For many Canadian Muslims traumatized by London attack, a simple walk after dinner becomes a heavy decision


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When Sarah Mushtaq heard the Muslim family attacked in London, Ont., had been out for a walk when they were killed, she immediately called her mother.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 09/06/2021 (659 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

When Sarah Mushtaq heard the Muslim family attacked in London, Ont., had been out for a walk when they were killed, she immediately called her mother.

“I know that she also likes to take walks after dinner in the evening,” said Mushtaq, a Muslim community advocate and writer based in Windsor, adding it’s a ritual that has long brought comfort. But on Monday afternoon, Mushtaq advised her mother to not walk outside by herself again.

“She didn’t fight back on it, and she said ‘OK,’ ” Mushtaq said. “She then turned to me and said, ‘I’m scared for you every time you go outside.’ ”

On Sunday, the Afzaal family was intentionally run down by the 20-year-old driver of a speeding truck because of their faith, according to London police, who have described the incident as “a hate-motivated killing.” Salman Afzaal, his wife, Madiha, their daughter, Yumna, and Salman’s mother all died, leaving behind their nine-year-old boy, Fayez.

They were killed during an evening stroll, an activity that has become increasingly common for anyone who has found solace outdoors during pandemic lockdowns.

The attack has prompted widespread shock and grief from the London community and beyond. But for Muslim Canadians, it has been both traumatizing and deeply personal, reigniting ever-present fears of being violently targeted because of their faith. The fear is compounded for those who are visibly Muslim — women who wear hijabs or families who don shalwar kameez, traditionally worn by South Asian families daily, but also on special occasions like Eid.

Mental health services for Muslim Canadians are reporting a heightened number of calls for help in the aftermath, and experts say the psychological toll of such hate crimes underscores the importance of having resources specifically tailored to a community that has already been suffering amid rising anti-Muslim sentiments.

At Naseeha, a Mississauga-based mental health help line for Muslim youth that’s open to anyone in North America, calls began pouring in from neighbours of the deceased family, as well as other members of the city’s Muslim community, said interim executive director Muhsin Kermalli.

“We’ve seen calls where people are scared, just scared to leave their homes,” Kermalli said. “We’ve seen calls where people are angered.” Kermalli added the agency has opened more lines in response to the surge in people reaching out.

The fear is something that Dr. Zain Chagla, an infectious disease specialist at St. Joseph’s hospital in Hamilton, said he felt immediately upon hearing the news out of London, a city that he grew up in and that his family members still call home.

“It’s terrifying,” Chagla said. “It makes you pause about your safety, about who else is out there that has these types of beliefs.”

Chagla said he, too, had a conversation with his family in the aftermath. “I have family members who, although they’re very westernized, still wear traditional clothing,” Chagla said. “It’s a hard conversation to say, ‘maybe you shouldn’t wear that for now, and if you’re out, try not to look suspicious.’ ”

“I didn’t think I would be having this type of conversation with my family,” Chagla said, especially in Canada. “It’s tough.”

While the attack in London has sparked renewed reckoning with anti-Muslim hate in Canada, it comes on the heels of other hate crimes against members of the Muslim community in the country. Earlier this year, Black and Muslim women in Alberta were the target of a series of racially motivated assaults. In Toronto, a mosque volunteer was stabbed and killed in September while on shift outside the mosque’s front door, an incident the Muslim community decried as a hate crime.

Many are also still affected by the deadly attack on a New Zealand mosque in 2019 that killed 51 worshippers, and the 2017 Quebec mosque shooting, which killed six. Shahina Siddiqui, the volunteer executive director at Canada’s branch of the Islamic Social Services Association (ISSA), said these incidents amount to cycles of grief that impact members of the Muslim community in varying ways.

“If you look at this history of Islamophobia, who has stayed at the forefront of the targets? It’s women,” said Siddiqui, who runs workshops on the psychological impact of hatred at ISSA, adding Muslim women are targeted not just by hate crimes, but also legislation for wearing hijabs or niqabs, namely in France and Quebec.

For youth, incidents like the London attack can spark questions about identity, fear and sense of belonging. “Their questions are, ‘Why are we any different? This is my country, I was born here,’ ” Siddiqui said. For Muslim newcomers, hate crimes compound the existing trauma of displacement.

Siddiqui said these complex layers are why it is essential culturally sensitive mental health resources are available and accessible. “When you are guided and sustained by your faith and you are facing challenges, you need an infusion of the two supports,” she added.

While agencies like ISSA and Naseeha have expanded their mental health support in the last 15 to 20 years, they both mainly rely on private donations. Siddiqui and Kermalli said they’ve applied for government funding in the past to expand their services but have yet to be approved.

“We’re a very small charity, and we’re trying to put in our building blocks so we can be there for more people,” Kermalli said. When Naseeha started in 2006, it operated three hours a day, he said. Almost 15 years later, it operates 12 hours a day, seven days a week, with text and web-based services in place, but there’s room to expand, he added.

For now, many members of the Muslim community are left grieving. Mushtaq said healing will take time, but it can begin with support and solidarity from non-Muslim Canadians who can speak up for those affected whenever possible, especially if they are witness to anti-Muslim prejudice.

“It may seem like it’s not as impactful, but it is really helpful to know that your friends, family and community members from other faiths are there to support you,” Mushtaq said.

Mushtaq said she’s unsure how long it’ll take before she and her mother can walk again without fear. She recalled the traumatic aftermath of the 2017 mosque shooting in Quebec.

“I didn’t want my dad going to the mosque, but at the same time, we almost needed to reclaim our space and get rid of that fear, and it was really powerful to be able to go to the mosque the day after,” she said.

“Within a few days, maybe I’ll walk with Mom again,” Mushtaq said. “It just takes time.”

For those experiencing grief, confusion and trauma: Naseeha provides mental health tools to the Muslim community. You can call 1-866-627-3342.

Nadine Yousif is a Toronto-based reporter for the Star covering mental health. Follow her on Twitter: @nadineyousif_

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