On Sunday, a man in the Canadian city of London allegedly rammed his car into a Muslim family of five in a targeted hate crime, killing all but a 9-year-old boy named Fayez Afzaal, who has now lost his parents, sister, and grandmother.
The incident has left the city of London—and the entire country—in disbelief.
“We are shocked that something like this could happen in London. We could never expect that,” Hassib Zabian, a member the London Muslim Mosque frequented by the family, told The Daily Beast.
Among the deceased is 15-year-old Yumna Afzaal, her 46-year-old father Salman, her 44-year-old mother Madiha, and her 74-year-old grandmother. Police have identified the suspect in the alleged hate crime as Nathaniel Veltman, 20.
“I’m not sure what would make this kid do something like that. God knows, till now we don’t know,” said Zabian. “For the whole city, the whole country it’s upsetting. London is a loving community, and the Muslims here do good work.”
Zabian, who is organizing the funeral for the Pakistani Canadian family, described Salman as “humble, respectable, and helpful,” and said that Salman would often volunteer at the local mosque. His wife, Madiha, was a PhD candidate at London’s Western University, according to Zabian.
Zabian’s wife, Patricia, is a teacher at the school attended by the Afzaal children, and taught Fayez, who is in the third grade, as his homeroom teacher.
“He is everybody’s best friend,” Patricia told The Daily Beast, referring to Fayez. “Very smart, grade-A student. Polite, calm, and shy.”
Patricia also knew Fayez’s older sister, Yumna, who was in her first year of high school after graduating from the school she had attended since second grade.
“She had painted a mural in the basement of the mosque. It’s still there. She had said this was going to be her legacy after she painted it. She spent the whole summer painting this beautiful mural on the wall, and she would be remembered with that,” said Patricia, adding that Yumna “was quite the artist.”
The Sunday incident is the deadliest attack against Canadian Muslims since the 2017 mosque shooting in Quebec City, which left six worshippers dead.
According to police, the Afzaal family was waiting curbside at an intersection when the suspect rammed his black pickup truck into them. Veltman was later arrested at a mall parking lot, and was wearing a body-armor-like vest when authorities apprehended him. The grandmother was killed on the scene, and the additional three victims died in the hospital. Fayez remains hospitalized for serious injuries.
Arman Moradpourian, Veltman’s former colleague who said the suspect had been like a “little brother” to him, described Veltman as a “very Christian, home-schooled kid.”
“Honestly, this has come as quite a big surprise to me,” Moradpourian, who said he worked with Veltman at Gray Ridge Egg Farms for three years from 2016-2018, told The Daily Beast. “I’m more than surprised. I find it really surprising because my father is from Iran. I’m Middle Eastern and he never touched me. Our work environment when we worked together was very multicultural… and nothing was ever said. He never really made a remark.”
Moradpourian described Veltman as a devout Christian. “You would ask him for advice and he’d start talking about the Bible, like ‘you shouldn’t do this or that, it’s immoral,’” he said. “But he wasn’t radical or anything.”
Local authorities, however, have maintained that the Afzaal family were attacked over their Muslim faith.
“There is evidence that this was a planned, premeditated act—motivated by hate. It’s believed that these victims were targeted because they were Muslim,” said Detective Paul Waight of the London police in a statement.
Police chief Steve Williams offered his support to London’s Muslim residents, stating that “many others stand with you” and acknowledging the “fear and anxiety” that the incident has triggered. “There is no tolerance in this community for individuals who, motivated by hate, target others with violence,” he said.
According to police, there was no apparent connection between the suspect and the family. Veltman has been charged with four counts of first-degree murder and one count of attempted murder in connection with the deaths.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau described the incident on Tuesday as “an act of hatred,” adding that “we are here for the child who remains in the hospital.”
“To the Muslim community in London and to Muslims across the country, know that we stand with you,” Trudeau said. “Islamophobia has no place in any of our communities. This hate is insidious and despicable—and it must stop.”
For members of London’s Muslim community, the grief sparked by the loss of the family is difficult to put into words.
“I was just shocked, I couldn’t believe it at first. Then of course comes the sadness, and the memories of the families,” said Patricia. “You know we lost members of the community, members of the school. It’s very sad. It’s devastating and everybody wants to help, but they don’t know… everyone just wants to help.”
A vigil for the family, set for Tuesday evening and organized by the London Muslim Mosque, is expected to draw hundreds.
Patricia said that the last she heard about her student, Fayez, was that he was being transferred to a hospital in Toronto and is scheduled for surgery. “We’re all trying to find a way to help Fayez,” she said. “He has been told his family has passed, and he took it very hard.”
On Tuesday, the Afzaal extended family released an official statement addressing the tragedy.
“Everyone who knew Salman and the rest of the Afzaal family know the model family they were as Muslims, Canadians and Pakistanis,” it read. “We need to understand that the destruction of a family in a brutal and horrific manner like this is something we must all stand against.”