Toronto police are investigating death threats against local Syrian restaurateurs who reportedly fielded a “magnitude of hate” from across the globe in response to their son’s presence at a political protest.
“We take this issue quite seriously,” Const. Rob Reid told the Toronto Star, “so we’re quite grateful the family has chosen to make a report with us, finally.”
Detectives with 14 Division’s criminal investigation bureau and the city’s intelligence hate crime section have been assigned to the case, Reid said.
The Alsoufi family filed the complaint with police on Wednesday afternoon — a day after announcing they were closing Soufi’s restaurant on Queen Street West, which had been celebrated locally and internationally not just for its food but as evidence of the success of Canada’s refugee resettlement program after its opening in 2017.
Husam and Shahnaz Alsoufi came to Canada after they and their three children were sponsored by a community group in 2015. Soufi’s was among the restaurants profiled in a New York Times story last year showcasing the budding Syrian culinary scene in Greater Toronto. It has also been featured in Toronto Life, Now Magazine and the Star.
But when one of the Alsoufi’s sons, Alaa, attended a Hamilton fundraiser for People’s Party of Canada Leader Maxime Bernier on Sept. 29 wearing a face mask, a new storyline emerged.
A video that went viral showed a group blocking an older woman using a walker from entering the event at Mohawk College. Some protesters could be heard shouting Nazi slurs at people trying to enter the venue, including the elder woman.
Hamilton police are investigating the incident.
Within 24 hours of the protest, social media users across the globe shared the video and created new ones that described Alaa Alsoufi as an “antifa terrorist” and criminal. They found and published his personal photos and the address of his family’s business.
The antifa movement is composed of radically left-leaning, militant anti-fascist groups.
In a public statement released Tuesday night, the Alsoufis said their son “regrets the incident” in Hamilton and noted that “he did not in any way verbally or physically assault the elderly woman” shown in the video. They described him as an activist and humanitarian who regularly fights for oppressed communities in Canada and around the world.
Many of the threats and hateful comments toward Alaa and his family seem to be coming from social media users in the United States and abroad.
A torrent of social media users have inundated the family with threatening messages, the Alsoufis said in a statement: “The magnitude of hate we are facing is overwhelming. We know this hate does not reflect the people of Toronto … (who) are loving, welcoming people.”
Days after the protest, a Facebook user in Philadelphia posted photos of Alaa on his page with a message inviting friends to “meet … one of the antifa scumbags that harassed an elderly couple while they tried to cross a street. … We have everything on him. Everything!”
Reid said police will pursue threats from beyond the Canadian border.
“We have multilateral engagement agreements with Interpol and international police units. We all work together,” he said. Toronto police are prepared to seek their help in making arrests and preserving evidence.
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Police distributed flyers throughout the Queen West neighbourhood on Wednesday that encourage business owners and patrons to report hate crimes.
“We need to be ever vigilant,” Reid said. “We can’t just let these things live in darkness.”