Real Life

One year on from the Christchurch shootings: ‘It takes a village – those affected still need love and care’

We spoke to those who've been deeply affected – some who lost loved ones and others who became accidental heroes.
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It’s a day that none of us will forget.

March 15, 2019 is etched into our collective memory as a date of pain, sorrow and loss that forever changed us as a nation.

Fifty-one worshippers lost their lives that day as they prayed after two Christchurch mosques were attacked by a gunman. A man awaits trial later this year and has pleaded not guilty to all charges.

A year on from the shootings, we spoke to those who’ve been deeply affected – some who lost loved ones and others who became accidental heroes.

We also asked three of our most prominent female leaders – Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern (39), Governor-General Dame Patsy Reddy (65) and Mayor of Christchurch Lianne Dalziel (59) to reflect on the anniversary of one of our very darkest days.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern: Let acts of kindness be the legacy of March 15

“As I write this, I can hardly believe we are one year on from the day our nation stood devastated, mourning the loss of 51 members of our Muslim community – 51 of us.

It feels like yesterday – and for many the loss will feel as great now as it was that day.

Things changed that day, and so we changed – and that included our laws. This has included banning the type of weapon used in the attack.

Globally, it has seen countries and companies sign up to the Christchurch Call – a pledge that seeks to eliminate terrorist and violent extremist content online to stop the internet being used as a tool for terrorists − but that is only part of the story.

That is what the government should and has done, but the kind of change I believe New Zealanders want won’t occur if it is just left to the government.

It needs to be done by all of us. Every person must take responsibility for not only their own words and actions but for challenging those of others.

The most important things are things that we are all empowered to do.

The main shift that we can achieve as a country will never be achieved by government or by laws. It will be achieved through the daily actions of all of us in calling out bullying and discrimination and by acting in a way that truly demonstrates inclusion.

When we do, we all benefit.

Last year we asked children what they most wanted us to do for them – they listed many things, but what stood out for me was that they wanted to be able to be themselves and be accepted for who they are.

This lies at the heart of the inclusion New Zealanders have spoken out about in the wake of March 15.

The fight against complacency must be ongoing. It would be too easy for the events of that terrible day to fade into history. That would be a disservice to the victims, the survivors and to every child who deserves to grow up in a country that welcomes, embraces and protects.

We must keep challenging ourselves to make sure the progress we have made endures.

A year ago, I said that we each hold the power, in our words and in our actions, in our daily acts of kindness. Let that be the legacy of the 15th of March.

One year on, I am repeating that call.”

A year on, what has changed?

(Credit: Getty Images)

We were a country united in grief in March last year, a sea of flowers carpeted Christchurch’s Memorial Wall, well-wishers streamed into mosques across Aotearoa and dug deep to donate millions for bereaved families facing an uncertain future without loved ones.

Determined to shower the Muslim community with kindness in the face of hatred, Kiwis rallied to show support in any way they could, led by our Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who declared they had “our love and our support because this is your home.”

But despite the warm and generous sentiments, a leading voice on the Islamic Women’s Council, Anjum Rahman, admits it’s difficult to see lasting change after alerting authorities of yet another terror threat against the Al Noor mosque just two weeks out from the first anniversary.

“I would say we are still not feeling particularly safe at the moment,” she tells the Weekly, shaken by the latest menacing online communication.

Worryingly, she reveals our Islamic community has been subject to a number of similar threats since 100 worshippers were left dead or injured at the Al Noor and Linwood mosques.

While applauding the crackdown on semi-automatic weapons along with the Christchurch Call to eliminate terrorist and violent extremist content online, Anjum (53) says there’s still a long way to go before the disturbing underlying racism that exists in our community is eliminated.

“There’s certainly a significant portion of the community who want to see change and have been doing what they can to bring people together, or to talk about how things might change.

“And then there is the darker side. There were a small number of people who felt emboldened and empowered by what happened to be more verbally and physically abusive. We have seen online threats and jokes, that are not jokes, about violence against Muslims or mosques.”

Anjum Rahman is a leading voice on the Islamic Women’s Council

Meanwhile, many families with relatives impacted by the attacks remain deeply affected and have faced a number of difficulties adjusting to their changed lives.

The fallout from the events of that day have been far-reaching, with at least one family-owned business forced to close and relationships breaking down.

“They’re still very much struggling with mental health issues and needing support,” Anjum tells.

“The community has rallied around and provided as much as they can, but even so I’m aware of one person that has had to shut down a family business because she couldn’t keep it going and there’s also been some separation of families as well. There’s still a lot of grief and trauma.”

She’s urging authorities to keep supporting victims’ families, especially when it comes to long-term mental health care; at least 30 women were left widowed while more than a dozen families have been left without a parent.

“It does take a village, and those kids that have been affected by this need a lot of love and care, not just from their own families but through the schools and communities.”

She says there is still a need for conversations and action in New Zealand to combat hate.

Since last year, Anjum has been working on a project called the Inclusive Aotearoa Collective, looking to develop a national strategy on belonging and inclusion.

“It’s just thinking about that wider conversation about how we combat hate. Online hate is a huge issue but it doesn’t exist separately to offline hate − both fuel each other − and what we need to do as a country is make sure hate doesn’t rise and spread, and that we have something that is strong and meaningful and resilient to ensure that our people are not pitted against each other.”

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The Muslim tradition of looking forward

While Anjum will attend civic memorial services in Auckland and Wellington to remember the 51 people who lost their lives, she says the Muslim tradition is to look forward, with loved ones’ deaths not normally acknowledged on a specific day.

“For our community, we don’t do anniversaries like this. We don’t have gravestones or marked graves, and we hold a funeral as immediately as possible after the death of a person and not wait for relatives to come from overseas.

“The ethos is that the memory of the person lives in your heart and you honour them by remembering them when you can.”

She says it ties into the Muslim belief that you can and should mourn and pray for a person who has died at any time and in any place.

Having a national memorial has proved divisive within the Islamic community, with some families impacted by the mosque attacks not wishing the day to be given any special recognition.

“There are some people of the view that it is not in accordance with our faith, and some of the victims’ families have expressed they don’t want an anniversary, so we’re keeping it away from mosques and doing our best to have any events be future-focused and not reliving the past and re-traumatising the victims.”

Lianne Dalziel, Mayor of Christchurch: We must all commit to being an inclusive city

“I will never forget March 15, 2019. Nor will I forget the 51 people whose lives were taken, those who were injured that day or those who witnessed the attacks or the immediate aftermath.

I will never forget where I was and what I was doing when the news started to filter through of the shootings at Al Noor and then Linwood mosques. I will never forget that feeling of disbelief – ‘No, it cannot be true’, that was my first thought.

A year on, it is still hard to believe such an atrocity happened here in New Zealand, let alone Christchurch. It left us shaken to our very core.

However, I will also never forget the way we all came together in the wake of the attacks. We stood side by side as one, offering our heartfelt support to our Muslim brothers and sisters, who were deliberately targeted on that day in their place of worship at their time of prayer.

The growing tribute wall became an international symbol of peace, unity and compassion. And the thousands of people who turned up to the Call to Prayer one week after the shootings sent a powerful message: ‘We’ve got your back.’

The strong leadership from our prime minister played an enormously important role in setting the tone and offering comfort to those who had lost so much.

Coupled with the powerful messages that came from our Muslim leaders, it has been our response that has defined us as a city and nation, not the act that was designed to divide us, and it is that response which has resonated across the world.

And the message was, this is how to respond to terrorism − not with retribution, but with generosity of mind and spirit, as we build bridges between people from different back-grounds, across cities and across the world.

That message is just as relevant today as it was a year ago.

Christchurch Mayor Lianne Dalziel speaks to media outside the hospital in Christchurch

(Credit: Getty Images)

But what kind of bridge do we build for those who were treated badly as they were growing up just because of their skin colour?

I grew up in Christchurch, yet I didn’t know just how differently to me kids were being treated. We need to talk about it, because that bridge needs to be one of reconciliation.

And what kind of bridge can we build to reach those who seek refuge in the darkness of the internet? How do we reach those who feel they are superior to others and who are willing to do anything − without humanity or remorse − because they have been brainwashed into believing ‘others’ have taken what is rightfully theirs?

How do people even become like this? What sort of society lets people become so weak that anyone could fill their head with such hate-fuelled lies?

The Christchurch Call, which was designed to address the issue of terrorist and violent extremist content online and to prevent the abuse of the internet as occurred in and after the Christchurch attacks, actually speaks first about the importance of strengthening the resilience and inclusiveness of societies and reducing inequality.

This was one of the goals of the Christchurch Multicultural Strategy Te Rautaki Mātāwaka Rau : Our Future Together, which we released in 2017.

The events of March 15, 2019 highlighted just how blind we had been to the reality that an act of terrorism could happen here. As a result, we have recommitted ourselves to be an inclusive city that values the true worth of diversity.

For that to happen, everyone needs to contribute as generously as was the case in the wake of the shootings, but this time with generosity

of spirit as we strive to build understanding across the different communities that call Ōtautahi, Christchurch home – the place we all belong.

And that would be an enduring legacy to honour those who were taken from us on March 15, 2019 and how we responded as a city and as a nation.”

How Naima and Jacinda’s hug still gives hope now

It remains one of the most enduring images in the days following the deadly mosque attacks − Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern consoling a young mum of three at a Wellington mosque.

The beautiful picture captured the powerfully symbolic moment of a leader reassuring those in a community targeted by racism and violence that their country was standing alongside, holding them at such a terrible time.

As a show of thanks, and on behalf of the world’s estimated 1.5 billion Muslims, United Arab Emirates Prime Minister, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, projected the iconic photo onto the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa, commending Jacinda for her “sincere empathy and support”.

Nearly 12 months on, Naima, who shared the international spotlight with our leader, says the gentle response remains a powerful display of humanity.

“It came out of a tragedy and it shows that sometimes you have to handle things not as a leader but as a person.

“She could have just had a press conference somewhere and said, ‘I’m sorry for the victims’ and left it there, but it [the situation] was at a personal level where you had to come down to the community and grieve with them.”

The 32-year-old says in the face of the horror and loss it showed the world there could be a different answer to violence − a community coming together.

“It gave the world a new meaning. People are just the same, regardless of religion and background, or identity that we might put on each other. That message went through and now people view New Zealand differently.”

She says on a recent trip to Nairobi she was greeted by strangers who commented on how amazing New Zealand was based on that remarkable response.

The Geneva Health caregiver and support worker, who plans to train as a nurse in the coming years, will mark March 15 by attending an event organised by the Federation of Islamic Associations of New Zealand and the Wellington City Council in Wellington.

She knows the dark stain of the deadly events of that day cannot be undone, but hopes the way that communities have handled the tragedy will serve as a guide for other countries facing troubled times.

Concludes Naima, “It will stay with us forever. It’s a grim reminder that it’s going to be there engraved in our history, but it’s been a learning curve for the rest of the world that it doesn’t have to be like that.”

The silver lining that keeps Jill Keats going

Jill Keats has only one word to sum up the past year: Surreal.

The 67-year-old became an unwitting hero as the March 15 attacks unfolded. Caught up in the chaos, she rushed to help several of the wounded, including father-of-two Abbas Tahir, who was shot as he fled the Al Noor mosque and asked Jill to call his pregnant wife, Zeynia Endrise.

Twelve months on and Jill says she relives the horror on an almost daily basis.

“It is with me all the time,” she tells.

“I still see Abbas’ face, the look of terror. If I had seen him again in the street afterwards I wouldn’t have known him, but the sheer look of terror on his face, it is imprinted in my brain.”

Zeynia’s sister Nurit Endris, Jill, little Rayaan, Abbas and Zeynia holding baby Ridwaan all have a lifelong connection now.

Jill isn’t considered an official “victim” of the tragedy – she wasn’t physically injured, her car, which was used to shelter Abbas, wasn’t hit by bullets – yet the trauma has left her with ongoing anxiety.

“Christchurch was still getting over the earthquakes, then we find ourselves confronted by this terrifying situation. The city had already been extremely traumatised and then to have this thrown at us…

“I still think about it a lot – the initial three shots that I heard that I thought were firecrackers, then when the men from the mosque were running towards me… I go over it all.”

She saw an ACC-funded counsellor for the first time a week ago but feels let down by others, “Like what I did counted for nothing.

“Because it’s a mental injury and you can’t see it, I sometimes feel people think I’m playing on it. Well, they should go through what I did and see how they cope. I was caught up in something I had no control over, but it feels as though what happened to me doesn’t matter. Yes, I would do it again, tomorrow, in a heartbeat, but to not be acknowledged hurts.”

However, Jill also notes there has been a silver lining amongst all the darkness.

The one good thing to come out of all of this is my friendship with Abbas and Zeynia. We shared something that day, we shared a moment of fear, and that is something we can never get away from. We’ve got a lifelong connection now.”

Governor-General Dame Patsy Reddy: Honour those we lost by showing care, respect and compassion for others

“March 15, 2019 is a day New Zealanders will never forget. We will always remember where we were and what we were doing at the moment we first heard the unbelievable news of a mass shooting in Christchurch.

I was in Auckland. I had visited Polyfest, the world’s biggest Pacific Islands Dance Festival in Manukau that morning. When I was told

of the events unfolding in Christchurch, I was meeting with the founder and staff of the charity KidsCan at their Auckland headquarters.

Like other New Zealanders, I was shocked to my core as further details of the atrocity emerged. Everything came to a standstill as we tried to grasp what was happening and what might happen next.

I found it impossible to comprehend that here in Aotearoa New Zealand, people could be brutally gunned down at their place of prayer, leaving 51 men, women and children killed, and 40 grievously wounded.

There were heart-rending accounts of grief and loss, as well as stories of remarkable courage. New Zealanders shed tears for the innocent people who lost their lives, for the wounded and bereaved.

In the days ahead, we heard how bystanders, first responders and medical professionals grappled with injuries not normally seen outside of war zones.

We received a lesson in grace and fortitude from grieving Muslim communities across New Zealand.

Thousands of us gathered in towns and cities to hold vigils. I spoke at the Basin Reserve gathering in Wellington, talking to worshippers and mourners at the Kilbirnie Mosque.

In Christchurch, I joined the silent throngs of people placing tributes and flowers along the boundary of Hagley Park, and was privileged to speak at the National Service of Remembrance, which became a powerful expression of the healing power of words and music.

In the world’s media, Christchurch had suddenly become a byword for right-wing terrorism. We challenged that perception by choosing to focus on the victims, rather than the perpetrator.

As citizens from our diverse communities told their stories in the days and weeks that followed, we were confronted with the ugly reality of racism in Aotearoa New Zealand.

There was new resolve to do better and challenge racist assumptions and statements, because such thinking encourages harmful behaviour and acts of violence.

In the year before the attack, I had visited the Canterbury Refugee Resettlement and Resource Centre, and met members of the diverse Muslim community in Christchurch.

For many of these people, New Zealand represented a haven from conflict, violence and persecution.

I was made to feel so welcome and saw how optimistic they were about their future lives here. It was heart-breaking to think that just a few months later, the dreams and aspirations of many of those brave people were shattered.

On the 15th of March, I will join fellow New Zealanders in Hagley Park to mark the first anniversary of the attacks. We will acknowledge the burden of grief, suffering and loss experienced by our Muslim brothers and sisters.

In the years ahead, the best way we can honour the memory of those who died is to confront racism and discrimination in all its forms, whenever and wherever we see it.

We must extend respect, care and compassion to each other, no matter where we are from, no matter what our background is, no matter what our gender or sexual orientation might be.

He hau matao ka tokia te kiri

Ma te arohanui, ka ora ano.

(A cold wind chills us, love and goodwill restores us.)”

Wasseim Alsati doesn’t feel Christchurch is safe for his children

Wasseim Alsati brought his family to New Zealand from Jordan for a better life.

But just six years on, and days before the first anniversary of the event that upended his world in the most horrific way, Wasseim has fled the city he called home for at least the next few months.

Right now, he says, Christchurch doesn’t feel safe for his children.

Wasseim suffered multiple gunshot wounds in the shooting at Al Noor mosque. In reports from that time, he recalled throwing himself between the footpath and a car for protection, laying his head on the ground and pretending to be dead.

Strangers bravely rushed to help Wasseim, who was transferred to Auckland for treatment. The father of four underwent surgery to remove shrapnel and bone from his hip socket, and was operated on for a perforated bowel and an injury to his pelvis. He still has shrapnel in his body and continues to have trouble walking.

As a barber, Wasseim worked at Revive Hair-dressing in Christchurch, picking up several awards, before setting up his own business.

His dream was to run a mobile barber shop – just two days before the shootings a Facebook post shows him proudly talking about his new project.

With support from the barbering community, he did get the van up and running − in December for a few weeks – but stress, ongoing pain and a lack of an income have taken their toll.

Wasseim is an award-winning barber who hopes to one day run his dream business again.

The looming anniversary has also triggered too many memories.

“I don’t want to celebrate March 15. It’s not a celebration, I don’t want to stay here, I don’t trust the police to protect us.

“I have to come back for the trial but hopefully we will get no more threats. It’s too stressful, [I’m] too scared and I can’t risk it. I don’t want any of my children to get hurt.”

Needing ongoing medical treatment, Wasseim – who still has lead poisoning − had planned to take his family to Germany, but the cost proved prohibitive. They have since made appointments with doctors in Turkey.

“We have gone through a lot, have been contacted by the media − they want to make it look the best and that we’ve recovered very well. But you can look at someone and [just because] he’s not bleeding doesn’t mean he’s not in pain, or that he’s not hurt. I can’t stand the pain that I’m going through.”

He says over the past year reduced ACC payments of $560 a week only covered their rent, and he has even been forced to borrow money.

He’s hoping to keep the mobile barber shop for when he eventually returns – “[for] my rehabilitation rather than an income” – and would look at getting it up and running once more.

Wasseim says he is immensely grateful for all the help the family has had, however his life had become extremely complicated.

“I don’t want to lose my marriage. I want to stay, but I have had lots of problems and right now there are just too many things going on.”

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