3 years after Afzaal family attack, a youth group fighting Islamophobia reflects on progress

Hisham Ellaw and Hooriya Ansari are members of the Youth Coalition Combating Islamophobia (YCCI). They hope to ensure no other families are destroyed as a result of racism.  (Angela McInnes/CBC - image credit)
Hisham Ellaw and Hooriya Ansari are members of the Youth Coalition Combating Islamophobia (YCCI). They hope to ensure no other families are destroyed as a result of racism. (Angela McInnes/CBC - image credit)

On the third anniversary of a hate-motivated truck attack that killed four members of a Muslim family in London, Ont., a youth group organizing a vigil in their memory says very little progress has been made in the fight against Islamophobia.

Increasing acts of hate against the Muslim community signal the importance of educating people and driving political change, said Esa Islam of the Youth Coalition Combating Islamophobia (YCCI), who hopes to ensure that no other families are destroyed as a result of racism.

"While nothing has been as bad as the June 6 attack, the fear is who is going to be the next one?" said Islam, 17. "With all these increased acts of violence and aggression, the worry is when will there be that one person who will go over the edge and kill people?"

The group was formed following the murder of members of the Afzaal family, who were out for an evening walk on June 6, 2021 in suburban London when a 20-year-old man drove his truck into them because they were visibly Muslim.

Yumnah Afzaal, 15, her parents — Madiha Salman, 44, and Salman Afzaal, 46, and grandmother Talat Afzaal, 74— were killed.  A nine-year-old boy who was seriously injured, was the sole survivor of the attack.

After a 10-week trial in Windsor,  the man was convicted of terrorism, along with four counts of first-degree murder and one count of attempted murder. The case served as a test of how Canada's terror laws apply to white nationalists.

Esa Islam, 17, is a relative of the Afzaals and one of the founding members of Youth Coalition Combating Islamophobia. The group was formed following the truck attack that killed four members of the family.
Esa Islam, 17, is a relative of the Afzaals and one of the founding members of Youth Coalition Combating Islamophobia. The group was formed following the truck attack that killed four members of the family.

Esa Islam, 17, is a relative of the Afzaals and one of the founding members of Youth Coalition Combating Islamophobia. The group was formed following the truck attack that killed four members of the family. (Isha Bhargava/CBC)

YCCI is made up of dozens of young Londoners between the ages of 15 and 25 who focus on educating the community about what Islamophobia looks like and its impacts. They've created resources and modules for elementary and high school kids.

Hooriya Ansari, 21, is one of the group's newest members who joined last year. While she didn't know the Afzaals personally, it's important for her to advocate for all Muslim Canadians, she said.

"The terrorist who committed this attack was not much older than some of the people part of YCCI and the material that we're creating for schools can better educate the students who are the future of tomorrow," she said.

Ansari said although the outpouring of community support following the attack was heartfelt, it's crucial to have ongoing discussions about Islamophobic acts that have been on the rise in the past year. The Muslim community saw the largest increase in reported hate crimes last year, up 263 per cent since 2022.

"Statistics like that are just numbers on paper, but you realize those are lives that have been touched and experiences that will never be erased from people," she said, adding that many of her visibly Muslim friends have been spat on and had their hijabs pulled.

"That just turns into fuel to continue the work we're doing here at YCCI and to make sure we remember why we're doing this work and how meaningful it really is."

Political action necessary

The Our London Family Memorial Plaza was built after the tragic deaths of four memebers of the Afzaal Family on June 6, 2021.
The Our London Family Memorial Plaza was built after the tragic deaths of four memebers of the Afzaal Family on June 6, 2021.

The Our London Family Memorial Plaza was built after the tragic deaths of four members of the Afzaal Family on June 6, 2021. (Travis Dolynny/CBC)

Islam, a relative of the Afzaals, said he wants to see action from politicians. Earlier this week, he accompanied NCCM to Queens Park to move along the passing of the Our London Family Act, which has been at a standstill since it was tabled in 2021.

The Ontario NDP announced Thursday that it will unveil next steps in legislating the bill. The province has made moves to fight Islamophobia, including offering grants for communities impacted by hate incidents, but critics have said the level and pace has not been enough.

Amira Elghawaby, Canada's special representative on combating Islamophobia, said London has shown leadership in fighting anti-Muslim racism through appointing a liaison who works with local communities to address hate, and the launch of an anti-Islamophobia strategy at the Thames Valley District School Board.

Although she's impressed with YCCI's advocacy, she recognizes the challenges the group faces in their battle against Islamophobia.

"It's really sad that these young people have had to grapple with the impact that Islamophobia has had in their lives and not only try to deal with it, but they also carry the burden of trying to make sense of this attack and ensuring nothing like this happens ever again," she said.

A vigil will take place at Hyde Park and South Carriage Roads, the site of the attack, on Thursday starting at 7:45 p.m.

Islam's goal this year is to push for true change.

"I'm focused on the progress that needs to be made. Obviously grieving will always be part of my experience with June 6 but I want to be looking forward a bit more as to how we can change things," he said.