The Current

Kids have 'hard questions' about the London attack. Parents say they're learning from those questions too

When Omar Hamam and Ingy Akkary told their children about the attack on a local Muslim family, their sons reacted with fear and confusion. A child and adolescent psychiatrist says it's important to give children space to process traumatic events like this.

Processing trauma takes time and love, says child psychiatrist Dr. Javeed Sukhera

A memorial made up of flowers, a stuffed animal and a banner that says 'Love for all, hatred for none.'
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 while out for a walk near their London, Ont., home on June 8, 2021. (Meagan Fitzpatrick/CBC)

After the truck attack that killed four members of a Muslim family out for a walk in London, Ont., Omar Hamam and Ingy Akkary sat down with their children to explain what a hate crime is.

"The first thing that my son told me after that, he told me, 'I'm never walking on a sidewalk ever again. I'm so scared to walk and I'm not doing it," said Akkary, whose son Youssef is classmates with Fayez, the nine-year-old boy who survived the attack.

Youssef's older brother then turned to him and said "'No, we're going to go and we're going to walk. But if we see a car coming, we're going to run back inside,'" Akkary recounted. 

"This actually broke my heart ... that they are really scared. It's too much for their little brains."

Hamam, who runs a chain of restaurants with his wife in London, Ont., said his instinct is to protect his kids — Malek, 10, Youssef, 9, and Mariam, 5 — from "the smallest things," but the attack has left his community shaken. 

"I don't want my kids to be scared, but I feel helpless that there's nothing I can really do about that," he said.

A man stands outside, looking to the camera
Dr. Javeed Sukhera, a child and adolescent psychiatrist, says it's important for children to know they are unconditionally loved. (Ben Jamieson/CBC)

Dr. Javeed Sukhera, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at London Health Sciences Centre, said it's important to give children space to process traumatic events like this.

That means letting them explore their own feelings, and making sure adults aren't "imposing our grief or our emotions on them," he said.

"It's also important to make sure that they know that they're loved unconditionally."

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 while out for a walk near their London, Ont., home Sunday night.

A family stands outside, looking to the camera. There are trees in the background.
From left, Yumna Afzaal, 15, Madiha Salman, 44, Talat Afzaal, 74, and Salman Afzaal, 46, were out for an evening walk in London, Ont., on Sunday when they were killed in a hit and run by a man police say was motivated by anti-Muslim hate. (Submitted by Afzaal family)

Police later arrested a 20-year-old driver, who they say targeted the family because of their Muslim faith. 

Nine-year-old Fayez was the lone survivor. Hamam and Akkary's son Youssef wanted to know who would look after him.

"He actually was crying and asking me if he can come live with him," Akkary said.

"And I explained to him that he has family, he has support. He has the whole community to support him."

When Hamam and Akkary's children expressed the fear to go outside, they told them that's what the attacker wanted — to make Muslims afraid — and that they mustn't let that happen.

"They were so confused that there is a person that can have all this hate in his heart to do something like that," said Akkary.

Help kids to not be afraid

Sukhera also wants to make sure his kids don't feel fear around their Muslim identity, and has been helping them to confront and process the attack.

"We had to drive by the spot yesterday and my kids wanted us to take a different route," he said.

He refused, telling his kids they shouldn't change their behaviour.

"I think it's important for us to not look away, and remember," he said.

Sukhera also knew the Afzaal family personally, and remembers them as always smiling, with "hearts of gold." 

He said trying to offer advice on the trauma is "entirely different when it's your kids, and it's entirely, entirely different when someone who your kids had played with was killed and murdered for being Muslim."

WATCH | Thousands gather in London, Ont., to honour family killed in attack:

Vigil honours Afzaal family in London, Ont.

2 years ago
Duration 4:11
Large crowds gathered outside a London, Ont., mosque to honour members of the Afzaal family killed in an attack police say was targeted because of their Islamic faith.

The attack will weigh heavily on him for some time to come.

"I'm going to be thinking about every black pick-up truck that drives by. I'm going to be thinking about what we're wearing and ... how we look to people," he said.

"But I'm also going to be thinking about how important it is, if I'm with my kids, that they not be afraid to be who they are."

Look for the love in your community: teacher

At a vigil outside the London Muslim Mosque on Tuesday night, 10-year-old Abdalla Kamil said he wanted to attend the remembrance because it was important to stand with his community. 

"We live together, we don't need to fight together."

"It isn't good to fight together, so we should love each other."

A family stands outside, looking to the camera. They are masked, looking to the camera.
Ten-year-old Abdalla Kamil, in the yellow T-shirt, with his family at the vigil in London on Tuesday. (Ben Jamieson/CBC)

Laila Abou Shamalah, a teacher at Westminster Secondary School in the city, said the children in her life have been asking "really hard questions" about the attack, some of which have made her reevaluate what she's been feeling, and look at the bigger picture.

Her own daughter asked "Why do they not like us? … Is it because I love Allah?"

"I stepped back and I said, 'You know what? Yeah, why are they doing this to us?'" Abou Shamalah told The Current.

"Because we love or we pray to somebody? It is none of anybody's business who we pray to, or who we love, right?" 

Abou Shamalah teaches English literacy development and English as a second language, and uses her Arabic to reach out to newcomers to Canada. She's told her class she's available to talk to students, including one girl who has also been too afraid to go for a walk this week.

"I asked her, 'In your neighbourhood, have you seen any hearts on the sidewalk?'" said Abou Shamalah, referring to chalk drawings that people have made to show support.

Two women and a small girl stand outside, in a green area.
Teacher Laila Abou Shamalah, left, with her daughter Ruaa, and her sister Lama Abou Shamalah, right. The teacher says her students have been asking hard questions about the attack. (Ben Jamieson/CBC)

The student said yes. So Abou Shamalah asked her if non-Muslims in her neighbourhood had checked in and expressed sympathy.

Again, the student said yes.

Abou Shamalah told her that if she looks around her community, and "if those people are loving and they care about you ... go and walk that walk."

"I told her that she shouldn't be afraid, but if she is afraid to take someone with her."

Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Ben Jamieson and Joana Draghici. 

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