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 family killed 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.
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 the surviving nine-year-old son, now an orphan.
Watch the full vigil below:
The London Muslim Mosque said the city and the country are devastated in the aftermath of Sunday’s attack, which left four dead and sent the nine-year-old boy to hospital.
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.”
WATCH: Representatives from the London Muslim Mosque, community members and dignitaries speak at the vigil honouring the victims:
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 crowd hushed for a moment of silence at 8.40 p.m., the time when the attack occurred on Sunday as family and friends of the victims were joined by first responders and other supporters on the stage.
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.”
They say a pickup truck, driven by a 20-year-old London man, mounted a curb, deliberately struck them as they were out for an evening walk and then drove away.
The family has identified the victims as Salman Afzaal, 46, his 44-year-old wife Madiha Salman, their 15-year-old daughter Yumna Afzaal and Afzaal’s 74-year-old mother.
The couple’s nine-year-old son Fayez was seriously injured but is expected to survive.
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.”
A spokesperson from the premier’s office said all provincial government events have been cancelled for Tuesday “to help give the family and community the space they need to grieve this devastating loss of life.”
Premier 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 a safe and inclusive home for everyone.
“We’re all shaken by this act,” 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 roots of the Muslim community 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 friend of the family who lived down the street, confirmed she had been in touch with the family and released the statement 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 reads. “We need to stand against hate and Islamophobia and raise awareness in our communities and throughout all political spectrum.”
Yasir said the family was well known within the local Pakistani-Muslim community.
“They were the most loving, caring and genuine family and would always greet you with a smile,” she said.
Two online fundraisers for the surviving boy had taken in about $1.3 million as of Tuesday evening.
Dozens had come out to the scene of the attack on Monday night to pay tribute.
People cried, hugged and placed flowers around a light pole and a nearby tree, a metre away from where the truck hopped the curb onto the sidewalk.
Rauf Ahmad and three of his friends watched the growing tribute on the corner. The group said they all had family members who were 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.”
Nathaniel Veltman, 20, has been arrested and charged with murder in the attack.