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'Act of evil:' Thousands mourn victims of anti-Muslim attack in London, Ont.


LONDON, Ont. — Thousands of mourners, many wearing purple hijabs, crowded outside a mosque along with several dignitaries Tuesday for an outdoor vigil in honour of four members of a Muslim family killed in what police have called a targeted hate crime.

Pandemic restrictions were especially eased to allow the 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 amid 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 sympathy and solidarity with the Muslim community as he denounced the "act of evil." There were no words to ease the grief of seeing three generations "murdered in their neighbourhood," he said.

Trudeau acknowledged Islamophobia has hurt the Muslim-Canadian community "too many times," citing attacks such as one on the mosque in Quebec City. We must choose a better way, he said.

"When someone hurts any of us, when someone targets any parent or child or grandparent, we must all stand together and say no," he said.

The crowd hushed for a moment of silence at 8.40 p.m., the time of Sunday's attack.  

Police said the family, out for their early evening stroll, was mown down when a man driving a black Dodge Ram 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."

Two online fundraisers for the surviving boy had taken in about $1.3 million as of Tuesday evening.

One fundraising web page said the father was a physiotherapist and cricket enthusiast, while his "brilliant'' wife was working on her PhD in civil engineering at Western University. Yumna's grandmother was a "pillar'' of the family, the page said.

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 crime 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 in a statement expressing shock and sorrow at the "hateful attack."

Catia Dias, a Grade 5 and 6 teacher, said she and her family went to the vigil to support a Muslim community grappling with the tragedy.

"Coming to Canada, it was because it's a safe country to raise a family," Dias said. "To have this in our town, in our city, it's very shocking."

Ontario Premier Doug Ford, who was initially booed by some in the crowd, gave an impassioned speech in which he spoke of the horrors that had left a little boy without a family. Ontario, he said, must be safe and inclusive for everyone.

"We're all shaken," Ford said choking back tears. "It was mass murder. It was a hate crime. It was an act of terrorism."

The leaders of the federal opposition Conservatives, New Democrats and Greens expressed similar sentiments.

Omar Khamissa, with the National Council for Canadian Muslims, said the gathering allowed the community to mourn together. "Our souls are numb," he said.

Khamissa stressed the deep Muslim roots in the city of 404,000 people. The mosque, he said, was the second oldest in Canada.

"This is their home," he said. "For the first time, those who wear the scarf, who have a beard, feel like it's not."

Sana Yasir, a family friend, 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.

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."

"We will honour their legacy, we will cherish them," he said. The mosque, he said, was providing access to grief counselling.

"Don’t let this terrorize you," he said. "This is a deep scar, it will take time to heal."

Dozens of people also visited the attack scene to pay tribute. They cried, hugged and placed flowers around a light pole and nearby tree, close to where the speeding pickup truck hopped the curb.

Rauf Ahmad and three of his friends said they had relatives killed in Pakistan for 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. 

Politicians abroad denounced the attack. 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."

Flags on provincial buildings will be flown at half mast until the victims' funerals.

_ 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

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