LONDON, Ont. — Thousands of mourners, many wearing purple hijabs, descended on a mosque along with several dignitaries Tuesday for an outdoor vigil in honour of four members of a Muslim familykilled in what police have called a targeted hate crime.
Pandemic restrictions were especially eased to allow the outdoor commemoration in hot, humid weather just days after the attack in the southwestern Ontario city that wiped out three generations of the family, including 15-year-old Yumna Salman.
As volunteers handed out bottled water to help deal with the heat, several of Yumna’s close friends stood in the centre of the crowd, which stretched more than a city block. They carried signs that read simply: “She was our friend.”
Hateem Amin, 14, who became friendly with the Grade 9 student six years ago, said she was grateful so many people had come to show their support for the victims. Purple had been Yumna’s favourite colour.
“She’s loved by so many people,” Amin said. “Personally, I love her with my whole heart and I’m so happy to see that so many people care about her story. This was not a normal death…it was not time for her to go.”
Relatives identified the other victims as Yumna’s parents, Salman Afzaal, 46 and Madiha Salman, 44, and her 74-year-old grandmother who was not immediately named. The couple’s nine-year-old boy, Fayez, remained in hospital with serious injuries.
Speakers on the steps of the London Muslim Mosque spoke of resiliency, of not cowing to fear or hate. They called for a fight against Islamophobia.
“We’re not going to let hate intimidate us,” said Bilal Rahhal, chairman of the mosque. “This is our city and we’re not going anywhere.”
Others spoke of the outpouring of sympathy unleashed by the senseless tragedy. They promised to take care of Fayez, now an orphan.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau expressed his sympathies as he denounced the “act of evil.” There were no words to ease the grief of having three generations “murdered in their neighbourhood,” he said.
Trudeau acknowledged Islamophobia has hurt the Muslim-Canadian community “too many times,” citing previous attacks such as one on the mosque in Quebec City. We must choose a better way, he said.
“To this community, which has made London stronger for generations, and to all Muslim Canadians, we are with you,” Trudeau said. “When someone hurts any of us, when someone targets any parent or child or grandparent, we must all stand together and say no.”
The leaders of the three federal opposition parties expressed similar sentiments.
Police said the family, out for their early evening stroll, was struck when a man driving a black Dodge Ram deliberately smashed into them on a sidewalk as they waited to cross an intersection in the northwest end of London. The driver, investigators said, targeted the victims because of their Muslim faith.
London’s mayor called it an act of “mass murder.”
Police arrested Nathaniel (Nate) Veltman, 20, of London, on Sunday at a mall about seven kilometres from the carnage shortly after the driver sped off from the scene. He is charged with four counts of first-degree murder and one of attempted murder. He was wearing what appeared to be body armour, police said.
Veltman was a part-time worker at Gray Ridge Eggs Inc. in Strathroy, Ont., company CEO William Gray said on Tuesday in a statement expressing shock and sorrow at the “hateful attack.”
Catia Dias, a Grade 5 and 6 teacher, said she and her family came to the vigil to support the Muslim community while they grapple with the tragedy.
“I’m an immigrant myself,” Dias said. “Coming to Canada, it was because it’s a safe country to raise a family. To have this in our town, in our city, it’s very shocking.”
Omar Khamissa, with the National Council for Canadian Muslims, said the gathering allowed the community to mourn together. “Our souls are numb,” he said.
Sana Yasir, a friend of the family who lives nearby, released a statement earlier in the day on their behalf:
“We need to understand that the destruction of a family in the brutal and horrific manner like this is something we must all stand against,” the statement said.
Yasir said the family was well known in the local Pakistani-Muslim community.
“They were the most loving, caring and genuine family and would always greet you with a smile,” she said.
Khamissa stressed the deep roots of the Muslim community in the city of 404,000 people. The mosque, he said, was the second oldest in Canada.
“This London community here has helped built the city,” he said. “This is their home. For the first time, those who wear the scarf, who have a beard, feel like it’s not.”
Mike Phillips, principal of Oakridge Secondary School, where Yumna was an honour roll student, said the school community was in mourning.
“One teacher described her as being creative and confident, and having a bright and sparkling personality arriving each day to class with a smile,” Phillips said. “She’ll be deeply missed.”
Mosque Imam Aarij Anwer said the family was part of the “fabric of the congregation.”
“When we have the clearance, we will share the stories of this family, we will honor their legacy, we will cherish them,” he said. The mosque, he said, was providing access to grief counselling.
“There’s a natural fear,” he said. “But we also say, ‘Don’t let this terrorize you’. This is a deep scar, it will take time to heal.”
Dozens of people went to the attack scene to pay tribute. They cried, hugged and placed flowers around a light pole and nearby tree, a metre from where the speeding pickup truck hopped the curb.
Rauf Ahmad and three of his friends said they had relatives killed in Pakistan over their Muslim faith.
“I didn’t think there was racism in Canada and I felt very safe when I came here two years ago, but I do not feel safe now,” Ahmad said. “Humanity is first, we should not care about whether someone is a Muslim, a Jew or a Christian.”
Politicians abroad denounced the attack, some calling it an act of terror. Pakistan’s prime minister, Imran Khan, said it revealed the “growing Islamophobia in Western countries.”
The group Independent Jewish Voices Stands expressed solidarity with Canadian Muslims, calling the attack “beyond horrific.”
_ With files from Colin Perkel, Denise Paglinawan and Liam Casey
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 8, 2021.
Shawn Jeffords and Nicole Thompson, The Canadian Press