Amira Elghawaby is a writer and human-rights advocate based in Ottawa.
The 11-year-old Muslim girl's story made me cry. She said a man approached her, while she was on the way to school. She said he took out a pair of scissors and cut at her hijab. Not once, but twice.
Finding out this story wasn't true also brought tears to my eyes.
I am left wondering what would compel a young girl to make up this story.
When the story was reported, many Canadians felt understandably upset by the thought that a perpetrator would assault a little girl in such a deliberate way – that someone would specifically go after the article of clothing that differentiates her from her peers.
The reaction from fellow Canadians was swift – immediate compassion towards the young girl and her family, immediate condemnation of the act and, following community pressure, an announcement that the incident was being investigated as a hate crime.
The story went to the core of many Muslim community fears that even our children are at risk of hate-motivated crimes and incidents. It's not difficult to imagine, because the truth is, they are.
We've seen too many examples of this: I remember speaking with a distraught mother whose daughter was assaulted by a substitute teacher who was mocking her daughter's headscarf in a Winnipeg school several years ago. The police were quietly called in, the school took steps to address the issue, and the family was deeply traumatized.
We've seen other examples from time to time in which children are involved in witnessing hatred in other forms – vandalism at public and private schools, as well as at community centres and places of worship. They hear obscenities hurled at their parents, read social media posts, and even hear their own teachers or classmates make hurtful comments. Never mind certain politicians who talk about Muslim travel bans and the like.
Our children are also exposed daily to hateful news and rhetoric online – whether it's Islamophobic, anti-Semitic, racist, homophobic, sexist or otherwise. We simply don't know how they are coping.
This is the climate in which the young girl and other Canadian children are growing up in. We don't know why she made the claims she did but we must not vilify her for what was most certainly a terrible mistake. We must hope that she will receive the support she clearly will need now more than ever. What must be going through her head as she realizes that everyone now knows this incident didn't even happen? Her family, too, must be doubly devastated – knowing that their daughter fabricated what became an international story and that this will live online forever.
With the upcoming anniversary of the tragic shootings at the Quebec City mosque, this is even that much harder on our communities. Many Canadian Muslims are particularly anxious these days, reliving the trauma we all felt when the attack occurred last Jan. 29. The Muslim community in Quebec City remembers the six men they lost that fateful night, and is working with countless people committed to standing once more in solidarity with them. Quebec Muslims continue to feel under siege, in no small part due to the ongoing political rhetoric and manoeuvrings that place them in a negative media spotlight time and time again. All anyone wants to do is lead a normal life, and contribute as much as we can towards the well-being of our families, our communities and our country.
There were those who immediately didn't believe the young girl's story. They were easily dismissed as the same old trolls who write mean things about Muslims, promoting conspiracy theories about our communities, saying the vilest things whenever a story about us pops up in their news feeds. It's unfortunate this news will only embolden them to diminish and marginalize our communities even further.
I'm comforted by the many more people, though, who are sympathetic, some recalling their own mistakes in their youth, others thinking about the 11-year-old girl and what this means for her. One person even shared examples of other young people making up stories.
One of the very first messages I received when the news broke was of someone simply expressing relief that this terrible attack didn't happen – because it did shake our collective sense of well-being.
The truth of the matter is that hate is real and its impact is true. We need to have more conversations with our children about the climate they are growing up in. We need to better figure out how to support them. And we need to continue to send a message of inclusion, welcome and love.