I had just put the kids to bed when a friend texted me with the news of the shooting at the mosque in Quebec. Six fathers were dead, shot and killed as they prayed in a place of sanctuary. I froze in panic, fear and confusion. I didn’t sleep much—worry and sadness kept my head spinning all night.
I grew up in South Africa during apartheid, so I know the appalling realities of racial segregation and prejudice. My parents refused to shelter me and my brothers; they intentionally exposed us to the inequalities and oppression all around us and raised us with the determination to act on it. I’ve tried to do the same with my own three kids.
My two daughters and my son are lucky to have been born in Canada. We’ve always been grateful for having freedom, safety, a warm home and full stomachs. Even so, my kids were born at a time of increasing anti-Muslim rhetoric that has been a cloud of stigma, like a stain on their identity. I know how that feels: Having grown up in a marginalized group in South Africa, the colour of my skin and the texture of my hair were like bad stains on mine. The topics of prejudice, racism, discrimination and bullying of all kinds have been a constant source of conversation in our home, but we have never felt unsafe.
The next day, as I bundled my kids off to school for the first time ever, I was afraid. My son goes to an Islamic school that has put increased security measures in place. Police officers stand by the door, which remains locked during classroom hours. How could this be? I find it so unsettling that the simple act of going to school has become a dangerous activity.
For my children, praying and playing at the mosque are normal things to do. So what can I possibly say to them about this mosque attack—an attack that has challenged the fragility of our freedoms? What could ease their fears? Now they feel unsafe doing something that was an enjoyable part of their lives. I’ve tried to reassure them that their school and mosque are safe places, but I’m not sure I believe this myself anymore.
As a child, I had been through similar things—things I would never wish upon my children in a million years. Now I’m grappling with the impact that the shooting will have on them. I worry about keeping one eye on the door and an exit strategy in mind when I go into a mosque now. I feel grateful yet uneasy about having increased police patrols at a place of spirituality that is supposed to be a sanctuary. I think about how the hateful rhetoric we’ve heard over the past few years was perhaps not taken seriously enough by anyone.
Over the past week, it’s been incredibly heartwarming to see footage of thousands of Canadians attending vigils across the country. I felt relief hearing words of solidarity from everyone from government officials to friends to strangers.
Yet, at the same time, we need to deal with the racism in our streets. This event has laid bare the fault lines in our society, fractured everyone’s sense of complacency and woken us out of our stupor. Words matter: They guide us, they hurt us and they marginalize us. Quebec’s premier, Philippe Couillard, said it best: “We are all responsible. I am responsible. Elected officials are responsible. You [in the media] are responsible in how you carry the words. Everybody has a role to play.”
As I watched the funeral of three of the men who were killed, I was touched by the words of Tarek Younis, who talked about the anger that many of us are feeling. “Anger is a powerful mobilizing emotion that energizes us in the face of injustice,” he said. “Every Canadian has a right to anger…and the validation of this anger is an essential step in the path of collective healing and social harmony.”
Muslims aren’t the first to experience this type of marginalization, but I certainly hope they will be the last. I am angry, so I will move forward with the determination to raise my children with the same values, compassion and awareness that my parents raised me. I can only hope that it will make them more courageous and equipped to build a more inclusive society for all.