‘Are you scared mama?’: Years of anti-Muslim hate chip away at you. The killing of the Afzaal family in London broke me


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In the early morning hours, the day after the most recent terror attack in Ontario, I couldn’t sleep.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 09/06/2021 (650 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

In the early morning hours, the day after the most recent terror attack in Ontario, I couldn’t sleep.

It was still dark when I got out of bed and did the only thing that would comfort my heart: I prayed for the Afzaal family — Salman Afzaal, Madiha Salman, 15 year-old Yumna, her grandmother, Talat, and nine-year-old survivor Fayez. The family were intentionally run down by a truck in their hometown of London, Ont., on Sunday as they took an evening stroll in their neighbourhood.

They were the victims of what police are calling an anti-Muslim hate attack.

I cannot help thinking about my own experiences with Islamophobia as a visible Muslim journalist in the so-called “most diverse city in the world.”

Nothing I experienced compares to the trauma faced by the family and friends of the Afzaal family — including Fayez, who will live with this horrific incident and the loss of his family forever. Or the family of Mohamed-Aslim Zafis, who was murdered last year in Etobicoke as he sat outside the International Muslim Organization mosque. Or the children who buried their fathers in Quebec City after the mosque shooting in 2017 — and the many survivors who are still struggling to cope in its aftermath.

But the many incidents of Islamophobia, or anti-Muslim hate as I prefer to name it, that I have faced have weighed down on me over the years. They have affected the career choices I have made. They have impacted my mental health. They have deeply hurt me — and still do.

When I tried to list all the incidents of hate that I have experienced since I became a journalist — both in my job and on a day-to-day basis — I hit 30 before I stopped. I could have gone on.

There is an unspoken code that journalists of colour quickly learn when they start in the profession: if you want to survive in this industry, you must have thick skin.

When I got my first barrage of hate mail as an intern at the Star 15 years ago, and turned to a colleague for support, he looked at my hijab and said: if you want to survive, you will need to have Teflon-like skin. Let the hate bounce off you. Don’t let it stick.

But the truth is, even when you tell yourself it doesn’t impact you, it still does.

Every email in your inbox with someone telling you they hate you because of your hijab.

Every letter calling you a “dirty raghead.”

Every tweet telling you to go back to where you came from.

Every person who walks by and whispers “You’re disgusting.”

Every smear campaign calling you a terrorist.

Every time someone doubts your news judgment because you are a “lying Muslim.”

Every time someone asks if you were a token hire.

Every time you go to the public editor, nearly in tears, when the hate gets too much to bear.

Every time you realize that your colleagues enjoy the luxury of white privilege, their names and skin colour affording them a protection that you have never had — and never will.

I will stop there.

You look for ways to cope. But the hate slowly chips away at you and at the idea that we have been so conditioned to believe: How can this be happening here in Canada, the most accepting country in the world?

Let me tell you: It’s been happening for years. The hate is not new. And neither is the violence.

But the haters have gotten more brazen. More hateful. More organized. More dangerous.

So when the Afzaal family was killed for just being Muslim this week, it broke me.

Years of online hate, of politicians benefiting from anti-Muslim policies, of pundits spewing anti-Muslim rhetoric, of trolls questioning if our pain was even real, has done exactly what it was meant to. It turned people against us. It has led them to hate us so much that they want us dead.

This week, I had a conversation that I never imagined I would have with my children, ages seven and 10. I had feared telling them about the incident, but they saw the cover of the newspaper and asked me what happened in London on Sunday night.

I sat them down, and told them about a beautiful family, who looked very much like our own, who went for a walk, but didn’t make it home.

They looked at my tears, and my hijab, and shared their thoughts: “That’s so scary.” “I don’t ever want to cross a street again.”

And then came the hard questions:

“Who will take care of the little boy?”

“Why would that man do that to them? Could it happen to us?”

“Are you scared, mama?”

I’m not scared, little ones. I’m tired.

Noor Javed is a Toronto-based reporter for the Star covering city news with interest in 905 municipal politics. Follow her on Twitter: @njaved

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