Nova Scotia

Nova Scotia community rallies after alleged racist incident

A group of Muslim friends from Berwick say a relaxing evening on Harbourville beach in Kings County, N.S., turned into a nightmare. The community is rallying to show its support.

Muslim friends allege violent threats, racist slurs at Annapolis Valley beach

Mouhanad Abu Marzouk is a volunteer firefighter in the town of Berwick, N.S. He says he's overwhelmed with the outpouring of community support since the incident. (Erin MacInnis/CBC)

A group of friends in Berwick, N.S., are shaken up after an encounter on nearby Harbourville beach.

On Sunday, July 14, Mouhanad Abu Marzouk was enjoying a bonfire supper with his friend, Ian Armstrong, along with Armstrong's wife and two young children.

The group is Muslim and while they were praying on the beach, they noticed a pair of men watching from afar.

The men later approached the group. Marzouk said he recognized one of them as a neighbour and invited the pair to join them.

"He saw us praying about an hour before that, and he asked Ian, 'Why do you pray to the east?'" Marzouk told CBC's Information Morning.

Harbourville beach at dusk. (Erin MacInnis/CBC)

Armstrong said he wasn't sure how to answer the question, and the conversation quickly escalated from confusion to racist slurs and threats.

"They were swearing quite a bit, and getting quite aggressive," he told CBC's Information Morning.

Armstrong said his wife sent their children down the beach to get away from the exchange while she called 911.

'Invader religions'

"They kept coming back to this idea of feeling threatened when they see invader religions, and at one point said they were prepared to defend our country," he said.

Armstrong said the language the men were using reminded him of the mosque attack in Christchurch, New Zealand, that left 51 people dead.

"[The Christchurch shooter] talked about these invaders that they were going to be shooting to get out of their territory, so we were really worried about what these people were going to do when we heard them talking that way and directly threatening us with violence," he said.

'I'll smash this right in your face'

As Armstrong's wife was still on the phone with the dispatcher, the men advanced on her.

"One of them had gotten right up in my wife's face, like just inches away from her, and was staring her down, and behind him, his friend picked up a good-sized rock," he said.

"I'm still not sure which of us he was speaking to, but he said, 'I'll put the rocks right to you, I'll smash this right in your face.' He didn't, thankfully, but we were quick to back away."

RCMP Cpl. Jennifer Clarke confirmed police were called to the scene. She said the matter is under investigation.

Marzouk said although one of the men is known to him, he's never had issues with him in the past. The incident did, coincidentally, happen close to the anniversary of another traumatic event from his past.

One year ago, Marzouk's brother, Muhammed Abu Marzouk, was the victim of a hate-motivated crime in Mississauga, Ont., when he was severely beaten by two men.

"He was unconscious for three weeks, and he's still recovering," said Marzouk. "This made me think that if it happened there, it could happen here."

Overwhelming community support

Marzouk posted the story to his Facebook page, where it's received over 300 messages of support.

Armstrong said the three adults went back to the beach the next day.

"We wanted to make sure that we didn't let fear start to take over," he said.

Harbourville beach is a popular location for bonfires in the area. Armstrong says he returned to the beach with his wife and Marzouk the day after the incident. (Erin MacInnis/CBC)

Marzouk said it's now taking an hour and a half for him to go buy coffee.

"People stop me in town and they say, 'We're sorry that this happened to you,' and they assure me that they don't feel that way," he said.

Both call the support "healing."

One community, one love

A couple of Berwick residents are planning a bonfire event — One Community, One Love Bonfire — on Harbourville beach on Saturday at 7 p.m. to support the group.

Amy Sentis is one of the organizers. She helps run a local business at which Marzouk has been running workshops.

"He's such a nice man, we can't say enough about him," she told CBC's Information Morning. "He's just probably one of the most involved community members that we have."

Sentis said Marzouk isn't generally active on Facebook, so his long post about the beach incident caught her eye, along with the supportive messages.

Amy Sentis is one of the organizers of the One Community, One Love Bonfire event, which is in support of the group that was accosted on Harbourville beach. (Erin MacInnis/CBC)

"Something just got riled up in me where I was like, 'We have to stop just offering our thoughts and prayers about things, and we actually have to stand up to this,'" she said.

Sentis said there have been other discriminatory acts in the area recently in the form of graffiti. She's hoping the event will give locals a chance to ask questions and better understand their neighbours.

 "It started off just as a little idea to show some solidarity, and to speak up and say that this just can't happen here, and it's just turned into a complete beast of its own now," she said.

With files from CBC's Information Morning.