Real Life

The touching story of a Christchurch mosque victim and the special bond he’s forged with his saviour

As Al Noor mosque shooting survivor Abbas Tahir fought for his life, Jill Keats stayed by his side and tended to him in his greatest hour of need - forging a lifelong friendship.
Abbas Tahir al noor mosque victim Jill Keats

Their lives collided under a hail of bullets on a Christchurch street, but for mosque shooting survivor Abbas Tahir, that fateful moment has forged a special bond with a big-hearted Uber driver he now considers part of his family.

The 46-year-old former bakery assistant remains haunted by the harrowing events of March 15. Ever since, he hasn’t been able to live a normal life after a projectile pierced his back as he fled Masjid Al Noor where he was worshipping.

With shrapnel still lodged in his body, the dad-of-two struggles to hold his children for any length of time and can’t escape the constant pain that has become an unwelcome part of his life.

Yet despite such hardship, Abbas remains thankful for the kindness of Christchurch woman Jill Keats, 66, who showed selfless actions under fire, staying by his side and tending to him in his greatest hour of need.

As the pair sit amiably beside each other in Abbas’ lounge, his wife Zeynia Endrise, 34, tells Woman’s Day they have nothing but affection for Jill’s commitment and friendship, which started with visits to Christchurch Hospital and now includes popping around to their Shirley home laden with boxes of fresh fruit and gifts.

“Thank you, thank you so much for this woman,” gushes Zeynia, who came to New Zealand from Ethiopia a decade ago. “She is really awesome and a very lovely lady. She’s family now. If she even misses seeing us a week we feel we have missed a big thing.”

The close-knit family (from left): Nurit, Zeynia, Ridwaan, Rayaan and Abbas.

“We’ve developed a lovely bond. I’m Aunty Jill,” she smiles. “I’ve got lots of nieces and nephews, so it’s added to my big whanau.

“I do spoil the kids a bit. When I go to Australia I bring back gifts. When I was there last I brought Abbas some figs and the girls a scarf because I know they adore lovely scarves. I try and do things like that.”

The good Samaritan says she didn’t think twice about helping the wounded stranger who collapsed beside her car on Deans Ave, but even she couldn’t have imagined the remarkable connection the pair now share, eclipsing culture, faith and age.

“Abbas was running toward me and fell down right beside my door. The guy in the car behind me got his first aid kit and helped me pull Abbas around behind my car. As I was pressing down on his wound I was talking to him, telling him to ‘hang in there, the ambulance is coming.'”

But what she found incredible was that in the middle of the dramatic events, the badly injured man seemed more worried about the welfare of his heavily pregnant wife.

“As long as I live I will never forget Abbas pushing me his phone and wanting me to talk to you,” she tells Zeynia. “I thought this man loves this woman. It was just so touching.”

“I said, ‘I’m with your partner and he’s been shot in the back and it’s very serious. Go to the hospital and wait for him. I’ll stay and talk to him.’ And that’s what I did.”

Zeynia clearly remembers the phone calls that sent her world into a spin. When the first one came through from Abbas, she wondered why he wanted to speak to her when it was time for prayer.

“All I heard was a voice of someone who couldn’t talk properly, then the phone went dead. I rang back, but no-one answered. Then Jill picked up the phone. I was in so much shock that I couldn’t even think what I needed to ask.”

The mum-of-two says the first weeks after the attacks were incredibly tough. “I spent the first day at the hospital not knowing if he was dead or alive. I was just crying and crying. I didn’t find out until the next day that he was unconscious in the intensive care unit.

“My little boy Rayyan didn’t understand what was going on. Every night before he went to bed he kept asking me, ‘Where’s Daddy?'”

Zeynia and Abbas on their wedding day in Ethiopia in 2015.

Abbas underwent four operations to repair his badly injured body.

“I still remember a lot, especially every Friday,” Abbas tells us, as his wife translates from his north African mother tongue. “I remember Jill helping me that day.”

But he agrees the one shining beacon in a bleak year is surviving to see his gorgeous son Ridwaan, who was born on June 18 – a little brother for Rayyan, two.

“I was very happy to see my baby,” smiles Abbas, as the adorable four-month-old perches comfortably on his lap.

“When I got shot and was in hospital, I was feeling very sorry for my wife because she was pregnant with another child. I was almost crying whenever I saw her.”

Yet even the birth had an unexpected setback, with the newborn suffering a dislocated shoulder and damage to his vocal cords in the delivery unit.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern visits the couple at Christchurch Hospital two weeks after the attack.

“He had surgery when he was four weeks old and he is still needing regular follow up appointments with the doctor,” tells Zeynia. “It was a very stressful time.”

Even so they are mindful of the warmth they have experienced from their local community, ranging from staff at Rayyan’s preschool, who ferried mum and son to and from the centre and gave gifts, to her employer, cleaning company Spotless, which kept her on the payroll even though she was too traumatised to work. Christ’s College Secondary School and other kind individuals have also sent financial donations and gifts for the baby.

“Oh my goodness, I just have to say thank you. They all helped us so much,” says Zeynia. “For five months I was paid my full wage. Even the preschool kept my baby all day, when my husband came out of hospital. They told me, ‘You’re pregnant and tired, you have to look after yourself,’ and they would drop him home.

“Abbas especially wants to pay special thanks to the hospital and the police. They worked so hard.”

Zeynia says along with Jill’s friendship and practical support, she is also grateful to have had her 26-year-old sister Nurit Endris staying with them after she was granted a temporary visa to be with the family as they recovered. It has meant the load has been eased for the busy mum.

“It’s been wonderful having her here helping at home. There are lots of appointments for my husband and my baby, so I have to go with them. Nurit is able to look after the house and Rayyan.”

Now the couple are asking the Immigration Service to allow Nurit to be given residency, concerned they will not be able to cope on their own once her nine-month visa expires in February.

Appeals Zeynia, “We just want my sister to be here because Abbas is not able to help very much. It’s really hard. We really need family, especially after that day.”

She explains life has been tough for the former Coupland’s Bakery employee. Money is tight and with Abbas unable to work, the couple worry about what the future holds. Because he was not working prior to the March attack he was not eligible for ACC cover. A combination of Zeynia’s parental leave and victim payouts has kept them going, but funds are running low.

The family have also been left traumatised by the shocking events of the day.

“We’ve developed a lovely bond,” smiles Jill (holding baby Ridwaan).

“It’s really hard,” explains Zeynia. “We were never scared before, but now we are always scared. Even a small sound, my husband gets frightened.”

Still suffering from his bullet injuries, Abbas faces the prospect of more surgeries, with blood tests showing lead at abnormally high levels. Along with weekly physiotherapy visits, the shooting victim needs to take pain medication and sleeping pills to get through each day.

“Any heavy lifting, even just holding my son, I get really sore,” he explains. “It’s hard to carry my children.”

The friends enjoy a customary Ethiopian lemon tea as they chat, and Jill can’t help but wonder how an act of kindness on a dark day is giving her much more than she could have ever imagined.

“It just seemed the right thing to do. I haven’t got any grandchildren so it’s ended up to be a blessing.”

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