Monday, January 24

“I’ll Never Ever Forget”: Christchurch Mosque Sister, Victim of Pain and Acceptance | New Zealand

A few months after the attacks on the Christchurch mosque, Aya Al-Umari went on a pilgrimage to Mecca, and from there to Abu Dhabi, where she and her brother Hussein grew up.

The trip was an important step in accepting the death of his brother, he says. “I wanted to go down the path of memories of our childhood.”

He went to the pool they swam in, the alleys they played in, and the last apartment they lived in, which has “sweet home” written across the doorway. “I knew I couldn’t just walk in or I was too shy to ask, but I just wanted to see the door,” she says.

While traveling she took photos of herself and a photo of her brother that she took with her, comforted to feel his presence in the familiar places of her childhood.

Aya holds a photo of herself and her brother Hussein in front of the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi
Aya holds a photo of herself and her brother Hussein in front of the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi Photography: Aya Al-Umari

Aya’s family is originally from Iraq. His parents left for the United Arab Emirates when the Iran-Iraq war broke out in 1980, before civil defense sirens sounded and the first missiles hit border cities. Hussein and Aya were born in Abu Dhabi, Hussein arrived in 1984 and Aya two years later.

In 1997, the family arrived in New Zealand, a country far from the ravages of war and known for its tranquility. “If Hussein were killed in Iraq,” says Aya, “no one would have cared that much, because thousands of people die there every year.”

On the afternoon of March 15, 2019, Aya was in her office, unaware of what was unfolding on the other side of town. She then began receiving messages from her mother, asking her to contact Hussein. She frantically called him, only to be directed to her voicemail. “He was in conflict about where to go, to his house or the mosque,” Aya says, “or if it was all real.”

Meanwhile, the city had turned into a war zone and there were police everywhere.

Aya and Hussein at a party in Christchurch.
Aya and Hussein at a party in Christchurch. Photography: Ces Photography cecilio Barra Iii / Aya Al-Umari

Aya somehow managed to get to her brother’s house, but there was no sign of him. “I was thinking he’s not home, which means he’s in the hospital.” The family was forced to live in a state of limbo for six long days before the police finally asked the family to identify Hussein’s body. He was the last victim to be identified.

Despite the fact that it took the family almost a week to obtain confirmation of his death, “We started crying the next day. [the attack]”Says Aya.

Police warned the family that they might be surprised to see his body, but Aya believes that “Hussein was at peace,” the main characteristic of a Shaheed, an Islamic term used to refer to those believed to have been killed for their faith. .

In the aftermath of the attack there was a great deal of support for the victims and their families. A woman delivered homemade soup to Aya and her family every day for several weeks. “It was a small gesture, but it meant a lot to us,” Aya says.

Flowers outside the Al Noor Mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand, in the days after the March 15, 2019 shooting
Flowers outside the Al Noor Mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand, in the days after the March 15, 2019 shooting Photograph: Jorge Silva / Reuters

The flower wall next to the Al Noor Mosque became a symbol of New Zealanders’ condemnation of the horrible crime and their support for the Muslim community. Two years later, travelers still stop at 101 Deans Avenue to place flowers by the entrance to the mosque.

This is not to say that hatred of immigrants has miraculously disappeared. Aya and her mother were recently subjected to a racist spiel in a Waimakariri shopping center, after a stranger overheard them speak Arabic. “As we try to spread his racial tirade towards us by telling him that we lost our brother in the terrorist attack, it is sad that it happened in the first place. It was important for me to mention it, ”says Aya.

During Brenton Tarrant’s sentencing in August, Hussein’s mother forgave him for the murder of her son. “I decided to forgive you Mr. Tarrant because I have no hatred. I have no revenge … He hurt himself, and Hussein will never be here, so I only have one choice and [that is] to forgive you, ”Janna Ezat told the court.

Aya described the devastating scenes she had witnessed at the Christchurch hospital: “I will never forget the harrowing scenes of people covered in blood and the crying of children crying. These sights and sounds will remain in my mind forever, ”he said.

Aya Al-Umari, photographed overlooking the city of Christchurch.  His brother, Hussein Al-Umari, 35, was killed at the Al Noor Mosque in Christchurch on March 15, 2019. Photo: Peter Meecham for The Guardian.
Aya Al-Umari, photographed overlooking the city of Christchurch, New Zealand Photograph: Peter Meecham / The Guardian

Immediately after the attack, video broadcast live by the shooter was circulating online. Initially, Aya was unable to locate her brother in it, but heard him yelling “Out, out” in Arabic. This was later confirmed by eyewitness accounts.

Internal CCTV footage was later reviewed by police and said Hussein had also gestured towards the terrorist with raised palms. It is not possible to know what was going on inside Hussein’s head, but his family believe he acted heroically at the time, trying to position himself to face the shooter. “My family knew that Hussein would not run away,” says Aya.

A photo taken on Hussein's birthday.  Aya and Hussein's mother can be seen preparing food in the background.
A photo taken on Hussein’s birthday. Aya and Hussein’s mother, Janna Ezat, can be seen preparing food in the background. Photography: Aya Al-Umari

Aya and Hussein’s relationship was like most siblings, but Aya appreciates every moment she spent with her brother. “During all these years, Hussein hugged me every time he came to our house or I went to his. He always hugged me. ”Their birthdays were only one day apart and the couple always celebrated together.

Since the 2019 attacks, Aya has volunteered as a security guard at the Al Noor Mosque. She does that, Aya says, “to live Hussein’s legacy and honor what he has done.”

Towards the end of the interview, Aya says that her family will be moving to Auckland soon. Can you no longer tolerate the city of Christchurch and the painful memories it holds? “No, that is not the case at all. We will not escape. This is just one step forward. “

  • This article was translated by Mohsen Kafi, PhD Researcher in Literary Translation Studies at Victoria University of Wellington. A practicing translator and community interpreter, Mohsen was one of the simultaneous Farsi interpreters at the Christchurch mosque shooter’s sentencing hearing in August 2020.

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