Warning: This story contains distressing details.
Several young people stared directly at the man who murdered their friend and members of her family, defiantly detailing at his sentencing hearing in London, Ont., the loss of their childhoods since June 6, 2021.
“We didn’t just lose Yumnah and her beautiful family. We lost our sense of belonging, we lost our sense of community, we lost our self of safety and our sense of self — we even lost our innocence,” said Maryam Al Sabawi, who met Yumnah Afzaal in Grade 2.
Al Sabawi described Yumnah as “a confidant, a support system, a classmate, study partner, secret keeper and giver of hope.”
“He took from us what did not belong to him and there is no way to take it back — all of it because of hate that was left unchecked, carefully incubated through the silence of others.”
Sentencing for Nathaniel Veltman, 23, began in Superior Court on Thursday, when several relatives of the Afzaal family spoke about the grief they and the Muslim community have been living with since the incident. After the 10-week trial in Windsor, he was convicted on Nov. 17 of four counts of murder and one count of attempted murder.
Yumnah, 15, her mom Madiha Salman, 44, dad Salman Afzaal, 47, and grandmother Talat Afzaal were killed. The trial heard he targeted the family for being Muslim, driving his pickup truck into the family. The youngest member, a boy who was nine years old at the time, was the sole survivor.
In the aftermath of the attack, Al Sabawi and other teens created the Youth Coalition for Combating Islamophobia (YCCI) to honour their friend and work at ensuring no others lose loved ones to hatred.
During the reading of the victim impact statements, the convicted man has been sitting alone in the courtoom, stone-faced.
‘Losing her felt like losing a limb’
On Friday, children and teenagers spoke about the loss of simple milestones, such as texting through the night, buying prom dresses and planning for the future, that they can no longer do with Yumnah.
“My best friend was murdered, leaving her little brother orphaned, without his grandmother, his mom and dad, his best friend his sister,” said Huda Salaam, one of her best friends. “I can’t go anywhere in the city without feeling and seeing her.”
Many said they feel guilt that they are able to graduate and continue their lives while Yumnah and her family cannot, and they worry about the pain of losing more loved ones.
“She was the person I texted good morning to every morning, without fail. Losing her felt like losing a limb and so many things in my life came to a standstill,” said Eeshal Salman.
Four students from the London Islamic School, which the now 11-year-old survivor still attends, also spoke.
“Many people think that just because we are children we don’t understand what is going on. When I was a kid, I thought Canada was the safest place in the world. Then that happened, and I learned the world isn’t as good as I thought,” one small boy said.
First-degree murder comes with an automatic sentence of life in prison with no parole eligibility for at least 25 years.
The victim impact statements can be used by Justice Renee Pomerance to consider whether the killer’s actions amounted to terrorism, which would not affect his first-degree murder sentence, but could affect his eventual parole eligiblity. Lawyers will make arguments about that on Jan. 23 when the sentencing hearing continues.