'I can't talk to my family anymore' : London attack victims remembered

LONDON, Ont. — The killing of four members of a Muslim family in London, Ont., was ruled an act of terrorism on Thursday as a judge sentenced the man responsible to life in prison with no chance of parole for 25 years.

Forty-four-year-old Madiha Salman, her 46-year-old husband Salman Afzaal, their 15-year-old daughter Yumna and the teen's 74-year-old grandmother Talat Afzaal were killed in the attack on June 6, 2021. The couple's son, who was nine at the time, was seriously hurt but survived.

Friends and relatives honoured the family last month during a sentencing hearing for the attacker, Nathaniel Veltman. Here is a look at the victims.

Salman Afzaal

Salman Afzaal was "the most radiant person, overflowing with kindness that touched the depths of every soul he encountered," his sister Ayesha Shaukat told the hearing.

Afzaal was a physiotherapist who worked at a long-term care facility in London for nine years before his death. He played cricket with friends several times a week and was a consistent presence at his London mosque.

His sister said Afzaal had "an infectious smile that could lift the heaviest hearts."

His cousin, Samiya Ahmad, told the hearing Afzaal was known for his selflessness.

"When I was a medical student, he gifted me a stethoscope. At that time, he had just started working and it must have cost him almost a month's salary," she said.

"I cannot ever repay his generosity. My heart can never be as big as his."

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Madiha Salman

As an undergraduate student in Pakistan, Madiha Salman was the only female student in her engineering program.

That did not discourage her, Salman's mother Tabinda Bukhari told the sentencing hearing.

"She was a problem solver, full of wonderful ideas," she said.

"She became my best friend as she grew. We had a wonderful bond. We discussed all sorts of things, family matters, house improvements, fashion trends, recipes."

Bukhari was living in Pakistan but moved to Canada after the attack to be with her family.

She said she and her daughter talked regularly, including on the day Salman died.

"Even on the morning of that fateful day, we had a usual video talk. Who knew that would be the last time I saw and talk to her? I miss her jokes, her laugh, her views about different things."

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Talat Afzaal

Talat Afzaal was a retired schoolteacher and an artist who mainly painted landscapes until she started producing cartoon characters for her grandchildren.

Her daughter, Ayesha Shaukat, told the sentencing hearing that her mother had to overcome many challenges in raising her children.

"Her kindness was boundless. A soothing balm in times of difficulty, a guiding light that enveloped all of us together," she said.

"With unwavering strength, she faced challenges with resilience and grace. A woman of grace, compassion, and boundless love. The one whom I spoke to every single day, her every single call which I awaited every morning."

Salman's mother said Talat Afzaal became a "dear friend" after their children married.

"She was a soft-spoken, gentle and kind-hearted person, admired and respected by everyone who knew her," she said.

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Yumna Afzaal

Some of Yumna Afzaal's friends from Oakridge Secondary School in London addressed the sentencing hearing, praising her kindness and warmth.

Maryam Alsabawi said she and Yumna ran for student council together, planned to start a business that donated its profits to charity, and often talked about "our futures, our hopes and our dreams."

"Yumna was more than a friend to me. She was a confidant, a support system, a classmate, a study partner, a secret keeper, a giver of hope. And, most importantly, she was a constant reminder that good friends do exist," Alsabawi told the court.

"Not a day passes that I do not think of her. I miss her contagious laughter, her smile, her kindness, her sense of humour. I miss going on walks with her. And I especially miss receiving her 3 a.m. texts about the most random things."

Yumna's maternal grandmother recalled the joy her birth brought to the family. "I remember holding her in my arms," she said of Yumna.

"She was blooming into a beautiful young lady with amazing artistic skills," she said. "It's heartbreaking that this lovely budding flower was cruelly and ruthlessly crumbled."

Multiple school friends quoted a phrase written by Yumna on a mural she had painted at school before she died.

"Shoot for the moon, even if you miss, you'll land among the stars."

Yumna's brother, who survived the attack, said the mural that used to be "a cool art piece that she made" has become a memorial to his sister, rather than a piece they could admire together.

The boy said he and Yumna had talked about how she would drive him around when she finally got her licence. "She said it would cost 25 cents per drive," he said. "Now I'll never be able to see that."

While it's easy to think siblings are annoying, he said, "when they leave you would love to fight with them one last time."

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The boy who survived

The boy, whose name has been withheld to protect his privacy, said the attack robbed him of the chance to see his sister turn 18 and his parents become grandparents.

"I can't talk to my family anymore and make new memories with them. I won't be able to have fun with them anymore," he told the court in a statement read on his behalf.

He said he missed his mother's food, going to prayers at the mosque with his father and making art with his grandmother, and would constantly be reminded of his loss whenever he saw his relatives' friends and other family members.

The boy offered a message to all other kids who feel annoyed when their parents tell them to do homework. "As much as I would have loved to play video games all day instead of doing my homework that my parents told me to do, I realize now that they're only telling me this stuff to help you," he said.

"Once they leave you, you start to really notice how much they cared about you."

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This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 22, 2024.

The Canadian Press