Go down the stairs of the elementary school that adjoins a mosque in London, Ont., and in the basement you will see a 12-metre-wide wall. It used to be stark and unadorned, but now it is the canvas of a colourful painting that school administrators hope to showcase for decades to come.
The artwork features a crescent moon shooting out virtues like integrity, honesty and respect onto planet Earth. A written message implores the artist’s fellow students to always gravitate toward ambition – and hope. “Shoot for the moon,” it says. “Even if you miss you’ll end up among the stars.” It was painted by a teenager, Yumnah Afzaal, who spent months on the mural at the London Islamic School.
On June 6, less than a year after she completed the mural, 15-year-old Yumnah was killed alongside her parents and grandmother in an attack by the driver of a pickup truck that also injured her nine-year old brother. The family of Pakistani heritage was out walking in the southwestern Ontario city they had called home for years.
Authorities allege the driver targeted the family because they were Muslim. A 20-year-old man is accused of murder and terrorism.
And all this is why Yumnah’s painting in the school basement is no longer seen as a just pretty picture. The people who watched her create it say it’s a testament to an exceptional teenager whose art will survive the violence that took her life. “That legacy is a global one – the fight against hate. That’s what this is symbolic of,” says Asad Choudhary, the school principal at the time the mural was painted. “This is how she saw Islam.”
The months since the attack have put a focus on whether Canada is doing enough to address hate crimes. In 2017, a gunman shot six men dead at a Quebec City mosque. In 2020, an attacker fatally stabbed a caretaker at a Toronto mosque. “Muslim Canadians across the country continue to fear for their safety and security,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said at a national summit on Islamophobia in late July. “This has to stop.”
For schoolchildren in London, the latest tragedy resonates deeply – and especially for those who knew the artist.
Huda Sallam, 14, was Yumnah’s best friend. She spent much of the spring and summer of 2020 in the school basement, watching the artwork unfold. She says Yumnah was constantly pausing, stepping back, conferring, seeking reassurance that she was doing the right thing. “She didn’t want to mess it up,” Huda says. The intent was to convey a clear message. “She’s trying to show people: ‘Shoot your shot. Go after what you want. And even if you don’t get what you initially wanted, everything happens for a reason.’ ”
Huda says Yumnah “was killed based on something she believed in and possibly even the colour of her skin – which isn’t fair.”
Teacher Hanni Shahatto’s face lights up when he talks about Yumnah’s spark. He picked her for the wall project after she won a door-decorating contest in the Grade 7 class at the London Islamic School.
He watched her plan the mural during her Grade 8 year in 2019-2020. First, she practised at home for weeks, learning how to spray paint. Then, as the COVID-19 outbreak shuttered schools, she came in to work on spring weekends and later the summer. When she was done, she moved on to an international baccalaureate program in high school for which Mr. Shahatto had recommended her.
Mr. Shahatto now teaches at a different school, but in an interview in June he said that in his mind’s eye he still often sees Yumnah on a ladder, touching up the details of the mural, and with her whole family pitching in. There in the corner is little brother Fayez, being entrusted to work on a small piece of the painting. In the back sits Madiha Salman, their mother, surveying the wall while offering advice.
Then, in through the doors rushes the father, Salman Afzaal, checking the ventilation and making sure his kids weren’t breathing in paint fumes. “He was very concerned that the fans were running at all times,” Mr. Shahatto says. “Yumnah told me this year there was a lot of happiness in her family from being able to work on this together. And they were able to get through COVID better.”
Since the attack, Mr. Shahatto has been reflecting on scriptures saying that the best places in heaven are reserved for people who die in the name of their religion. “I could put it a number of ways,” he says, “but it’s very clear that she landed among the stars.”
The London Muslim Mosque has hosted daily prayers since it opened in 1964, and stands as one of the first mosques built in Canada. Thirty years later, the adjoining school was built. Yumnah spent much of her childhood there, among a tight-knit group of 250 students. Her parents enrolled her after they emigrated from Pakistan. They were highly regarded in the mosque and the school.
“This was not ‘close to home.’ This was right in our home,” Mr. Choudhary, the former principal, says of the June 6 attack.
For the remainder of the academic year, he says, the schoolchildren were frightened. Parents worried about copycat attacks. Educators struggled to explain the events to children as young as kindergarteners. Mr. Choudhary remembers one parent put a Grade 3 student on the phone to him. The boy had stopped eating because was so worried about Fayez, his friend. The family had no one to turn to but the principal.
“He was asking questions like: ‘Is he going to be okay? Is he still alive? Isn’t he really sad because his mom and sister and grandmother are no longer with him?’ ” Mr. Choudhary recalls. The principal says he did not have all the answers, but he listened – and he says that seemed to help a lot.
Students and teachers wore green and purple ribbons in memory of Yumnah and her family. The University of Western Ontario has set up a scholarship for female students in honour of Madiha, who had been pursuing a doctorate there. “She had a great role in helping the students transition from high school to university,” Western said in a statement. The university has also established a scholarship in physical therapy as a memorial to Salman Afzaal, who was a physiotherapist. Another charity set up a $5,000 scholarship for high-school students in memory of Yumnah.
But the artwork in the basement of the London Islamic School should also remain a lasting testament. “The idea is to preserve that entire wall,” says Mr. Choudhary, who regards the mural as an important legacy from his time at the school.
The former principal now teaches at London’s Fanshawe College. He said that Yumnah’s brother Fayez is now in the care of an uncle and has switched schools. “He’s doing a lot better,” he said, adding that the boy attends a public school that is more accessible to students in wheelchairs.
The teenaged girl’s friends say she could have excelled at anything she studied at university. Yumnah was a perfectionist and painfully shy, but also an old soul for a young woman.
“My nickname for her was ‘Granny,’ ” Huda says. She added that when Yumnah spoke, she made her message count and approached her art the same way. “She always talked like she was in a movie or something. Like there was a dramatic scene, like there was dramatic music.”
Huda went to Walmart with her mother on the evening of the attack. It was a normal day, she says, until she saw “two cop cars, two ambulances zooming by. Going superfast.”
At the intersection, she saw two people on the ground. “Later, I found out [that] I saw they were doing CPR on the mother. And I saw my best friend’s feet.”
Now, she says, young people are hoping to start anti-hate groups in Yumnah’s honour. “Just because I wear a scarf around my head doesn’t mean I should be afraid to walk the streets,” Huda says. She added that Yumnah “wanted to change the world, and we’re going to do that for her.”
The Globe and Mail
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