LONDON, Ont. - There’s a public square outside London, Ontario’s Covent Garden Market with more than a dozen wooden picnic tables—a spot where people can sit and eat snacks they picked up at the shop, relax, and read. It’s about a 90-second walk from the apartment of Nathaniel Veltman, the 20-year-old man accused of murdering four members of a Muslim family and injuring another. It’s also the spot where London resident Mohammad Sharifi was violently beaten by two men in May 2016, leaving him with a concussion and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Sharifi, who at the time was a 30-year-old grad student at Western University, told VICE World News that he and his then girlfriend were poring over school work one evening when they heard the two men yelling at them across the street.
“I saw the expression on my girlfriend’s face change and she was like, ‘They’re coming this way,’” Sharifi said.
According to Sharifi, the bigger of the two men began calling Sharifi a “fucking Muslim, an Arab, a terrorist,” before shoving him to the ground and punching him repeatedly. The men, Blaire Gibson and Justin Smart, both 24 at the time, were eventually convicted of assault.
It’s been more than five years, but the hatred Sharifi experienced in London hasn’t gone anywhere. Last Sunday, Salman Afzaal, 46, Madiha Salman, 44, their 15-year-old daughter Yumna, 15, their son Fayez, 9, and Salman’s mother Talat, 74, were out for an evening stroll when Veltman allegedly ran them down in his pick-up truck at high speed. All but Fayez, who is now an orphan recovering in hospital, were killed.
London police said the attack was motivated by hate towards Muslims. They charged Veltman with four counts of first-degree murder and one count of attempted murder. A taxi driver witnessed Veltman laugh as he was arrested, the driver’s employer told VICE World News.
This time around, the statements from politicians and leaders were bolder than before, with even Ontario’s Progressive Conservative Premier Doug Ford describing the crime as an “act of terrorism.”
Still, there were attempts to distance the city from the racism laid bare by the attack. “I want each of you to know that ours is a safe community. While your hearts are heavy, I want you to feel secure,” said London Mayor Ed Holder the day after the killings.
The city’s police chief Steve Williams said he wanted to reassure Londoners that the force was behind them. “We understand that this event may cause fear and anxiety in the community, and in particular the Muslim community,” said Williams. “There is no tolerance in this community for individuals who, motivated by hate, target others with violence.”
Progressive Conservative candidate Paul Paolatto issued an outright denial, tweeting, “London is NOT a racist city. This event does not define us.”
But over the last week, Muslims and racialized people in the community who spoke to VICE World News challenged that narrative, saying the vitriol towards them is tolerated, overlooked, and bolstered not only by hateful individuals, but sometimes by police, media outlets, and politicians.
In a Facebook post in the aftermath of the mass killing, Sharifi addressed the seemingly willful blindness, asking, “When is London going to wake up from its complacent slumber to the horrific reality of racism and discrimination threatening its communities?”
A city of around 400,000 people, about 18 percent of London’s population is made up of “visible minorities,” according to the 2016 Statistics Canada census, with Arab people being the predominant racialized group, followed by South Asians and Black people. It’s also a college town, home to Western University, a school with a “deeply entrenched” culture of racism, according to one report. Author Eternity Martis meticulously documented the anti-Black racism at Western and in London in her 2020 memoir, They Said This Would Be Fun: Race, Campus Life, and Growing Up.
The Afzaal-Salman family were regulars at London Muslim Mosque, Canada’s oldest mosque currently in operation. At Tuesday evening’s outdoor vigil for the victims, the mosque’s exterior was a friendly and welcoming space, where volunteers readily handed out water and organizers gently reminded people to socially distance and help anyone who looked like they might be in distress from the sweltering heat and crowds of thousands.
But following a series of attacks on Muslims, including the 2017 Quebec mosque shooting that left six people dead, and the 2018 Christchurch, New Zealand attack, during which a white supremacist gunman murdered 51 worshippers at two mosques, London Muslim Mosque ramped up its safety measures.
Since 2018, there has been security on the premises 24/7 and an upgraded security camera system.
“Every Friday, we actually hire… a police officer to sit in the parking lot to show the people that they’re safe, to act as a deterrent for someone who has evil ideas,” Imam Aarij Anwer told VICE World News from a makeshift memorial at the intersection where the family was killed.
“We’ve seen this build up. We’ve seen a rally of a right-wing nationalist group here in London… This is a steady build up and it rears its ugly head from time to time and now it has done so in a really devastating way.”
Anwer said the first step towards dealing with Islamophobia is accepting that it’s real.
“Anything shy of a gun pointed at your head doesn’t meet the threshold for racism.”
But a few others at the roadside memorial, speaking to TV reporters, painted a different picture, saying they still feel safe in London, and in Canada more broadly. It’s a mantra that was repeated by Ghassan Barzak at his convenience store, Ray’s Variety, Wednesday.
“It’s OK,” Barzak said, head tilting slightly, voice barely above a whisper, when asked if he feels safe in London. “It’s not bad.”
His son, Hasan, 23, a photographer who helps out at the family store and knew the Afzaal-Salman family from the mosque, offered an explanation for his dad’s seeming contentedness, which he’s also noticed in other older Muslims.
“My dad’s Palestinian. He grew up in Gaza,” Hasan said, sitting under a white wooden gazebo on the grounds of the elementary school he attended. “He has this idea that, in my opinion, there’s a freedom tax to being able to live here and so anything shy of a gun pointed at your head doesn’t meet the threshold for racism.”
Hasan said his mom, who wears a hijab, scoffed at the idea of changing her walking routine due to the attack.
But Hasan feels differently. He’s tired of the smaller indignities he and other Muslims have to grin and bear, day after day.
Growing up in London half-Palestinian, half-Malay, Hasan said he was more visibly East Asian and got good grades. In some ways, he said, he benefitted from “the model minority treatment.”
Like any kid, he slacked off on homework sometimes, but unlike his non-Arab friends, he said, “I’ve had teachers single me out and ask me outside the halls if I’m being abused just for getting a C on a math test.”
His older sister, Sarah, told VICE World News, “Leaving London was the best decision for my well-being as a (woman of colour).” Sarah, a former community organizer who now lives in Toronto, said she was frustrated by the lack of support from community leaders to uplift young women of colour.
Running a store as a brown person is a delicate balance, Hasan explained. Sometimes, his dad overlooks it even when he sees people stealing, or he’ll pretend he has to leave the store instead of outright kicking out people behaving poorly.
In a video Hasan took in March from behind the counter at his dad’s shop, he repeatedly tells two unmasked white women with dogs to leave the store.
“This is our business,” Hasan says.
“This is our country,” one woman replies, while the other threatens to call the Better Business Bureau.
Hasan said he’d let the women in without masks on as a favour—but they ended up refusing to leave for 45 minutes.
“There's something really unacceptable to them about having to listen to my authority,” he said.
Hasan contributes to LondonBlog, a local Instagram-based news site, because he feels he feels mainstream media ignores racist microaggressions and nuance in covering the Muslim community. Then they flock in when something horrific happens.
At Tuesday’s vigil, he said a cameraman told him and other mourners, “I know you’re excited, but I have a job to do.”
“The idea that the victims have any type of relation to us was absent in his mind,” Hasan said. “It just feels dehumanizing.”
For Sharifi, this week’s violence brings back painful memories, including how he felt pressured to prove that he was a victim to the media, but also to police.
When they were called to the scene of his assault by a bystander, he said instead of immediately calling paramedics, one of them asked him, “Is your face normally so bumpy?”
“It’s a small thing,” Sharifi said, “but would you ask a victim of an assault that kind of question or would you check for their health if you noticed something unusual? It’s a very low possibility that somebody would look like they had the shit beaten out of them.”
He also said he felt the police report was “very messy and incomplete,” creating a poor foundation for a court case.
A London police spokesman confirmed the department arrested two men tied to the incident, but said he could not respond to other questions about how officers conducted themselves that evening by deadline.
Neither of Sharifi’s attackers was charged with a hate crime. After a year in the court system, both were sentenced to probation and house arrest.
“The whole process is very alienating and frustrating and disappointing,” Sharifi said.
Amira Elghawaby, an Ottawa-based human rights advocate and board member of the Canadian Anti-Hate Network, a nonprofit that monitors hate groups, told VICE World News two-thirds of hate crimes in Canada go unreported.
Elghawaby, who is Muslim and has been sounding the alarm about Canadian Islamophobia for years, said there are several reasons people may avoid calling police when they’ve experienced a hate crime. Going to a police station or having a cop cruiser parked in front of your house can be stigmatizing, she said. Even when people do report hate crimes, they can be brushed aside by police, or charges aren’t laid because it’s too hard to land a conviction.
After much advocacy from Elghawaby in her previous role at the National Council of Canadian Muslims, Ottawa police now allow for online reporting of hate crimes. Elghawaby said other Canadian police departments need to follow suit, as well as allow third-party organizations to report hate crimes, so that those uncomfortable with interacting with police can avoid it. She also said online hate needs to be taken more seriously.
“There’s this huge gulf of lack of action when it comes to holding people online to account for the vitriol and hate speech that they’re spreading.”
From police immediately quickly ascribing hate as a motivation for Veltman’s actions, to politicians calling the killings terrorism, there are some things that are moving in the right direction. Imam Anwer said he’s glad that questions about whether or not Muslims have assimilated enough aren’t coming up, the way they did after the Quebec mosque shooting.
In a lengthy Facebook post, former London Progressive Conservative candidate Jeff Bennett said Veltman was “raised in a racist city that pretends it isn’t.”
But Anwer and other leaders and community members want the rhetoric to be backed up with action, including an immediate national summit on Islamophobia.
Speaking at the vigil Tuesday evening, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised “action,” but didn’t make any concrete policy commitments. Nor has he outright condemned Quebec’s secularism law that forbids people wearing the hijab from public service positions.
Hasan doesn’t think Trudeau should have been allowed to speak without directly answering the calls for a national summit.
“It doesn’t mean shit that he’s here,” he said, noting he briefly booed the prime minister when he walked up to the podium.
“They don't get to just be humans that are in sorrow because a sad thing happened,” he said, of politicians. “They get to be humans in sorrow that made influential decisions and they have to face those when they come here.”
Walking into a dollar store on Tuesday, Hasan said he thought he saw Salman Afzaal. Then he realized it couldn’t be him.
The thing that makes him saddest, he said, is knowing that people, including himself, will move on, while 9-year-old Fayez carries on without his family.
“What really scares me is we’re all going to feel bad for this little boy but then it’ll just be a story, like the Quebec shooting four years ago and we don’t know a single victim’s name. It’s just a reference for the next time it happens,” he said. “But he still has to live.”
Muslims who are in need of mental health support can call or text Naheesa at 1-866-NASEEHA (627-3342), for confidential support from 12 p.m. – 12 a.m. EST, 7 days a week.
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