A man threatened 2 Muslim women. These Canadians responded with flowers.
For me and for a lot of people, recent political events have made the world feel a little less ... welcoming. And that's true in places outside of America, too.
Janelle Venne, who has lived in Ottawa and, more recently, Alberta, Canada, for most of her life, says this recent surge of hatred is spreading north.
She tries to do her part every day, whether that's volunteering to cover up racist graffiti or just flashing a warm smile to passersby. But Venne says she heard a news story a few weeks back that made her stomach turn. A man had taken a rope out of his jacket, tied it into a noose, handed it to two hijabi women he saw at a light-rail station in Venne's town of Edmonton, and taunted them, singing "O Canada." The encounter was caught on camera by the two women.
“I was thinking, 'Why doesn't somebody do something about this?'" Venne says. "Then I realized: I am somebody.”
Venne came up with the idea to take back her local train station as a safe space for all by handing out flowers to any women she saw there wearing hijab.
Initially, she thought she'd spend about $50 of her own money on a few carnations. But the more people she talked to, the more people wanted to get involved.
Working alongside other volunteers, including Nakita Valerio from AMPAC (the Alberta Muslim Public Affairs Council), Venne scraped together over $500 in only 24 hours.
That meant she was able to buy about 1,000 flowers to hand out.
On Dec. 7, 2016, almost exactly a month after the incident, Venne and other volunteers set up shop between two escalators on the main train platform.
People filtered past in bunches — dozens of them, hundreds. And each time a woman wearing a hijab hurried through the crowd, Venne and others quietly slipped her a flower, their way of saying "You are welcome here."
"The first person I gave a flower to, she just about broke out crying and gave me a huge hug," Venne says. Another woman received a flower on her way to class, then came back to the station just to thank the volunteers again.
In 12 hours, Venne says, the group handed out over 800 flowers.
And what might be even more encouraging than the sheer number of kind gestures performed by the volunteers that day was the interest from non-Muslim passersby.
"All different kinds of people came up and asked what they were up to and asked how they could help," Venne says. Many of the flowers were given to curious strangers who promised to hand them out throughout the day.
Of course, not everyone loved what Venne was doing, and a few said so. “But the percentage was so tiny," she says. "They're loud, but they're obviously not the majority.”
Unfortunately, Venne and her friends can't be everywhere in the world at once, making sure everyone feels safe and loved.
So she has a few pieces of advice for anyone who might find themselves witnessing harassment like the incident that took place at her local train station:
“Completely ignore the harasser. Communicate with the person being harassed,” she says. Make normal conversation with them. Make them feel comfortable. “Eventually, the harasser will go away.”
If you're up for doing something more proactive in your own community to make the world feel safer, a little can go a long way.
"Because women who wear hijabs are so targeted and so easy to spot," Venne says, "I figured they should be targeted for a positive reason for once."