Madiha Salman was an accomplished engineer, fiercely committed to equality and even more devoted to her family.
She was working towards her PhD in civil engineering, having arrived at Western in 2009 to complete her Master of Engineering Science.
Her husband, Salman Afzaal, filled with similar determination to succeed, earned his master’s in health sciences from Western in 2010.
Together, they had come to Canada from Pakistan in the hopes of a better future for their family.
The entire Western community and all of Canada are expressing shock, anger and grief following a hate crime that claimed Madiha’s and Salman’s lives along with those of their 15-year-old daughter Yumna and Afzaal’s 74-year-old mother.
Fayez Afzaal, the couple’s nine-year-old son, is recovering in hospital after a truck hit the family in northwest London while they were walking near their home Sunday night.
The driver is accused of targeting them as Muslims and is charged with murder and attempted murder.
“[Madiha] was a sparkling and generous, loving person who treasured education, female advancement, equality and research,” said Engineering professor Jason Gerhard, who was Madiha’s master’s supervisor.
From early childhood, Madiha had an affinity for the beauty of nature, and was intent on adding her voice and her research to reversing the human impact on natural resources.
Gerhard praised her enthusiasm in working out new ways to treat contaminated soil and groundwater en route to obtaining an “outstanding” master’s in the RESTORE (Research for Subsurface Transport and Remediation) program.
“She … raised a beautiful family and contributed strongly to her professional and community networks,” Gerhard said. “There are no words to express anything reasonable about this tragedy.”
Madiha served as a teaching assistant for more than six years during her graduate studies and, as a student, held prestigious research scholarships. “She was a very good person… friendly, gentle, pleasant and smart,” said Madiha’s doctoral supervisor, Engineering professor Ernest Yanful.
Generosity and perseverance
The family was hospitable and kind, and intent on building a new life here when they left Pakistan for Canada in 2007, recalled Health Sciences professor Dianne Bryant, Salman’s supervisor for his master’s.
“One of the first things they did when they arrived was invite me into their apartment for breakfast. There was no furniture, just one chair, and they insisted I sit on it. Yet they were so grateful to be here and to have the opportunity to be in Canada.”
Bryant recalled how Salman “showed incredible perseverance” to earn his master’s degree and go on to a career as a physiotherapist working in long-term care homes.
“I think it’s the hope that I’ll remember most. He was such a happy person, full of hope and so happy to be in Canada.”
A statement on behalf of the slain family said they were model Muslims, Canadians and Pakistanis. “They were always there giving and participating in spreading goodness,” the relatives’ statement said.
Condemning hate and Islamophobia
President Alan Shepard offered condolences to the family and denounced the crime.
“We mourn their loss and condemn these terrible acts of hate and Islamophobia. Western offers our unwavering support to the Muslim community here in London and across the country,” Shepard said.
Hatred has no place at Western, in London or in our country, he added. “We will work with Muslim leaders to determine how to best support members of the community.”
Professor Ashraf El Damatty, chair of the department of civil and environmental engineering and former vice-chair of the London Muslim Mosque, said, “I am deeply saddened and troubled by this incident. London, Ontario has one of the largest Muslim populations per capita in North America and has always been a safe home for Muslims.
“Our department is very diverse, and we consider this to be our strength. We stand against hate in all of its forms towards any group of people, and we will work together to support our Muslim students during this troubling time.”
The family’s statement called upon Canadians to reject hate and Islamophobia. “The rest of the community must take a strong stand against this, from the highest levels in our governments to every member of our community with a sense of appreciation for humanity and justice.”
A vigil Tuesday night in London drew several thousand mourners, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Ontario Premier Doug Ford.
Western’s flags will remain at half-mast and University College tower has been illuminated in green – which in Islam is symbolic of nature, heaven and life.
Information will be shared in the coming days about how Western will commemorate the family and their deep connections to the university.