Update: Young girl attacked by man who cut her hijab
11-year-old Khawlah Noman says she was walking to school with her younger brother when the man approached and cut her hijab. Police say they are treating the attack as a hate crime.
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Update – January 16, 2018: Toronto Police say they have determined that this incident did not occur. See follow-up story here.
Khawlah Noman was walking to school with her younger brother on Friday when she felt somebody pull the hood of her winter jacket down. Protected from the rain was the 11-year-old’s light blue hijab — the target of a man holding a pair of scissors with a blue handle.
Over the next 10 minutes, she said she was attacked not once, but twice, by a man who is now a suspect in a Toronto police hate crime investigation.
“I felt really scared and confused,” she told reporters Friday afternoon, recounting the traumatic incident in a Scarborough neighbourhood near Birchmount Rd. and Sheppard Ave. E.
“I didn’t feel comfortable about what was going on.”
When her attacker pulled her hood down, she said he cut her hijab from the bottom up. Terrified, she turned to face him — a young Asian male, roughly 5-foot-8 to six feet tall, wearing black pants, a black hoodie and brown gloves. He had a moustache, the girl told police, and glasses, too. He was smiling at her.
She looked at him and screamed. Her attacker ran away.
Frightened, Khawlah and her 10-year-old brother, Mohammed Zakariyya, rushed to join a group of children walking nearby so they wouldn’t be alone with the attacker.
Together, they continued their morning walk to school down Birchmount Rd. Held up at a traffic light at Bay Mills Blvd., the brother and sister were separated at opposite ends of the crossing.
Mohammed didn’t make the light in time to safely cross, so his sister waited for him while the group moved on. He said he watched as his sister’s attacker again approached her, scissors in hand.
The little boy was scared, worried his sister would be hurt. “I’m so glad that she’s safe and I’m safe,” he said.
When they got to school, they discovered the bottom of Khawlah’s hijab had been cut by about 30 centimetres.
The incident was deeply upsetting for the children, and for their mother, Samia Samad.
“I don’t know why he did that,” Samad said, visibly shaken and in tears.
“It’s just not Canada. I’m frustrated and I’m angry, but I do believe in peace in Canada. I am so proud to be a Canadian, and I want to give (the attacker) the same message.”
The assault against Khawlah, a student at Pauline Johnson Junior Public School in Scarborough, is being condemned by leaders from all three levels of government as unrepresentative of Canadian values.
“I can’t imagine how afraid she must have been,” said Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in an unprompted statement of support for Khawlah at a news conference in London, Ont.
“I want her and her family and her friends and community to know that that is not what Canada is and that is not who Canadians are.”
Premier Kathleen Wynne was outraged.
“Everyone in our province has the right to worship and dress however they choose,” she said. “And everyone has the right to feel safe and respected no matter what they are wearing or where they go.”
Mayor John Tory said he was “shocked and appalled” by the incident, stating, “No child should ever be afraid walking to school in Toronto because of what they are wearing.”
The school’s website says 68 per cent of the junior kindergarten through Grade 6 students in attendance speak a language other than English at home.
“For something like this to happen to one of our kids here is piercing to my heart,” said TDSB spokesperson Shari Schwartz-Maltz.
The school board’s social work team was on site, and letters will also be sent home with students at all three schools in the Scarborough neighbourhood addressing the assault against Khawlah.
“We want to make sure they know we’re aware of what’s happening, and we’re available to talk,” TDSB trustee Manna Wong said.
Toronto police lauded Khawlah’s quick thinking and response to the attack, with Const. Jenifferjit Sidhu saying she was “very, very smart” for shouting and joining the group of students ahead of her. Sidhu said this is “an isolated incident,” such that she has never seen in her 20 years of service.
Police are investigating this as a hate crime, but the Ontario Ministry of the Attorney General will need to approve any hate crime related charges associated with the assault.
“Having the police recognize this as a potential hate crime is a much greater act of deterrence, and a signal that Islamaphobia will not be tolerated,” said Mohammed Hashim, a member of the Urban Alliance on Race Relations.
Toronto Councilor Neethan Shan has campaigned for Jan. 29 — the one year anniversary of the mass shooting at a Quebec City mosque — to be marked as a Day of Remembrance and Action on Islamaphobia. Incidents like this, he said, make such days even more imperative.
“A day of action will express our recommitment to fight Islamaphobia, and become a rallying call,” he said. “But legislative changes are very important. We need to find ways to get communities to trust the criminal process, and report hate crimes.”
Khawlah’s light blue hijab is now with police as evidence. Wearing a white hijab loaned from a friend, she softly gave a message to her attacker.
“What you’re doing is very wrong, you should stop doing this,” she said, holding back tears.
“I’m a kid.”
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