TORONTO — An 11-year-old Toronto girl said a scissors-wielding man came up behind her and cut her hijab repeatedly as she walked to school Friday, describing the incident as one that left her terrified and confused.
Toronto police said they were looking for a suspect and investigating the matter as a hate crime, while the prime minister and Ontario's premier said reports of what happened did not reflect who Canadians are.
The incident took place in east Toronto, as Khawlah Noman, a Grade 6 student, was walking to Pauline Johnson Junior Public School with her younger brother.
The girl said a man came up behind her, pulled off her jacket hood, and started cutting the bottom of her hijab.
"I turned around and I saw him with his scissors," Khawlah said. "I screamed."
The man ran off, Khawlah said, noting that she crossed the street with her brother to join other students walking to school.
But a short time later, the man approached her from behind again and started cutting her hijab once more, she said. Khawlah said she turned around to confront him, but he smiled and ran off again.
"This is terrible and I do not like it," she told reporters at a news conference at her school hours after the incident. "I felt confused, scared, terrified."
Khawlah — who appeared alongside her mother and her brother — said she is now afraid to walk to school, but was comforted by the support of her school and family.
"What you're doing is really wrong, you should not act like this, and especially, I'm a kid," she said, addressing her attacker directly at one point.
Khawlah, who was wearing a white hijab loaned from a friend, said her own light blue hijab that she had been wearing earlier in the day had been left with a cut that was about 30 centimetres long.
School staff reported the incident to police around 9:15 a.m., shortly after Khawlah told them what happened, Toronto police said, noting that they were searching for a suspect in his 20s.
The girl's mother said she was angry someone would target a child, but was relieved her daughter was not physically harmed.
"I don't know why he did that, but it's just not Canada," Saima Samad said. "I feel safe in this community, but this is not right and he should get help."
Toronto police commended Khawlah for the way she had handled the incident.
"She was brave enough to confront the man, make some noise .... and then proceed to walk with a bunch of other kids realizing there's safety in numbers," said Const. Jenniferjit Sidhu.
The Toronto District School Board said it was offering support to Khawlah and her family, as well as other students, and working with investigators on the case.
"It's one thing to assault an adult, which is never acceptable, but for this to happen to a child — I can't tell you how horrified we all are," spokeswoman Shari Schwartz-Maltz said.
The incident caught the attention of politicians at all levels of government.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said his heart goes out to the girl.
"I can't imagine how afraid she must have been," Trudeau said at a cabinet retreat 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."
Meanwhile, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne called the incident "a cowardly act of hatred."
"This does not represent who we are," Wynne wrote in a tweet. "We must stand firm in our support of this young girl who was assaulted simply for wearing a hijab."
Toronto's mayor added that he was "shocked and appalled."
"No child should ever be afraid walking to school in Toronto because of what they are wearing or for any other reason," John Tory said. "Intolerance and hate of any kind, including islamophobia, has no place in our city, our province, or our country."