The London Free Press

Events to honour, remember Afzaals

- MEGAN STACEY

Teenagers shouldn't have to plan vigils.

But that's what Muslim youth in London have done to pay tribute to a friend and her family who were killed nearly a year ago in a hit-and-run that police allege was a deliberate attack on their faith.

Four members of the family — Talat Afzaal, 74, her son Salman Afzaal, 46, his wife Madiha Salman, 44, and their daughter Yumnah, 15 — died after a vehicle jumped the curb and struck them while they were out for a walk June 6, 2021.

Only the couple's nine-year-old son survived.

As the one-year anniversar­y of the tragedy approaches, community groups have prepared nearly a week of events to honour the family, show how much work is still needed to battle Islamophob­ia, and create a “space of healing,” said Selma Tobah, one of the organizers.

It includes a march on June 5 and vigil on June 6, spearheade­d by the Youth Coalition Combating Islamophob­ia.

“Yumnah was a young girl when her life was taken. She had friends, she had mentors, she had classmates, people that were affected by the fact that her life was taken,” Tobah said.

“It's been so moving and so inspiring to see their resiliency and see how they've taken a lead in planning these events. It's unfortunat­e, because 15- and 16-year-olds shouldn't have to be planning vigils for their deceased best friend, but this is, I guess, what systemic and interperso­nal Islamophob­ia has really handed them.”

Yumnah was an artist, just finishing Grade 9 at Oakridge secondary school. Her mother was a doctoral student completing her PHD in engineerin­g at Western University. Salman, a physiother­apist who worked at several area long-term care homes, loved gardening.

A community art gallery will open at the London Muslim Mosque on June 6, and a community garden in Maple Grove Park near the Afzaals' Hyde Park neighbourh­ood will be dedicated to the the family the same day.

London city council is also expected to proclaim June 6 a day of remembranc­e in honour of the Afzaals.

Their deaths triggered an outpouring of shock and grief that washed across the country. It quickly led to calls for concrete action from government­s and institutio­ns.

Landmark legislatio­n to tackle Islamophob­ia everywhere from schools to the public service, called the Our London Family Act, was proposed by the New Democrats at Queen's Park with the backing of the Liberals. But it died on the order paper when Doug Ford's Progressiv­e Conservati­ve government, criticized for not passing the bill beforehand, dissolved the legislatur­e and called the June 2 election.

The events scheduled for next month are intended to highlight needs, raise awareness of the extent of anti-muslim sentiment and focus on the voices of those mourning.

“I think it's been difficult to centre healing over the last year, just because we're still reeling with the shock and trauma. Just wrapping your mind around what has happened is, in and of itself, quite difficult,” Tobah said.

“Really centring the impact of trauma on mental health is going to be important, recognizin­g the Muslim community is still reeling from this event. There are so many people who have talked about how, even still, going for a walk might give them anxiety, or the sight of a large pickup truck driving by them really fast will induce anxiety.”

A London man, age 20 at the time, was charged following the collision with four counts of first-degree murder and one of attempted murder.

The past year has been heavy, and difficult to navigate, Tobah said.

Events in early June will give all Londoners a chance to reflect, learn, and heed the calls that have come from the Muslim community, including the National Council of Canadian Muslims, about what's needed, she said.

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