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As the first anniversary of mass shootings at two mosques in Christchurch approaches, survivors and other members of the city’s Muslim community face isolation and economic hardship. By Elle Marsh.

Life after the Christchurch shootings

Sheikh Hasan Rubel with his wife, Afsana Anjuman, and their daughters Mahreen and Arveen.
Credit: Elle Marsh

A few months after last year’s Christchurch mosque shootings, Raf Manji was asked to recommend how the newly formed Christchurch Foundation should distribute the $12 million donated in the wake of the terror attack.   

The shootings were unprecedented in New Zealand: 51 people killed, and 49 others injured. Thirty-five people were widowed. There was no recovery road map. And so Manji, an adviser to the foundation and former Christchurch city councillor, looked abroad and decided to launch a “listening project”, mirroring the approach taken after the 2017 Grenfell Tower fire in London. The months that followed were “relentless”, Manji says. He met with more than a hundred victims, listened to their stories and asked them what they needed.

“It quickly became clear to me that this was not under control,” he says.

Manji went door to door, meeting victims in their homes. Some of the Christchurch widows told him he was the first person they had spoken to.

“A lot of them hadn’t even gone out of the house,” he says. “A lot of them didn’t have English. They didn’t have access to bank accounts. I mean, it was almost like a shutdown. They were just coming out of that and saying, ‘No one has actually talked to us.’ ”

Most of the people killed and injured during Brenton Tarrant’s alleged 15-minute attack on the Al Noor and Linwood mosques were men. Tarrant had targeted both mosques’ main halls, where men were praying without women. Many families were left without a breadwinner. Some were recent migrants caring for children without a support network in New Zealand. Some still do not have access to social services.

New Zealand’s Victim Support non-government agency estimates it has supported 1203 people since the attacks, but there is concern the outpouring of assistance and solidarity is trailing off.

“The first couple of weeks is nice, all the hugs and support, that sets the tone, and that’s really important,” says Raf Manji. “But, actually, it’s what happens when you go back in two years and someone’s living in a car because they’re homeless.”

 

Noor Hamid lost her uncle, Amjad, at the Al Noor Mosque. After he was killed, Hamid says, she didn’t want to leave the house. “It’s just like this huge amount of sadness that comes through,” she says. For a time, she went to Auckland just to get away.

Hamid, a lawyer, gave up her job to help out at the family’s food store, Mefco, which Amjad had owned with Hamid’s father, Ayman. The small supermarket, about 10 minutes from the Al Noor Mosque, had for years sold halal meat, baklava and freshly baked Lebanese bread to the small Arab community in Christchurch.

When we spoke, Hamid had just returned from the store, where she had been showing liquidators how to dismantle their baking equipment. After months of low sales and a rent rise, Mefco was forced to permanently close its doors.

Before the attack, Hamid says, the store would bake bread, quickly sell out and have to face angry customers. After March 15, 2019, demand dropped off almost completely. The bread would go off on the shelf, she says, and she would have to give it to people to feed their animals. Regulars stopped coming in.

Hamid says families she knew had to make drastic changes to the way they were living. After the attacks, many were subsisting on welfare benefits and savings. According to the New Zealand Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, 22 local businesses were directly affected by the fallout of the shootings.

“The men are the breadwinners of the family. To have them go, I think it does affect how people live their lives day to day,” Hamid says. “I think every family goes through that if they lose somebody who is so important to the economic livelihood of a family … The difference here is like the scale of what happened.”

Hamid began to notice her neighbours weren’t venturing out of their homes. “You know, falling into a bit of a depression over it,” she says.

There’s been a splintering of the community in Christchurch. Sheikh Hasan Rubel, who was shot three times at the Al Noor Mosque, says some of his friends moved away after the attacks. “Some who said, ‘No, Christchurch is not for me.’ ” People were scared it would happen again. Victim Support estimates between 40 and 50 victims have moved away since the attacks.

Rubel says people encouraged him to leave, too. But the 34-year-old and his wife, Afsana Anjuman, never considered it. What happened on March 15 was an “individual event”, they say. “It could happen anywhere.”

Still on crutches, Rubel is about to undergo his sixth operation. When he returns to the mosque, a place central to his identity, the bad memories sometimes flood back.

“I can see where I was lying, where other people were lying, where even the ambulance came and they carried me out,” he says. “And I can see lots of dead bodies.”

 

Muhammad Sahadat had been living in Christchurch for only a few months when he was shot two times at Linwood mosque. He had moved to the city to work as a chef. He says that back in India he used to watch videos of New Zealand on YouTube. “So green and peaceful,” he says. “And the ice!”

After the shooting, Sahadat permanently lost the use of his right arm. He cannot return to work and lives with chronic pain. Shrapnel from the bullets is slowly poisoning him and his blood toxicity has to be regularly monitored.

In the midst of all this, Sahadat and his wife have struggled with day-to-day things – paying rent, getting their kids to school. The family needs support with housing, visas, transport and English translation services.

“We are struggling…” he says. “We are facing problems. How to handle? I don’t know.”

The New Zealand government granted permanent residency to the victims of the Christchurch shooting – but not to all of their family members, just those who were living in New Zealand on March 15, 2019. In Sahadat’s case, his wife and four children were still in India then, which means they didn’t qualify.

The family’s precarious visa situation has made accessing the services they need difficult. “Especially the housing, we are facing problems,” says Sahadat. To be eligible for social housing in New Zealand you need to be a permanent resident for two years. The family has had to move twice since the attack but are hoping for something more permanent.

 

Raf Manji says his main concern is what will happen to the community in the year to come. He recommended the Christchurch Foundation set up a $7 million fund for victims and use the rest of the money for ongoing support. But trigger points abound – the final report of the government’s Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Attack on Christchurch Mosques is set to be released at the end of April, and the trial of the gunman is due to begin in June. Next weekend marks the first anniversary of the shootings.

On Monday, police in Christchurch began investigations after a threat was issued against Al Noor. The anonymous post included a photo of a masked man sitting in a car outside the mosque. Anjum Rahman of New Zealand’s Islamic Women’s Council told Radio New Zealand it was the fourth threat she was aware of since the attacks last March.

Sheikh Hasan Rubel is now seeing a psychologist, who is helping him overcome his fears and flashbacks from the mosque shooting. These thoughts, he says, are not a part of him.

Instead, he and his wife try to focus on what happened after the shootings – “the positive impact. People’s love reaction.” He says he was overwhelmed with the love and support he received – from his neighbours, his workplace, people he had never met. He believes the community is stronger and closer now. “I have so many help and love from people.”

Likewise, Noor Hamid calls herself “a perverse optimist”. She says she didn’t expect so much support from the wider community. “One of the better things that came out of this is that people have a lot more of an understanding of what it means to be like Muslim, what it means to be like an immigrant.”

The attack made her reassess what she wanted to do with her life. With the family business now closed, she’s gone back to the law but says she’s no longer interested in corporate law. She’s returned to work for criminal prosecution.

“Out of every tragedy … you can use it to make your life better because it gives you a realisation of how short it is,” she says.

The grief still hits her, though, often in unexpected moments. She says that when she heard about the shisha bar shooting in Germany a few weeks ago, she broke down. “It just makes you go to pieces,” she says. “And it doesn’t really matter if it’s a school shooting in America or the hookah bar that happened in Germany. How can [someone] do that?”

 

Reporting on this story was supported by a grant from the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.

7am is publishing a three-part special on Christchurch from Tuesday, available where you get your podcasts.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 7, 2020 as "After Christchurch".

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Elle Marsh
is a features and field producer at 7am, a daily podcast from The Saturday Paper.

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