Relatives of the four Canadian Muslims killed in what police describe as “a hate attack” have described them as a “model family” and called on the country to stand against hate and Islamophobia.
The victims – three generations of the same family who migrated from Pakistan 14 years ago – died on Sunday after a 20-year-old man drove his pickup truck at them in what the prime minister, Justin Trudeau, described as a “terrorist attack, motivated by hatred”.
Salman Afzaal, 46, his wife Madiha, 44, their 15-year-old daughter Yumna, and the children’s 74-year-old grandmother died after the attack. Their nine-year-old son Fayez, the lone survivor of the attack, remains in hospital with serious but non-life-threatening injuries.
Afzaal was a physiotherapist and active member of the community in London, Ontario, often seen at local cricket matches or at the mosque. His wife, Madiha, was working on her PhD in civil engineering at Western University.
The couple “made you feel like the centre of the world,” said Javeed Sukhera, a London-based psychiatrist and friend of the family. “They always had smiles on their faces.”
Yumna was finishing ninth grade, while their grandmother is described as “a pillar of their family that cherished their daily walks”.
In a statement, relatives said the Afzaal family “were always there giving and participating in spreading goodness”.
“They worked extremely hard in their fields and excelled,” the statement reads. “We need to understand that the destruction of a family in a brutal and horrific manner like this is something we must all stand against. We need to stand against hate and Islamophobia and raise awareness in our communities and throughout the political spectrum.”
A socially distanced vigil will be held on Tuesday evening outside the London Muslim mosque, where neighbours have already set up a makeshift memorial with flowers, stuffed animals and messages calling for the end to hate and Islamophobia.
Flags in London – a city of 400,000 with 20-40,000 Muslims residents – have been lowered for three days. A march is also planned for Friday
Speaking in parliament, after a minute of silence for the family, Trudeau said: “We cannot allow any form of hate to take root because the consequences can be far too serious. We’ve seen it in Christchurch. We’ve seen it in other places around the world, and we’ve lived it here at home.”
The suspect, Nathaniel Veltman, has been charged with four counts of first-degree murder and one count of attempted murder.
The London police service chief, Steve Williams, said on Monday that investigators “believe this was an intentional act” and that “the victims of this horrific incident were targeted because of their Islamic faith”.
The Pakistani prime minister, Imran Khan, called the attack a deliberate act of terrorism targeting Muslims that “reveals the growing Islamophobia in western countries”.
The attack was an extreme example of violence Muslims in Canada have suffered in recent years.
From 2015 to 2019, the National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM) tracked more than 300 incidents, including more than 30 acts of physical violence. These include a gun attack on the Islamic Cultural Centre of Quebec on 29 January 2017, which left six dead and 19 injured in one of the deadliest mass shootings in Canada’s recent history.
“There is a frustration that Islamophobia in the country seems to be growing, despite all of the words people are hearing from politicians,” said Nabil Sultan, chairman of the Muslim Association of Canada, who lives in London.
“People are devastated, heartbroken and worried about the safety of their children precisely because this is an activity people would not think twice about. The idea of walking your family in the street is something you do without thinking twice – and now we have to think twice. Now, we have to wonder: are we putting our families at risk?”