Sarah Barzak’s only regret about leaving London, Ont., is that she didn’t move sooner.
Barzak, 28, moved to Toronto last fall, but grew up working behind the counter of Ray’s Variety at the corner of Wharncliffe Rd N and Oxford St., the convenience store her dad has owned since the late 90s. It’s where she says she faced the most “insidious” abuse.
“Working at my dad’s store is when I really felt the brunt of it,” said Barzak. “When I was perceived as a working-class, brown, frontline worker. That’s really where I feel I got the brunt of racism or Islamophobic statements or interactions.”
Barzak speaks multiple languages, including Malay, French and Arabic. Her father is Palestinian. Her mother is from Malaysia.
“It’s a lot of either comments of well-intentioned older white folks who say things like, ‘Oh, you’re so articulate.’ It’s insulting. I grew up here and I was born in the U.S.,” said Barzak. “Sometimes the cost of cigarettes go up and that’s completely out of our control and we’ll get comments like, ‘You people are thugs.'”
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Barzak has returned to London this week to be with her parents in the wake of the horrific killing of four members of the Afzaal family and was inspired to write her account of what it was like to grow up Muslim in London.
“It was very devastating and it just brought a lot of feelings of deep sadness, but also deep anger and a lot of complicated emotions,” she said.
The suspect in the June 6 attack was arrested a five minute drive from Barzak’s family home, leaving her to wonder: “What if my mom had been walking down the street? My mom’s a hijabi. She is a hyper-visible Muslim woman.”
Managing a 2018 municipal campaign was ‘heartbreaking’
It was Barzak’s time working as a campaign manager during the 2018 municipal election that proved to be the most challenging. Barzak was working with Rowa Mohamed’s campaign, another young Muslim woman, who has since left London.
“We were young and we were very idealistic at the time,” said Barzak. But the volunteers, specifically the woman who wore hijabs and the young Black volunteers were subjected to racism on the campaign trail, she said.
“It’s just really heartbreaking to see young people wanting to do something about their community and not actually being celebrated for it.”
That experience sealed the deal for Barzak. “I did decide after that campaign that, ‘You know what? This is it,” she said. “I’ve done my time here and I’m now ready for bigger and better things.'”
Barzak moved to Toronto in September of 2020 and now wonders why she didn’t pack her bags sooner.
“I would have rather gone to university outside of London…I think I would have found a lot more like-minded people in living in a bigger city,” she said.