How this teen is remembering her friend while fighting Islamophobia

Published 2022-06-03 07:01

Yumna Afzaal was killed with her family in London in 2021


One year ago, 15-year-old Safiyah Lawendy remembers the heartbreaking silence.

She was sitting on the porch of her family’s London, Ontario, home when her mother came out to read a message she received on her phone.

The message was that her friend, Yumna, was killed alongside her parents and grandmother in what police say was a hate-motivated, Islamophobic attack.

“There were no words … just these moments of silence and the realization,” Safiyah told CBC Kids News.

“And it was so heartbreaking when we realized who it was. This is a London family. This is a Canadian family.”

Safiyah is one of the founding members of a group of young people called the Youth Coalition Combating Islamophobia (YCCI) who are organizing a march on June 5 and a vigil on June 6 in London to remember the Afzaal family.

Safiyah grew up and went to school with Yumna and calls her “such a beautiful and kind soul.”

Her friend’s death pushed her to act.

From left to right, Yumna Afzaal, 15, her mom, Madiha Salman, 44, her grandmother, Talat Afzaal, 74, and her dad, Salman Afzaal, 46, were killed on June 6, 2021. A boy, not pictured, was injured and survived. (Image submitted by Afzaal family)

What is Islamophobia?

Islamaphobia is the fear or hatred of Muslim people or followers of Islam.

Watch this episode of KN Explains to learn more about it.

“When these ideas [of Islamophobia] start to grow, if they are left unchecked, then they become words that become actions,” Safiyah said.

Safiyah’s motivation

Safiyah moved from mourning her friend to fighting for change.

In the days after the attack, she recalls sitting in the London Mosque quickly painting signs and preparing for a vigil.

“We came together because we knew that action had to happen,” she said.

Safiyah Lawendy, left, attended a vigil along with thousands of other people to honour the Afzaal family on June 8, 2021, in London, Ontario. (Image submitted by Safiyah Lawendy)

After this year’s planned vigil and walk, Safiyah said she wants to see followup, such as concrete changes to education, online hate and everyday conversation.

“We need to stop hate on the internet,” she said.

“We need to stop hate within our schools. We need to stop hate within conversations that we're having with day-to-day people in our day-to-day lives.”

Safiyah said that it’s important to understand that words can turn into deadly actions.

“These types of issues don't happen overnight. This murder was not something that just happened. It's something that’s been built on,” said Safiyah.

Creating ‘a community where we all belong’

Safiyah said young Muslims often live in fear when they see other Muslims being attacked.

“We shouldn't have to second guess walking down the street,” she said. “I should never have to feel that I'm a target for hate because of how I choose to represent my beliefs and my religion.”

She wants Canadian Muslim youth to know other people's hate has nothing to do with them.

Last year in London, flowers and tributes to the Afzaal family were left at the scene of the attack. (Image credit: Geoff Robins/The Canadian Press)

“They should be proud of their identities. We are Canadians who happen to be Muslim.”

Safiyah said non-Muslim kids can be allies to their Muslim peers by understanding just how similiar we all are.

“We are one country and we are one people … it’s so important to embrace our differences and our similarities because that's what makes us human beings,” Safiyah said.

Safiyah isn’t alone in promoting allyship.

Aasiyah Khan, manager of education programs at the National Council for Canadian Muslims, works with Muslim and non-Muslim youth in Canada.

Khan said non-Muslim kids can be allies by calling out bullying and Islamophobia when it happens.

“I encourage us to move forward with grief, to hold it, but to also think about how can we create a Canada or a community where we all belong,” she said.

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