CHRISTCHURCH – Fifty-one people were killed and dozens more injured when a lone gunman attacked two mosques in Christchurch last year. New Zealanders will commemorate those who died on the anniversary of the mass killing Sunday. Three people whose lives were forever altered that day say it has prompted changes in their career aspirations, living situations and in the way that others perceive them.
Aya’s older brother Hussein, 35, was killed in the attack at the Al Noor mosque
When she first heard there had been a shooting at the mosque, Aya Al-Umari rushed to her brother’s house and then to the Christchurch Hospital, hoping to find out something, anything, about him. She was confronted with an overwhelming scene. Children were crying. Adults were covered with blood. Nothing was comprehensible. She spotted a policewoman, who calmed her down, told her to go home and promised to update her hourly.
The kindness of that officer and other officers has inspired Al-Umari to consider a career change. Currently a credit analyst at a bank, she hopes to join the police force and work on financial crimes.
“I think, going through this, it really shifts your perspective in life. And by life, it’s everything from A to Z,” she says. “So from family time, going about your day, to career. All of these have shifted.”
These days, she is learning self-defense techniques through martial arts courses and says no matter how busy she finds herself, she always makes sure to spend time with her parents. And she never stops thinking about Hussein, who was her only sibling.
She carries a photo of the two of them and takes selfies of it when she visits different places around the world, like when she completed the hajj pilgrimage in August. She was one of 200 survivors and relatives from the Christchurch attacks who traveled to Saudi Arabia as guests of King Salman.
“Every day I feel like Hussein is with me,” she says. “Any decisions that I make, I just think about, OK, what would Hussein do in this situation?'' Every time that I visit him in the cemetery, he’s definitely there.”
Al-Umari, 34, has also been reflecting on the casual racism she experienced in New Zealand growing up. She first noticed it after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the U.S.
“I remember at school I would feel like I was the one being blamed for what’s happened,” she says. “The Muslims were being tainted by one brush.”
She was later teased by her friends, called names. Now she thinks that’s how it all starts — a little joke, a comment that doesn’t get challenged.
“I feel I was also responsible in that I did not stand up for myself,” she says. “I would laugh it off, whereas the right thing to do would have been like, ‘It’s not funny. How would you feel if I said the same things to you?’”
Al-Umari is steeling herself for the June trial of the man accused of the shooting, 29-year-old Australian white supremacist Brenton Tarrant. He has been charged with terrorism, murder and attempted murder and faces life imprisonment if found guilty.
Al-Umari remembers the first time she saw him in court, where he appeared via video-link from his maximum-security jail cell.
“It felt like my organs had just dropped to the floor,” she says.
She’s been trying to heal her spirit and keep the memory of Hussein alive by writing about her experiences online, by overcoming prejudice with compassion.
“Words can be powerful. Words can be destructive,” she says. “But they can also be very restorative as well.”
Len lived next door to the Al Noor mosque and helped some worshipers escape
On March 15 last year, Len Peneha had driven home to pick up his daughter Jasmine when he noticed a man maneuvering a car at the end of their long driveway and then carry something into the mosque.
“We started hearing these noises. Bang, bang, bang, bang, bang,” he says.
He wondered if it was construction scaffolding falling over. But then people began running everywhere, and Peneha figured out what was happening. He and his daughter ran inside. Jasmine called the police and Peneha came back out and helped people climb over the mosque’s back fence and hide in his apartment as the shooter continued his massacre.
The images from that day will never leave Peneha, 54. He saw the gunman shoot a woman at point-blank range at the end of the driveway, and then drive over her body. After the gunman left, Peneha went to the mosque to help and saw bodies strewn in the foyer.
“I struggled sleeping for months after that. My brain was still on high alert,” he says.
At night he would hear the slightest noise from down the street or the words from a conversation in another building. Every time he drove down his driveway he would see the image of the woman’s body lying across it. He had frequent panic attacks and sought counseling.
“The sadness that it brought affected me quite a lot. And it still does today,” he says.
After months of anxiety, Peneha decided he needed to move away from the area, and he found a new apartment. Shifting has helped calm his mind, he says, although he still has days when he feels down and moments when he struggles.
Three of the people he helped escape that day have since come back to say thanks. They credit Peneha with saving their lives.
“To be honest, in my mind, they saved themselves first, by actually getting out of there alive,” Peneha says. “I helped them climb over the fence, and I sheltered them and stopped them from doing anything stupid to get themselves killed. And maybe, in that respect, I did help save their lives.”
Peneha says the gunman seems to think he’s superior to other people, and that’s not the way the world should work. Peneha admires the sentiments from some the survivors of the Al Noor shooting, including Farid Ahmed, who has said he forgives the attacker.
“I can’t forgive him, like Farid has and the Muslim community has,” Peneha says. “I don’t find I have any compassion for him at all. What he did was abhorrent. Callous.”
Adib, a vascular surgeon, helped save the life of a 4-year-old girl who was shot at the Al Noor mosque
Adib Khanafer didn’t know anything about the mosque attacks when he was urgently called to the operating theater at the Christchurch Hospital to work on 4-year-old Alen Alsati.
“They said there’s a major bleed, so I scrubbed in,” he says. “It was very emotional at the beginning to see such horrific injuries. I did what I’m best at doing: repairing vessels.”
The girl spent weeks at an Auckland children’s hospital recovering. About seven months after the attacks, Khanafer was invited by the family to join them for an authentic Palestinian dinner. He says Alen was vibrant and was even teasing his own daughter.
“I don’t have any concern about Alen. I think she’s going to be a good, tough girl,” he says. “I told her that you need to be a surgeon, and she said, ‘No, I want to be a policewoman.’ And I said ‘OK, that’s disappointing, but we’ll work on it, we’ll work on it.’”
He says Alen has started school and he’s confident she’ll fully recover.
Khanafer, 52, says he’s noticed a change in how people treat him and his wife, who are both Muslim. Before the attacks, he says, many people in Christchurch didn’t know much about Islam or the Muslim culture and were sometimes guarded around the couple. He says many people have since taken the time to read and inform themselves, and he’s noticed some big changes.
“People now understand there’s a different culture, there’s a different religion, there’s a different behavior,” he says. “So definitely, we’ve seen more acceptance. Particularly to people like my wife, who wears the Islamic hijab.”
He says bullet wounds can do serious damage to soft tissue and nerves, and some of the dozens who were injured in the attacks will take a long time to heal. Some may never be able to play sports with their kids or return to the way they were. But he says there are also stories of remarkable recoveries.
“The human body is a pretty good machine,” he says. “Only time will tell.”