden to the Afzaal family on Monday. Later in the day, a vigil was expected to be held, led by Yumnah’s friends.
The federal government announced Monday it is accepting applications for the job of special representative on combating Islamophobia.
Five months ago, Diversity and Inclusion Minister Ahmed Hussen signalled the government’s intention to appoint the special envoy. At a news conference in Ottawa Monday with members of the Muslim community, Hussen said the representative will be a champion, expert, advocate and adviser to the government on Islamophobia.
Asked why the representative has yet to be chosen, Hussen said the government wanted to get it right, which meant consultations with the community.
“You have to create a position that will get the confidence of the community. And so that takes time,” Hussen said. “And now with this call for applications, we are spreading it across the country, we want people to apply to fulfil this role and we hope to move as expeditiously as possible.”
The special representative, an element of the Liberal government’s overall anti-racism strategy, will work with a team supported by money earmarked in the latest federal budget.
Ontario Premier Doug Ford said in a statement his government will stand with the Muslim community and will fight Islamophobia.
“We continue to grieve this tragic and senseless loss, I join all Ontarians in honouring the memory of the Afzaal family,” Ford said. “Racism, hate and discrimination have no place in our province.”
Esa Islam, a cousin of the Afzaal family, singled out Ford’s recently re-elected Progressive Conservative government during a march in London on Sunday for not committing to pass a law to fight Islamophobia and other forms of hate.
“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.
A bill tabled by Ontario’s Opposition 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, the bill was not passed before the election campaign began last month.
A 21-year-old man faces four counts of first-degree murder in the London attack. The case has not yet gone to trial.
With files from Jim Bronskill.
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