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London's Muslim community urges resilience two years after devastating attack

A destroyed street sign at the location where a family of five was hit by a driver, in London, Ont., Monday, June 7, 2021. Members of the Muslim community in London will host a vigil to mark the second anniversary of the worst mass killing in the city's history. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Brett Gundlock

LONDON, Ont. — Two years after a Muslim family was killed on its streets, residents of London, Ont., vowed to make the city an example of resilience and a community that rejects hate, as they held a vigil on Tuesday marking the anniversary of the devastating attack.  

Salman Afzaal, his wife Madiha Salman, their daughter Yumna and her grandmother, Talat Afzaal, were run down by a pickup truck on June 6, 2021 in the southwestern Ontario city. The couple's son was seriously hurt but survived.

Prosecutors allege the attack was an act of terrorism targeting the 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. He is to stand trial in September.

Tuesday night's vigil on the street where members of the Afzaal family were killed began with Islamic prayers. Organizers then asked those in attendance to turn to the person beside them and say "As-salamu alaykum," the Arabic greeting that means 'peace be upon you.'

Relatives of the Afzaal family also addressed the large crowd, saying they wanted the city to turn the pain and shock of the killing into a purpose.

"Since day one, the entire world has been behind our family and has been praying for us," said Salman Afzaal's sister, Ayesha Shaukat, thanking the community for its support over the past two years.  

"Try to reach out to each other, your neighbours, your friends and live a happy life," she said.

Vigil attendees from diverse backgrounds became tearful as they recalled the day of the attack.

Nida Naved, a Muslim resident of London, said attending the vigil was important because she wanted her to show her sons and Muslim youth that they should not be afraid.

"I'm here to show that we stand in solidarity with who we are," Naved said.

"The (attack) really shook us. We knew the family personally as well, so having events like this really brings everyone together and gives you some comfort that you're not alone. We're not afraid of our identity."

Hadia Fiaz, another Muslim resident of London, said she is still fearful when she watches her parents walk on the street in traditional clothing, but that doesn't stop her from being proud of her faith.

"Having conversations with people, gathering... I think it helps," she said.

William Edward Lawrence, another London resident, said he's not Muslim but he wanted to show his support.

"I've come to the understanding that we're all the same," he said.

"We're just people trying to make it through life, live a good life, do the best we can. And unfortunately, this tragedy happened so I felt a need to come out and show my respect to the Muslim community."

Kristen King, also at Tuesday's vigil, said she was on the same street as the Afzaal family moments before they were run over. She is there regularly, she added, and thinks about the attack during each walk. 

"I know there are a lot of Muslim people in the community, in the neighbourhood and I just think it was horrendous," she said through tears.

" I just want them to know we're all in this life together and everyone deserves love."

The Youth Coalition Combating Islamophobia organized Tuesday's vigil and said the theme of the event was "resilience."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 6, 2023.

Fakiha Baig, The Canadian Press

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