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'Pain into purpose:' Community prepares to mark two years since London, Ont., attack

Hundreds gather on a rainy evening at a vigil for the Afzaal family in London, Ont., Monday, June 6, 2022. An upcoming vigil marks the second anniversary of London's largest mass killing. THE CANADIAN PRESS/ Geoff Robins

Maryam Al-Sabawi says she's often startled by the sound of a passing car, haunted by the memory of her friend being killed two years ago in a devastating vehicle attack in London, Ont. 

Al-Sabawi, a 16-year-old now in Grade 11, was close with Yumna Afzaal, who was run down along with three members of her family at a London intersection on June 6, 2021. 

Prosecutors allege the attack was an act of terrorism targeting London's Muslim community. Nathaniel Veltman, who was 20 at the time of his arrest, faces four counts of first-degree murder and one count of attempted murder and is set to stand trial in September.

Al-Sabawi says it has been "really difficult to recover" following the attack. 

"Not only was Yumna my friend but she was killed for the same thing that I believe in," Al-Sabawi says in an interview. 

"I'm a visible Muslim so it's hard to walk in the streets every day trying not to think that could happen to me." 

Al-Sabawi and community leaders say London, in southwestern Ontario, has been transformed by the 2021 attack, which was the worst mass killing in the city's history. 

Salman Afzaal, 46, his 44-year-old wife Madiha Salman, their 15-year-old daughter Yumna and her 74-year-old grandmother, Talat Afzaal, were killed in the attack. The couple's nine-year-old son was seriously hurt.

"There's still a lot of fear and worry in the community, but a lot of healing has happened as well," says Rumina Morris, director of the anti-racism and anti-oppression division at the City of London. 

"We really turned the pain of that attack into purpose."

Since the attack, London has accelerated initiatives that tackle Islamophobia as well as anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism. Those include naming community liaisons for outreach to Muslim, Black and Indigenous communities, says Morris.

London's anti-oppression and anti-racism division has proposed a framework that would allow the city to pass all policies through an anti-racism lens.

The city has also memorialized members of the Afzaal family through parks, murals and gardens established in their honour across the city. 

"We are definitely ahead of the game," says Morris. "But we still have so much work to do."

Al-Sabawi, who founded Youth Coalition Combating Islamophobia after her friend's death, says it's important to keep combating hate. 

"Even though (we're) tired of fighting, we continue fighting because we don't want anybody else to experience this," she says. "We know how painful it is." 

The youth coalition has created educational programming about Islamophobia and its effects on youth that has been adopted by schools in the city. It is also working on a documentary about Islamophobia. 

The coalition is organizing a vigil to mark the two years since the Afzaal family was killed. The theme of the event is "resilience," Al-Sabawi says. 

Attacks against Muslim Canadians haven't stopped, she says, which is why resilience is necessary. 

Early findings from a Senate committee studying the issue indicated Islamophobia and violence against Muslims is widespread and deeply entrenched in Canadian society.

The Greater Toronto Area has seen several cases of violence outside mosques in recent months. In April,  a man tried to run over Muslim worshippers gathering in large groups outside a Markham, Ont., mosque during the month of Ramadan, police have said.

Al-Sabawi has had a few frightening experiences herself– a few days after the attack on the Afzaal family, she says she was in a car with her mother when another vehicle tried to run them off the road. She and her Muslim friends have also been told to "go back to where they came from" while at school, she says. 

The fact that such examples of Islamophobia still take place in London is "shocking," says Morris, of the city's anti-racism and anti-oppression division.

"But overwhelmingly the appetite to do something different and better is louder and stronger," she says.

Josh Morgan, the mayor of London, says the city has undergone a "phenomenal" transformation since the attack. 

"There was this coming together in a way that I've never seen before," he says in an interview.

"People from all aspects of life decided that the response to this was going to be that we were going to confront hate, Islamophobia, racism."

Now, it's become common in London for different communities to support one another, he says.

"It could be an event for the Sikh community and you will see members of other faith-based communities come out and support that event," he says. 

Al-Sabawi says the ultimate goal is to eradicate Islamophobia and racism, and mark the progress that has been made along the way.

"We're excited to show how far we've come as a community," she says. "That's really important."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 5, 2023.

Fakiha Baig, The Canadian Press

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