As It Happens·Q&A

Muslims need more than kind words right now, says friend of slain London, Ont., family

A friend of the Muslim family killed in a suspected hate crime on Sunday says he appreciates the prime minister's "beautiful words," but he wants Canada to take concrete actions to stop the proliferation of hatred against Muslims.

The 4 family members killed in a hit and run were a 'very kind and loving family,' says Dr. Ahmed Hegazy

A family stands outside, looking to the camera. There are trees in the background.
Yumna Afzaal, 15, left, Madiha Salman, 44, centre left, Talat Afzaal, 74, and Salman Afzaal, 46, right, were out for an evening walk when they were run over by a man who police say was motivated by anti-Muslim hate. CBC has received permission from the family to publish this photo, and has agreed to crop out the youngest child Fayez, 9, who remained in hospital Monday. (Submitted by the Afzaal family)

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A friend of the Muslim family killed in a suspected hate crime on Sunday says he appreciates the prime minister's "beautiful words," but he wants Canada to take concrete actions to stop the proliferation of hatred against Muslims.

On Sunday, a man in a pickup truck struck and killed four members of a family who were out for an after-dinner walk in London, Ont. 

Salman Afzaal, 46, his wife Madiha Salman, 44, their 15-year-old daughter Yumna Afzaal and Salman Afzaal's 74-year-old mother Talat Afzaal were killed. The youngest member of the family, Fayez, 9, survived and remained in hospital Monday in serious condition. 

Police say the attack was premeditated and racially motivated. A 20-year-old man is in custody on four charges of first-degree murder and one count of attempted murder.

Dr. Ahmed Hegazy, a friend and neighbour of the family, spoke to As it Happens host Carol Off. Here is part of their conversation. 

We heard the news Sunday night that there had been this horrible hit and run. At what point did you realize that these were your neighbours and your friends?

I didn't know until late in the afternoon yesterday. And it was only through friends texting each other and sending around pictures that I started to realize that they were talking about Salman, my friend. And then it took a while, but it really at the end hit me that his entire family had been murdered.

This, to me, was a personal loss. But this issue of hate crimes that perpetuate and happen over and over again is something that really needs to be dealt with in a very firm manner.- Dr. Ahmed Hegazy, friend of the family 

Can you tell us about Salman? 

I met him about 14 years ago with the London Muslim Mosque.

Everybody at the mosque knows Salman. Just a beautiful person — always smiling, always willing to help, very kind-hearted, somebody who would really hold no grudges for anybody. Just a genuinely beautiful person.

Every Ramadan ... [our] families would break their fast together. This past Ramadan, however, was different, and obviously we weren't able to meet.

People develop their own habits of trying to deal with this lockdown, and one of the habits, I believe, that Salman's family developed was to try to go out for a walk right before sunset. And Salman's mother was very fond of these walks, and she was always wanting to get out for these walks, and I only knew this recently. Little, obviously, did they know that this would be their last walk.

Can you tell us a bit about his wife, Madiha? 

She was finishing a PhD in civil engineering at Western [University]. She was very hard working. 

I didn't know her too much. My wife was very close. But when we would visit, it was very clear that they were really working hard, obviously with the kids and everything, to get her to finish her PhD and see if she can do something beyond that.

And Salman himself was obviously working in physiotherapy for a few years now.

They were all just a very, very kind and loving family.

[Can you] tell us anything about the children, Yumna and Fayez?

What can I say? They're really well brought up. Salman and his family really were working hard to bring them up and in such a way, and just well-behaved, very nice kids to be around. The kids that you'd want your kids to befriend.

There is a story that Yumna painted an entire mural at the elementary school where she attended before she went off to high school, and just designed it, drew it and painted this wall. Did you know anything about that?

Yes, she was part of a very enthusiastic group of students who actually brought this project to life. You see the kids grow and their identity develop through projects like this, where they get to express freely their culture and basically bring it to life.

I want to understand a bit more about what this means for London's Muslim community, just what effect it's having on people.

For me, it's a personal tragedy. But London and the Muslim-Canadians at large, I think, are looking at this with an entirely different depth and lens. It still is a personal tragedy for everybody, Muslims and non-Muslims, but at the same time, there's a shaken sense of security for a lot of Muslims.

There are difficult conversations to be had with kids. I still haven't told my kids about this. And the last thing you want is for the kids to not feel secure and safe in their country. Because my kids are Canadian. They've never lived anywhere other than Canada. And, you want them to be able to express their identity and their culture freely without fear of being intimidated or harassed or even targeted. But at the same time, stories like this don't serve that at all.

I must say for Muslims, they're looking at action. And I know that our prime minister said beautiful words, and I really appreciate all that he said. But Muslims are looking for something more beyond condolences.

We do appreciate the condolences. I was at the London Muslim Mosque yesterday and there was a lot of community members, non-Muslim community members and people from churches around us, that were dropping flowers at the doorstep of the mosque. And I appreciated that. We all appreciated it. We all felt that what happened was not normal. This is our home. This is where we belong.

But at the same time, if we don't put this to action and stop the vilification of Muslims in the media and everywhere, this may happen again. And it's happened before. And so I think action needs to be taken.

What kind of action?

I think it's important that legislators and community leaders, and obviously our Canadian leaders at large, look at how to define hate speech and how to actually look at hate speech proactively, seek it out and hold whoever brings that forward accountable. Freedom of speech is absolutely important. But when it comes to a point that you're adding fuel to the fire, it no longer should be allowed. 

And when you have a 20-year-old who's filled with so much hate that he takes away the lives of people just based on how they look, that tells me there's something fundamentally wrong about how Muslims are being portrayed in the media. 

There were a number of tweets, messages people were putting out yesterday and last night, saying that they are telling their mothers and their aunties not to go out for their walks wearing their traditional clothing, not to wear shalwar kameez or hijab outside because it's now dangerous for them to do so. Are you hearing the same thing amongst Muslims in your community?

Absolutely, I am. Everybody is talking about this. Should we really be out in the streets and feeling safe and secure in our traditional dress? Is that something that we should avoid from here on? And it saddens me, but that is the exact conversation that is happening in the Muslim community of London.

What does that say to you when people are discussing that they shouldn't wear certain clothes because it might get them killed?

That this incident goes much deeper than the tragic loss of a family. I don't underplay that in any way. But this issue of hate crimes that perpetuate and happen over and over again is something that really needs to be dealt with in a very firm manner.

When ladies are walking out on the street and they're given a certain look, and you know, a lot of ladies have learned to ignore that.

I'm sure a lot of ladies will not feel that they can do that. Basically, a lot of ladies will feel that this look may be a prelude to something more aggressive. 

Have you seen that look?

I've certainly seen that, yes. And I brought it up to my wife more than once and she would say, "Oh, get used to it. That's my life."

So, yes, that look is something that is not unfamiliar. And it doesn't happen every day. And most people are not like that. But it happens often enough that she needs to get used to it.

Before we let you go, is there a memory, is there a thought of Salman, that you're holding dear today?

I'm going to miss Salman, you know, his presence at the mosque and his demeanour, his smile. 

I'm going to miss how, you know, we would talk about, you know, how to help this new settler settle in, how to help them get his credentials approved, how to help them find a job, how to help him find a way in Canada. 

He was just that type of person. He's helpful for everybody. He would be helpful not only for Muslims, but really just the kind-hearted person who would go out of his way to help anybody and everybody who needed his help. I will certainly miss him and his family. 

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced by Jeanne Armstrong. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

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