‘Trying to make something beautiful,’ the long road to hope after tragedy in London

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Saboor Khan hopes to find some solace this weekend when he helps realize his best friend’s dreams of a community space for children to laugh and play in.

Khan and Salman Afzaal were kindred spirits, often talking about the changing needs of the Muslim community in London, Ont.

The men and their wives were close, thinking of each other as family, and shared many dinners and laughs together. But what they shared the most, Khan says, were thoughts on how to better the lives of the next generation.

“Our children need more,” Khan recalled Afzaal telling him. “They don’t just need spiritual spaces, they need athletic spaces, they need social spaces.”

A year after Afzaal and members of his family died in what police called a hate-motivated attack, that space will come alive, with a gymnasium dedicated to him and his loved ones.

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“My brother and my sister, they left us, but I’m able to do something to still be present with them in some ways,” Khan says, adding that building the gym offered an opportunity to begin healing after the deaths of the Afzaal family.

On June 6, 2021, Afzaal, his wife, their 15-year-old daughter, Yumnah, their nine-year-old son and the children’s 74-year-old grandmother, Talat Afzaal, went out for a walk after dinner.

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Around 8:40 p.m., a young white man allegedly drove his truck into the Afzaal family, killing four of them _ the boy was seriously hurt, but survived. Prosecutors have alleged it was an act of terrorism. The trial is set to take place in the fall of 2023.

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The COVID-19 provincial lockdown last spring had limited the two families’ time together, Khan says. But he holds on to the memory of their last visit when the Afzaals came over during the holy month of Ramadan with clothes and chocolates to celebrate Khan’s newborn boy.

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“When finally the lockdown lifted, it was too late, they had been taken away from us,” Khan says.

Yet there is some light that has shone from the darkness, he says.

“It has been a moment of education for many of us in our country and throughout the world as a whole as people have understood what hate can do,” he says.

“And that as tolerant as a society we have here in Canada, there’s still a lot of discrimination, there’s prejudice and, unfortunately, toxic ideas.”

On Saturday, Khan and community members will unveil the gymnasium, which is attached to a mosque and a youth centre. People of all ages and faiths are welcome to enjoy the new spot, he says.

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There are several other events planned to commemorate the first anniversary of the tragedy.

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One of those will be a march Sunday led by Yumnah’s close friends.

Her best friend, Huda Sallam, 15, lost her bedrock, her “go-to person.”

After Yumnah died, Huda and her friends banded together to create a purple-and-green ribbon campaign to honour their friend. It felt good and productive.

But weeks passed and then the summer school break came, leaving the friends lost and disillusioned, she says.

“Nothing was happening and we were questioning, ‘Did a whole family die for nothing?”’ Huda says.

Last September, the friends and some of their moms got together to take further action. Soon, community leaders got involved and by December a new organization was born: Youth Coalition Combating Islamophobia.

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“The first step in addressing any form of hate is acknowledgment, but I think that we’ve been in the acknowledgment state for way too long,” Huda says.

“We’ve acknowledged it, we know what it is and we understand it. I think it’s time to start taking action.”

On Sunday, the group of students will lead a march to honour their friend with political leaders behind them as they fight to rid the world of Islamophobia.

Huda has an ally in London Mayor Ed Holder.

He says he spent the better part of the days and weeks that followed the attack trying to lead with stoicism, but also breaking down in private.

“I cried a lot,” he says.

He, too, knew something must be done. He wanted to recognize the family and fight racism at every corner.

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On Monday, the city will unveil a memorial and garden in honour of the Afzaal family. A developer donated land at the site of the tragedy where a plaque will sit, Holder says.

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The site became a makeshift memorial the day after the attack as friends and strangers dropped off hundreds of flowers. The city collected the flowers and ground them into mulch, which will be used in the new garden next to the memorial.

“We will always remember them,” Holder says.

Also on Monday, students across the city will learn about the Afzaal family in school along with lessons on Islamophobia and other forms of hate, Holder says.

The city has also hired several permanent positions, including a director of the newly formed anti-racism, anti-oppression division and an Indigenous community liaison adviser.

“This will help inform our council and our committees,” he says.

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Holder, taking a deep breath, says he understands the fight against racism will be difficult.

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“We’re trying hard in this city to be better people,” he says. “I’m going to challenge Londoners: when you put your head on the pillow tonight, did you do something that made London just a little bit better?”

He takes another deep breath.

“And if we can say yes to that, it’s a good day,” he says.

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For Huda, she tries to see the good in people, although that remains difficult.

The work the new youth organization has done, which includes a vigil Monday and a new piece of public art Yumnah’s friends created, has helped.

“We are trying to make something beautiful out of such a tragic incident for us,” Huda says.

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