Having survived rocket attacks and bombings in their native Syria, Samr Chehab Abdulkarim and her children finally felt safe in Canada.
But for a few tense moments on a recent Saturday, the Toronto mother of five feared she was about to lose her daughter in what the family believes was a racially charged encounter with a TTC driver, triggered by the fact Abdulkarim wears a hijab.
The family has filed a complaint with the transit agency. Toronto Transit Commission spokesperson Hayley Waldman said the agency has received the complaint and is looking into it.
“I can confirm that we are investigating, but cannot comment on the specifics of the investigation,” Waldman told the Star in an email.
At around 12:45 p.m. on Feb. 1, 40-year-old Abdulkarim picked up Lulu, 10, and Abdul, 8, from Victoria Park Collegiate Institute where the kids take their weekly Arabic-language class. They got on the southbound route 24 bus at Victoria Park Avenue and Cassandra Boulevard and headed for their home in Thorncliffe Park.
Grateful for Canada’s warm welcome to the family after they came here as refugees in 2015, Abdulkarim said she always encourages her children to smile and be friendly to strangers. That day, Lulu and Abdul greeted the bus driver with a smile and said “thank you,” but they said they were met with “a sneer” by the white female behind the wheel.
When the bus arrived at Lawrence Avenue East, Abdulkarim and her children made their way to the rear exit, but as soon as she and Abdul disembarked, the mother said the doors closed, with Lulu still on the bus.
For a split second, Abdulkarim said watching her daughter being driven away sparked memories of life in the war-torn Syrian city of Homs, from which they fled, and her constant fear of her children being kidnapped.
“I banged and banged on the doors. The bus was stopped at a red light, but the driver would not open the door to let Lulu off,” said a still shaken Abdulkarim. “I was horrified. I had no idea where she was taking my daughter and if I would ever see my girl again.”
Inside the half-full bus, Lulu said other passengers started shouting at the driver as she ran to the front and begged her to stop the bus.
“People were yelling, ‘The kid is still on the bus. Open the doors,’” said Lulu, a Grade 4 student at Thorncliffe Park Public School. “But the driver said to them my mom left me on the bus. She turned to me, smiled and said, ‘Nice mom. She left you here.’”
Back on the sidewalk, Abdulkarim said she chased the bus with Abdul in tow to the next stop, hundreds of metres away, where a frightened Lulu had been let off earlier through the front door when the driver stopped to pick up a passenger.
TTC policy says drivers have the discretion to stop a bus between regular stops for riders expressing a genuine need to exit the vehicle, regardless of the time of day, provided it is safe to do so.
Immediately after the incident, Abdulkarim said she called her husband, Khalil Aldroubi, who was in Vaughan at the time for a training workshop to become a security guard.
Aldroubi, 43, said he and his wife are still rattled.
“I was shocked. I couldn’t believe what happened (on the bus),” said Aldroubi, whose family — including three adult children — all use the TTC to get around the city.
He said back in Syria, he and his wife were very protective of the children, clung to them all the time and had to keep them out of school because of the violence, bombings and kidnappings.
“We came from war and we are not here to fight Canadians,” Aldroubi said. “But my two young kids are so afraid and anxious to take the bus now.”
In their complaint to the TTC, the family said they believe the incident was racially motivated due to the fact Abdulkarim wears a hijab.
“The animosity the driver felt towards (Abdulkarim) caused the driver to inappropriately use her power as a TTC driver to separate her from her child and try to implicate Samr as being a bad mother,” said the complaint, filed Feb. 3, two days after the incident, with help from a family friend.
While the TTC confirmed it is probing the family’s complaint, it would neither reveal the identity of the driver nor release any video footage during the investigation. Abdulkarim and her kids said they didn’t have a description of the bus driver, other than that she was a white woman, because everything happened so fast.
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According to TTC policy, members of the public can request video footage from all subway stations, trains, buses, streetcars and LRT vehicles, but the footage is only stored for 72-hours and an official freedom of information request must be made within that time frame.
Aldroubi said he has not been told by the TTC if the footage of his family’s experience on the bus was preserved and is hoping passengers who witnessed the incident will come forward. Since that day, the family has stopped taking the route 24 bus and has not been back to the Arabic class. It was only the second time they had taken that route along the busy thoroughfare.
Omar Khan, the friend who helped the family with their complaint, said what happened to the mother and her children was unacceptable.
“I have young nephews myself. I can’t imagine how scared Lulu must have felt (being) stuck in that bus and separated from her mother,” said Khan, who has known the family since 2016. “It’s just incredulous that it’d even happen in the city.”