Letters of remembrance: Ont. artist starts campaign to help remember Afzaal family killed in van attack

As Canadians mourn the four members of the Afzaal family who were killed in a deadly van attack one year ago in London, Ont., one artist is using letters to help the community, and nation, reflect and heal from the tragedy.

Muslim author and artist Asim Hussain started the digital letter writing campaign, Our London Family, as the one-year anniversary of the van attack approached.

On June 6, 2021, Salman Afzaal, 46, his wife Madiha Salman, 44, their 15-year-old daughter Yumna and her 74-year-old grandmother, Talat Afzaal, died after police say they were deliberately hit by a truck while out for an evening walk in London.

The family’s nine-year-old boy was seriously injured, but survived.

A 21-year-old man faces four counts of first-degree murder, with prosecutors calling the killings an act of terrorism. The case has not gone to trial.

“I wanted to get involved because I felt that this opportunity is just going to pass us by,” Hussain told CTV National News.

“I wanted to do something where Canadians can actually get involved and do something about it, instead of just largely hearing about it.”

Hussain’s body of work includes books that tackle racism, including one in which he writes about a personal experience when he was spit on in a store and called racist names as a child.

Writing under the name studentAsim, Hussain created Islamophobia.io as an outreach platform where Muslims and their allies can tell stories about their lived experiences.

Through that platform, Hussain created the #OurLondonFamily campaign to give Canadians an opportunity to write to the Afzaal family, share their feelings and encourage others to speak up.

The letters are all public and Hussain said they have come in from coast to coast, written by people of different ages and faiths, with some vowing to stand up to hate, Islamophobia and racism.

A previous campaign through Islamophobia.io helped honour the victims of the Quebec City mosque shooting in January 2017.

“Letters are an instant and simple way to make a difference,” Hussain said.

Nosheen Ahmad, a friend of the Afzaal family, wrote a letter of her own.

She told CTV National News that after the van attack in London, the city she loves suddenly felt unsafe.

“When you have so much grief and you want to be able to express it, this is a nice way to be able to do that and be heard,” she said.

During a rally in London on Sunday, relatives, community members and other dignitaries, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, marked the one-year anniversary of the attack and called for an end to racism and Islamophobia.

Hussain attended a vigil for the family in London last year and said it was amazing to see so many people wanting to make a difference.

Even after the anniversary has passed, Hussain said the letters “will make change perpetually, even in the future.”

“The point is that these letters are a resistance to hate, they are a resistance to racism and the act of letter writing is an action against that,” Hussain said.

With files from The Canadian Press 

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