1 year later, New Zealand mosque attacks alter many lives
CHRISTCHURCH, New Zealand — 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.