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‘The best people in our community.’ An outpouring of grief for Muslim family killed in what police say was hate-motivated attack


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‘The best people in our community.’ An outpouring of grief for Muslim family killed in what police say was hate-motivated attack

A lustrous, hot pink rose had recently bloomed in the bush near the Afzaal family home on a calm residential London, Ont. street — a delight Salman Afzaal relished showing off.

Afzaal loved the garden he painstakingly nurtured — pansies, lilies, marigolds, hanging baskets. Just this weekend Afzaal and his wife, Madiha, planted a new bed in the front garden with the help of their neighbour and close friend, Dr. Zahed Khan. He would often ask Afzaal, 46, for the secret to his gorgeous lawn, to which he’d simply reply: You have to love it.

“He was a beautiful soul,” Khan said Tuesday, near the home where he’d spent countless hours with his friend. “He believed in the good in society.”

Each member of the Afzaal family was uniquely working to make the world — and their adopted home of London — more beautiful.

Madiha, 44, was a “sparkling” scholar pursuing a PhD in environmental engineering, researching how to clean soils damaged by industrial chemicals. While pursuing her degree in Pakistan, she’d been the only female student in the class of 174 civil engineering students, her graduate supervisor said.

Yumna Salman, 15, had an artistic streak, and designed and painted a stunning space-themed mural in the London Islamic School.

Yumna Salman’s 74-year old grandmother, whose name has not yet been released, supported them in their pursuits — she was described as the pillar of the family.

The three generations were wiped out at dusk Sunday night, their murders — allegedly at the hands of London man Nathaniel Veltman, 20, at the wheel of a black Dodge Ram pickup — setting off cascades of grief and fear across Canada and beyond.

In mourning and solidarity Tuesday night, thousands gathered outside the London Muslim Mosque for a sombre vigil, some wearing purple, Yumna Salman’s favourite colour. Among those in attendance were Ontario Premier Doug Ford, all leaders of the federal parties, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who in the House of Commons Tuesday called the Sunday night rampage a “terrorist attack.”

“When someone hurts any of us, when someone targets any parent or child or grandparent, we must all stand together and say ‘no,’ ” Trudeau told the crowd Tuesday night. “No to hatred and to Islamophobia. No to terror and to racism.”

Speakers from the local Muslim community called for immediate action on pervasive, violent and systemic Islamophobia.

“What is the point of freedom of expression if a Canadian Muslim family doesn’t have the right to walk on a sidewalk without getting murdered?” asked community advocate Nawaz Tahir.

London police say the family of four was “intentionally” struck and killed at a busy London intersection Sunday night while waiting to cross the street — a deliberate attack fuelled by hatred for the family’s Muslim faith, police said. Veltman made a brief appearance in court Monday, facing four counts of first-degree murder. He also faces one count of attempted murder, against the sole surviving victim.

Nine-year-old Fayez Salman lay in a hospital bed Tuesday, recovering from serious, but non-life-threatening injuries.

“He was very, very attached to his mom, and his sister too. Because they were just the two siblings,” said family friend Sana Yasir, who lived down the street from the victims.

The siblings, six years apart, had recently been over to Yasir’s house to play with her younger sibling. She would see the family most days as they were venturing out for their daily walks together, just as they did Sunday night.

“They basically were the best people in our community, by anyone you speak to,” said Saboor Khan, who has known the family for 14 years. “Losing them to such a horrific act in plain sight, and (them) struggling for their life on the road … Nobody knows how to make sense of this.”

Afzaal was registered to work as a physiotherapist at two care homes — one in Chatham, another in Zurich, Ont. — after obtaining his degree at the University of Karachi in 1997, according to the College of Physiotherapists of Ontario. He loved his work and had a sunny outlook, always, according to Khan.

That was true even in the face of discrimination. A few months ago, a white client told Afzaal she didn’t want to be treated by him — an act of racism that enraged Afzaal, but that Khan said he brushed off with his customary positive outlook.

“He didn’t hold anything against anybody,” Khan said. “For him to suffer this … it’s incomprehensible. It’s just beyond.”

Dr. Jason Gerhard, a professor at Western University’s department of civil and environmental engineering, supervised Madiha Salman’s master’s of engineering science degree, describing her as a “sparkling, generous, loving person.”

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She cherished education, female advancement and equality, Gerhard said. In a statement, Gerhard recalled asking Salman, in an interview before giving her an offer at Western, how she would handle the transition to the Canadian education system.

Salman wasn’t worried, Gerhard said.

“In Pakistan, she was the only female student in the class of 174 civil engineering students. And the male teachers would never let her ask any questions or answer any of her questions,” Gerhard said.

Salman went on to persevere, succeeding “beautifully” and doing a research master’s degree that included innovative experiments that showed vegetable oils could clean soil contaminated by industrial chemicals left behind by the Industrial Revolution, Gerhard said. Her innovation helped make cleanup “happen at real sites around the world,” he said.

Yumna, just 15, was finishing up Grade nine at Oakridge Secondary School. Last year, before she graduated from the London Islamic School, she designed and painted a stunning space-themed mural in the school basement.

“Shoot for the moon, even if you miss you’ll land among the stars,” it read.

The principal of the school, Asad Choudhary, told a town hall Monday night that Yumna had wanted the mural to be her legacy at the school.

Even through the rain Tuesday, a steady stream of people laid flowers at the busy London intersection where the family was run down. Among them was a woman whose mother was treated by Afzaal at her nursing home and a young girl who went to school with Fayez.

“We just needed to be somewhere, and this was the place we needed to be today,” said the girl’s mother, Jihan El Kassem, after the family said a short prayer.

Sultona Qubaia, who came to Tuesday night’s memorial with her sister Marium Qubaia, said she has been scared to be in public with her young children as a visibly Muslim woman. Marium experienced such frequent harassment on the subway in Toronto that she eventually bought a car.

But the overwhelming show of support she has seen from the non-Muslim community in London has felt like a warm hug, she said.

“I feel like I am going to stand up and I am going to wear my hijab and I am going to walk in the street, they are not going to win and they are not going to make us so scared that we are going to retreat to our homes and stay there,” Qubaia said.

“We are here, this is our home, and we are staying.”

Back on the quiet street the Afzaal family called home, chalk hearts have been drawn on sidewalks, as they have across London.

Khan can hardly look at his neighbours’ quiet house. He still sees Afzaal waving from his bedroom window, or calling him up when he could tell Khan was making lamb khadai. He would sometime tease Afzaal for his gentleness — fixing a flat tire recently, Afzaal wouldn’t even kick the car to loosen it up.

Khan’s wife or daughter might have been with the Afzaal family that evening on the walk. Now, his daughter is too afraid to sleep in her own room and he is too afraid to let her take the bus.

At the London Muslim Mosque Tuesday, Imam Aarij Anwer said he felt like something inside him broke when he heard the news. Every Friday at the mosque since the Christchurch mosque massacre in New Zealand in 2019, the mosque has had police and security attend.

Later, at Tuesday night’s vigil, Anwer stressed that “we belong here.”

“This is our home. We will not cower in fear,” said Anwer. “We will be resilient by being normal, by being ourselves.”

With files from Canadian Press

Alyshah Hasham is a Toronto-based reporter covering crime and court for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @alysanmati

Wendy Gillis is a Toronto-based reporter covering crime and policing for the Star. Reach her by email at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter: @wendygillis

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