Grief, Remembrance, and Action: the Legacy of #OurLondonFamily

Nusaiba Al-Azem speaks at the opening ceremony of the #OurLondonFamily memorial art showcase at the London Muslim Mosque

The suburbs of London, Ontario looked quiet and empty a week ago as clouds gathered to blot out the morning sun. The odd resident stepped out to turn off their sprinklers at the first sign of rain. Moving Westward into the city, impressive spans of flat greenery were interrupted by rolling hills and groves of tall maple and oak.

The generally flat monotony eventually gives way to demure looking shops and plazas that held the few vehicles appropriate for a mild Sunday.

Snaking our way through the modestly sized city of just over 400,000, my friend and I joked about how slow things looked compared to most places we’ve been. Green beds of grass were neatly clipped, large swathes of farmland were barely visible in the distance, and the warm air thickened with moisture as another weekend slipped by.

Yet just a few minutes North of where the Thames River cuts across a local golf club, right next to the banal-looking plaza with the Dollar Tree and Tim Horton’s, a tragedy unfolded last June that would precipitate a long year of uneasy reflection.

The site of what happened appears as innocent as most neighbourhoods in West London. Houses line up neatly along Hyde Park Road, which stretches North to bisect the area, at one point intersecting with South Carriage Road. And it was at this crossing that a family decided to pass by for their nightly walk on a Sunday exactly a year ago on June 6th, 2021. A much hotter day, the humidity remained high that night even as the family of five walked out with the sun going down.

What happened next has been etched into the traumatic memories of many Canadians.

A young man drove his pick-up truck into the family, killing four out of five members. Three generations. Only a 9-year-old boy was left alive but badly injured.

The incident made Canada the leader among G-7 countries in Islamophobia related deaths from 2017–2021. After the driver was arrested that night in the nearby Cherryhill Village Mall parking lot, Detective Superintendent Paul Waight of the London police told reporters that the attack was motivated by anti-Muslim hate.

Like the 2017 Quebec City mosque shooting that resulted in six dead Muslim worshippers, this attack on a visibly Muslim family changed the way many Muslims felt about their place in the country.

What followed was a reckoning of sorts. A national summit on Islamophobia; lots of speeches, vigils, and prayers; proposed legislation to challenge systemic discrimination in Ontario.

But more than anything, the frustration people felt in the City of London slowly took the shape of community resistance. And on the first anniversary of June the 6th, a quiet city rocked by tragedy was to offer a way out of hopelessness and helplessness—a way through remembrance and into action.

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Less than a five-minute ride South of Hyde Park and South Carriage, around a local Popeyes on Oxford Street, is Oakridge Secondary School. And there on a grassy field was about the only crowd that gathered anywhere in London on June 5th.

First there were the cops. Dozens of police cruisers filled with armed officers wearing flak jackets. Then the tables of water bottles provided by the local Pakistani and Sikh groups that had set up tents across the area. It all led up to a large stage set up for several hours of speeches: the mayor, a cousin of one of the deceased, another friend, the Prime Minister of Canada, a school board representative, etc.

Over a thousand people gathered by the time speeches were underway. Then more people showed up and stayed even as the rain started falling heavier and heavier.

Over a thousand people gathered at Oakridge Secondary School on Sunday.

“It wasn’t just that we lost you and your beautiful family,” said Maryam Al-Sabawi, a friend of the teenage member of the deceased family, in a compelling speech, “we lost our sense of belonging, our sense of community, our sense of safety, our sense of self. We even lost our innocence. The world isn’t as kind as we had believed it to be.”

She was reading a letter she wrote to her late friend, published a few days ago in the London Free Press. Al-Sabawi is also a member and founder of the Youth Coalition Combating Islamophobia (YCCI), which started after the tragedy last year to “dismantle Islamophobia and end all forms of hate.”

“All that was taken from us perhaps because of hate left unchecked. Hate that is given opportunities to grow, incubated by silence. The silence that occurs when people witness hate and never challenge it. The silence that occurs when politicians offer big words and little actions. The silence that occurs when people refuse to question their own biases,” she said.

Maryam’s late 15-year-old friend was an avid artist. Lots of memorials and commemorations bring up this fact. A mural of hers is now part of the London Muslim Mosque, about a five-minute drive East of Oakridge Secondary.

The mural has an outer-space theme, featuring the Earth, stars, and other planets. “Learn. Lead. Inspire.” reads the banner up top. “Shoot for the moon, even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars,” is the quote on the left side. A crescent moon shoots out virtues like honesty, integrity, and respect onto the earth below.

The mural in the basement of the London Muslim Mosque

Less than a ten-minute drive North of the mosque is the Hume Cronyn Memorial Observatory, located snug in the Physics and Astronomy building of the Western University campus. Mostly free of the light pollution typical of bigger cities like Toronto, London is placed near several spots where the night sky might clear up to show bright constellations and even the Milky Way.

One person who often visits the Observatory and its surrounding areas is Mohammed Mubeen, a local 26-year-old aviation engineer who settled in London four years ago from Chennai, India. Mubeen was listening intently to every speech made on Sunday. He didn’t move even as it rained and rained.

“I lost my grandfather that month, actually,” he said, “right before the attack happened, so it was not an easy month. I cried for seven days straight.”

Mubeen found solace in his passions outside of work: astronomy and photography. He is an accomplished photographer of the night skies and gives workshops on photos and basic astronomy.

“I felt like, these people, they are us, like we lost our own.”

Moving from the near-tropical heat of Southern India (into the oft-frigid temperatures of Southwestern Ontario), Mubeen thought he was landing in country of peace and opportunity.

“I never expected that something like this would ever happen.”

Mohammed Mubeen, 26, connected with his community through photography and astronomy after the tragedy last June

Already uprooted and looking for community, the shocking attack threw him into emotional vertigo. He needed to regain his footing by finding others to commune with, so he took his camera and photographs into the local mosque.

“I wanted to give workshops on my photography, as well as on astronomy,” he said. “I explained that this is a way to know our creator.” Finally, Mubeen had found a tangible way of connecting with his fellow Muslim community members.

He has given five workshops and presentations so far. His feelings of anguish and disconnectedness were turned into opportunities to engage his community. He turned his grief into remembrance and action.

“No more words; we need action” seemed to be the main motto in the commemoration of #OurLondonFamily last weekend. It has been a year of promises and well-wishing from elected officials, who have mostly yet to back up their talk with deeds.

Prime Minister Trudeau, in a relatively long speech on Sunday, offered a “defense of words” — a reminder that words have power that can both harm and heal, depending on the intentions.

But this was after Maryam Al-Sabawi ended her speech with a message to him: “I am 16 years old this year. You have two years to earn my vote.”

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22-year-old Areej Ansari heard the news last June while doing a computer software and business internship on the Western University campus.

“I was so confused,” she said, “I couldn’t figure out at first what had happened.”

Then the realization set in. A family of Muslims was hit. Four members and one of them was someone she knew. At first, she thought it might have been an accident.

“I told my manager, I don’t know all the details, but I had to take the day off.”

Ansari was an executive at the Muslim Students Association (MSA) at Western and became a go to person for media calls. The following days seemed like a blur. One tragedy triggered so much grief. Then the mourning turned into anguished conversations about London itself.

“In one radio interview, I talked about how Muslim students on campus didn’t have enough support, like we didn’t even have enough space to pray jumaa.”

Ansari said there are hundreds if not thousands of Muslim students and staff on campus. The room they used could hardly fit a few dozen. It seemed time to turn discussions into action and advocacy.

Ansari’s interview and contentions about Western’s lacklustre engagement of its Muslim student body reached the right people.

“I got a call from a lawyer and others to help us on campus,” she added, “and we all felt like we just needed to do something.”

One person who heard the interview was Western’s newly hired inaugural associate vice-president of equity, diversity and inclusion, Opiyo Oloya. He decided to get in touch with the MSA and eventually another one of its executives, 20-year-old med-sci student Maryam Oloriegbe.

Oloriegbe was visiting her parents in Saudi Arabia when news of the attack reached her. Shocked at first, she eventually pulled her thoughts together for a Letter to the Editor published in the Western Gazette.

“It is time now, more than ever, to be unapologetically Muslims,” she wrote. “Keep the hijab on. Wear your shalwar kameez outside. Don’t hide your Islam from anyone.”

She took that spirit into her work as an MSA representative and told Oloya about the utter lack of space Muslim students had on campus. This January, progress was made, and students were given more space in the multifaith area, particularly for the Friday jumaa prayer, though even this area only serves about 50 people at most.

Maryam Oloriegbe, 20, and Areej Ansari, 22, represented and advocated for Muslim youth and students in the aftermath of last year’s tragedy.

The work is ongoing. That seems to be the main reality motivating many who took the time to commemorate and remember #OurLondonFamily.

At the centre of it all were youth of all backgrounds like Ologriegbe and Ansari who took it upon themselves to organize and lead in the uncharted space between unprecedented tragedy and a future hope. Everyone else seemed to be following their directions all weekend. They’d organized all the major events, including Sunday’s speeches and march. The implied message was clear: if the work is ongoing, then we cannot afford to be halted by our collective grief.

Mourning is a necessary yet temporary period that inevitably evolves into the need to move forward. Time doesn’t stop for anyone, but individuals can choose to act in light of the past.

Hundreds of people who stood in the rain for hours did just that. Once the last speech ended, we all moved en masse out of the Oakridge field and onto Oxford Street. The momentum was palpable as the crowd moved together to symbolize collective action. #OurLondonFamily was cut down for walking while being who they were, a loving Muslim family, so we all walked in their spirit.

The clouds continued gathering overhead, graying out the afternoon sky; the rain continued to fall, and hundreds of us remained unbothered as we walked and walked.

Hundreds gathered for the march on Oxford Street after Sunday’s speeches.

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Monday’s skies began clearly and a full sun showed itself to illuminate the gardens and artwork that were dedicated to another day of commemorations.

Community members and elected officials gave more speeches, including at Maple Grove Park where the Our London Family Community Garden was unveiled with rows of purple flowers.

The Our London Family Community Garden unveiled on Monday.

Mid-afternoon, the London Muslim Mosque opened as a temporary art gallery to feature work by the art-loving member of #OurLondonFamily, as well as other pieces donated from across the country.

It includes a canvas that one family member used to practice on, complete with a black circle she let her younger brother, the sole survivor of the attack, spray as practice with the paint.

Sister and brother used to practice on the same canvas.

Those who spoke at the event included two art teachers who used to instruct her. One overlooked her work on the mural in the mosque basement, even finding her asleep one day at a desk out of exhaustion.

Later, a large vigil was scheduled at the site of the attack near Hyde Park and South Carriage. A few roads were closed for the occasion and people parked in nearby lots before walking the last kilometre or so to the event.

But by then the steady rain had turned into a wild storm. Rain started pouring and the wind threatened to wrest everyone’s umbrellas into the air. Just a few speeches into the vigil, everything had to be called off as dozens of people either ran to their cars or toward the neighbouring Peavy Mart Hardware Store for cover. Everyone started making calls for rides or waiting for the shuttle buses. An employee from the store then walked out to give free ponchos to everyone.

The vigil to end two days of commemoration was cut short by a storm.

It was a drastic end to two days of both solemn and hopeful commemoration. Regardless of which plans unfolded successfully or fell by the wayside, those in London who choose to move forward with resolve and purpose will continue to do so.

During an early Monday morning family prayer service at the cemetery where #OurLondonFamily is buried, the imam made a point about the temporariness of mourning. Dying, in Islam, is a gateway into the next life, he said. It is a continuation of a process that only Allah swt knows the secrets to.

The rest of us must simply choose to participate in this process of continuation. We have to trust. And that is exactly what the people of hope in London have done. They choose to move forward.

Steven Zhou is a journalist and a writer for the National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM)

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National Council of Canadian Muslims

The National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM) is an independent, non-partisan and non-profit organization that protects Canadian human rights.