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Real Life

Brave mum’s life after tragedy: 'The rabbit who is healing me'

A bundle of cuteness has allowed her to share her grief after the mosque shootings

By Fleur Guthrie
Most nights, Hussein Al-Umari's affectionate pet rabbit George would sleep under his bed.
But when the 35-year-old tourism worker was murdered in the 2019 Christchurch mosque attacks, Hussein's bedroom door had to be kept shut for the police to take fingerprints.
For two months, the wee cottontail bunny waited for his master to return and slept outside the bedroom door as if to guard it.
"They were so attached to each other," remembers Hussein's mother Janna Ezat. "When Hussein left us, George waited and waited outside his door. I'm not sure whether he was sick or just heartbroken, but George stopped eating and passed away not long after."
Hussein with his bunny George
To help with her own healing from the trauma of losing her son, Janna would go and feed the farm animals at Christchurch's Willowbank Wildlife Reserve.
When she spied a litter of bunnies, she asked the staff if she could buy one, in memory of her beloved Hussein.
Enter Nergal – the albino Flemish Giant rabbit, now weighing in at more than six kilos and who also answers to his English name Calvin.
He enjoys munching on mint, posing for selfies with strangers and cruising down the supermarket aisles in his special hay-filled pram, which was shipped especially from America.
Pet George pined for Hussein and died not long after
"We get stopped all the time," smiles Janna, 57, who along with her husband Hazim and daughter Aya, 36, recently moved to Auckland's North Shore for a "fresh start" after 25 years living in the Garden City.
"I tell my family I'm going on a 10-minute walk with Nergal, but often end up coming back an hour later because every time we stop for people who want to pat him.
"When I go to the local supermarket, all the cashiers and customers want to take photos. He doesn't mind. They pat him and he loves it. I see people filming him. Cyclists stop to talk to us.
"One woman brought us tomatoes from her garden for him! Nergal is very curious. When I walk him, he's constantly looking out."
Janna is used to being stopped on her walks, with people wanting pats and selfies with Nergal
Unwittingly, Nergal has also been a great icebreaker for Janna sharing her story with others and why she decided to forgive the terrorist who took her son's life.
"Two days ago, I was out walking with the pram and an elderly lady was driving past and gestured to us to stop, while she pulled over. She wanted to pat Nergal and asked where we got him from. I told her, in brief, our story and that I was the only mother to forgive the killer," tells Janna.
"She said, "If I were you, I couldn't do that. It's too difficult. How did you reach that step?' I told her it's my faith and belief to forgive. Because if I don't forgive, the burden won't be removed from me, and I had to release my anger and hate.
"At the end of the conversation, she said, 'Thank you for teaching me the lesson of forgiveness. I will revise my assessment of it.'"
Speaking eloquently with emotion in her voice, the Iraq-born calligraphy artist says she sheds a tear for her "gentle" son every day.
No one could have foreseen the horrific events that unfolded on March 15, 2019, when a gunman opened fire on hundreds of innocent people from the Muslim community as they prayed at two mosques in Christchurch, killing 51.
Janna and Hazim spent hours searching for Hussein after the shootings. They were supposed to meet him for lunch after his Friday visit to the Al Noor Mosque.
"When the attack happened, we didn't know if he was alive or dead," she says. "We were looking for his car, but nobody was allowed around the mosque. There was no answer when we called him. His name wasn't listed at the hospital.
"Hazim said to me, 'Hussein would never run away – his attitude was always to protect others first', so we started to have a feeling that's what might have happened in the mosque."
Hussein lost his life in Al Noor Mosque after heroically confronting the gunman
Their intuition was right. Survivors of the shooting told the grieving parents that Hussein bravely confronted the terrorist.
"We asked to see the internal CCTV footage of his last moments, which show him running towards the killer with his palms raised, trying to get his gun," says Janna. "He was one of the first to take a bullet and save the lives of those around him, and helped them to escape."
Hussein's body was sent home to the family on Middle Eastern Mother's Day – which also coincided with Janna's birthday – six days after the attack.
A year and a half later in the Christchurch High Court, Janna came face to face for the first time with the gunman who murdered her son.
Meeting PM Jacinda Ardern at a gathering for families of the mosque victims in 2020
Going "off script", she told the 29-year-old Australian terrorist she forgave him after reading out her victim impact statement.
"Everyone in the court was shocked," says husband Hazim. "Aya and I were shocked! She didn't even tell us she was going to do that."
Aya adds, "But I could see the physical effects on Mum after she had forgiven him. It was like she was more at peace."
Nods Janna, "I knew I needed to say it, for a peaceful end. It wasn't written in my victim impact statement that we had to submit for checking. But I wanted to tell him: 'I have decided to forgive you, Mr Tarrant, because I don't have hate. I don't have revenge. The damage is done. Hussein will never be here. I have only one choice: to forgive you.'
"I have a respect to myself, so I didn't want to tell him he was garbage. I selected good vocabulary and addressed him as Mr Tarrant for my own dignity.
"He destroyed us, but that doesn't mean I go to his level and use degrading language. I was raised to respect others no matter what."
Janna, who even shocked her family by publicly forgiving the terrorist, loves sharing stories about her son
Janna says a prison officer searched her out afterwards to tell her that only during her statement did the killer drop his head and show emotion.
"Perhaps he had some tears," she reflects. "But the rest of the time he was blank and looked like he didn't care."
These days, the trio prefer to focus on memories of Hussein's bravery. They laugh while telling a story that illustrates his protective nature.
"We were due to travel, so arranged a security company to drop by each night and check on our house when we were gone," recalls Janna.
"A night before we left Christchurch, we were sleeping and all of a sudden I wake at 2am and hear shouting inside my house. I was so afraid.
"I was hiding in the kitchen. Hussein had heard a man entering our house and had squeezed him between the front door and the wall. But then I heard laughing. The guy said, 'I'm not a thief. I'm from Armourguard' and had accidentally come one night earlier than he was supposed to."
With daughter Aya and husband Hazim. "He destroyed us," tells Janna of the terrorist
The last time Janna and Hazim saw their son was the night before he died, right after they bought a new car.
"He was so happy, hugging me and saying, 'Congratulations, Mama!' We told him we would help him to also upgrade his car, but he said, 'No, no. I am happy with my car.'"
Points out his sister Aya, "He preferred to be the giver – even if he has nothing, he gives.
"That afternoon, he had gone into his local pizza shop and given the owner a chocolate bar, and said, 'Thank you for making me a lovely pizza!' The next
day, he gave his life."
While Hussein wasn't a "devout" Muslim, in his final days, they quietly noticed his behaviour towards his faith had changed.
"Over his last four days, he had the Holy Quran in his hands all the time. That was not normal for him – maybe once a month, but not 24 hours. We didn't ask him though, we just observed," says Hazim.
"He did a lot of praying, praying, praying. Too much, we thought. But in hindsight, we now wonder if he had a feeling he was going to leave Earth.
"He just didn't know he was going to leave as a hero."

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