Four years after Christchurch massacre, families want to teach world about love

Rosemary Omar, who lost her son Tariq in the Christchurch shooting, seen here with her younger son, Ashraf. Rosemary and her husband also have two adult daughters. Photograph: Carly Earl/The Guardian

Three mothers who lost sons in the terrorist attacks say working to prevent others suffering the same violence has both helped and frustrated them

by Charlotte Graham-McLay in WellingtonTue 14 Mar 2023

So many of their sons loved football. The game meant inclusion and friendship regardless of language or culture; it cemented bonds in their own community and promised a way to forge new ones outside of it. As Noraini Abbas readies team shirts and prepares lunches for an indoor football festival on Wednesday, she recalls years of ferrying her soccer-mad sons to games in Christchurch, New Zealand, on weekend mornings which always seemed freezing, no matter the time of year.

But Wednesday’s schedule of friendly matches is different from games before. Abbas is hosting the second annual event in memory of her youngest son, Sayyad Abbas Milne, and 50 other Muslim worshipers who were killed when a white supremacist opened fire at their mosques during Friday prayers, four years ago.

Sayyad – 14 when he died – was the youngest of five shining soccer stars murdered on 15 March 2019. Now their mothers are each, in different ways, working towards the same goal: curbing the hateful violence that was visited on their children before it can take children from other families. The work, they say, has frustrated and healed them.

Noraini Abbas, mother of Sayyad Abbas Milne, who was 14 when he was killed in the Christchurch terrorist attack. Abbas is hosting a football festival on Wednesday in honour of the 51 who died. Photograph: Carly Earl/The Guardian

“When we talk about getting help, people might get therapy or counselling,” says Abbas, who has started work since the attack as an outreach coordinator for Muslims at Purapura Whetu, a Christchurch-based social services provider. “The best help that I’ve had is getting to work with and for the community.”

The horror of the 2019 terrorist attack has been at times intensified, and at others muted, by the fact that it happened in New Zealand – a relatively quiet and peaceful country that was shaken by a rare mass shooting, but responded with compassion for the victims and rejection of the Australian gunman’s racist motivations.

Jacinda Ardern, then prime minister, was swift to ban all weapons used in the attack – but four years later, a coronial process investigating the deaths is in its early stages and many of the bereaved and survivors are still seeking catharsis and facts.

A plaque erected by Noraini Abbas and Lyttelton residents at Pony Point, near Christchurch, in memory of the victims of the mosque attacks. Photograph: Carly Earl/The Guardian

We want the wider community to get together … for people to really remember what they did for their Muslim neighbours

Noraini Abbas

The sense of limbo means the fourth anniversary is fraught and tinged with uncertainty. Some families asked the government to forgo any memorial service this year, while Abbas is part of another group of women who are hosting a week of unity-themed events – including her day of friendly futsal (a fast-paced, five a side version of indoor soccer) for 42 school children aged 10 to 14.

“The day isn’t about remembering that we lost our children because we remember our children all the time,” says Abbas, who survived the attack at Masjid an-Nur, the first mosque the terrorist struck, in a different room to her son. “We want the wider community to get together on the day, and for people to really remember what they did for their Muslim neighbours on 15 March 2019.”

Masjid an-Nur in Christchurch, where the attack began. Abbas survived the shooting in the mosque’s separate women’s prayer room. Photograph: Carly Earl/The Guardian

The attacks did not drastically alter New Zealand’s way of life; instead, the fallout continues to roil the community that was targeted, where many Muslims knew dozens of the men, women and children killed. Over time, a feeling has grown among some New Zealanders that neither the victims of the shooting, nor the terrorist bear any relationship to them.

“I almost feel like New Zealand has shut the door and they’re getting on with their lives, which I can understand,” says Rosemary Omar, the mother of Tariq Omar, who was 24 when he died. “But I want people to understand that this could happen to another community.”

Tariq – the second of four children – came home from school each day with pockets full of stones, and went on to complete a geology degree. The environmentalist and strict vegetarian was fastidious about his nutrition and training for football.

“There’d be about three or four games every Saturday,” Omar says. “They’d start at some ungodly hour and the day would just progress from one game to another.”

Rosemary Omar, who lost her son Tariq – a determined and particular young man, she said – in the attack. Weeks before he was killed, Tariq was harassed by skinheads outside the mosque. On the day he died, Tariq told his mother he planned to look overseas for work, worried that his name was preventing him from getting jobs. Photograph: Carly Earl/The Guardian

Tariq played in his club’s first eleven and the nine year-olds he coached won a tournament days before he died. An annual cup is held in his honour. He never learned to drive – Tariq was dyslexic and worried he would fail the written test – so his parents were a fixture at every match.

On the day her son was killed, Omar drove him, as she always did, to Masjid an-Nur and waited in the car while Tariq went inside to pray. Moments later, gunfire began.

Omar now works to help coordinate feedback and questions for the government from Muslims in Christchurch, about progress on a wide-ranging work programme it committed to after an inquiry into the attacks. Change is slow, she says, and it is sometimes difficult to get evidence from officials that movement is happening.

Tariq’s mother has left his bedroom untouched, drawers full of stones. His portrait sat on an empty chair at his older sister’s wedding, and Rosemary imagines him playing with her first grandchild, now aged two.

“It’s a joy to see there’s a future,” she says. “There’s sadness too, because Tariq would have been a great uncle and he would have bought Amira a football and been teaching her the moves.”

‘Show them love’

As a little boy, Tariq attended a Muslim kindergarten in Christchurch where the ripples of devastation from the attack are evident. Past students, as well as parents of pupils, were among those killed. One student, aged four, who attended prayers with her father, survived gunshot wounds.

A photo of Tariq Omar.
A photo of Tariq Omar. His football club, FC Twenty 11, holds an annual tournament in his memory. Photograph: Carly Earl/The Guardian

Maysoon Salama, who runs the kindergarten, was also nursing hurt; her husband was badly injured in the attack and her son, Atta Elayyan, 33 – a futsal goalkeeper for New Zealand’s national team – was killed. Her Muslim faith remains as strong as ever, she says. But much else is different.

“I wasn’t really into politics before,” says Salama, who has a doctorate in biology. “I was living my life, enjoying my family and my kids and doing my job as an educator.”

A photo of Tariq Omar. His football club, FC Twenty 11, holds an annual tournament in his memory. Photograph: Carly Earl/The Guardian

The apple of her eye was her eldest son Atta; who was beloved by the kindergarten pupils when he drove their van, who built his own software company, who played the shooting game Counter-Strike under the name “crazyarab”, who once scored a goal for his futsal team from his goalkeeper’s position.

“Even after he got married, he would come in every day and say, ‘What’s the plan, Mum?’ It still rings in my mind,” Salama says. She kept his school woodworking projects: a coat hanger; a spoon that says “kiss the chef.”

A soccer ball signed by Tariq’s friends that was given to Rosemary Omar after he was killed.
A soccer ball signed by Tariq’s friends that was given to Rosemary Omar after he was killed. Photograph: Carly Earl/The Guardian

Now, Salama sits on committees advising the government about their social cohesion efforts, particularly in the education sector, and about the needs of the bereaved and survivors. She has published a book – written for Atta’s daughter, who was two when he died – explaining grief and loss to children, which was distributed in New Zealand’s schools.

Last September, she spoke on a United Nations panel about the rights and needs of terrorism victims, alongside a mother bereaved in the 2011 massacre by a white supremacist in Norway. Both women listed similar concerns, years apart: insufficient mental health support, a lack of accountability, and the insidious global spread of racist online extremism that fuelled both crimes.

“It was a chance to reassure myself that my feelings and what I’m going through is legitimate, that I’m not exaggerating it and I’m not alone,” Salama says.

In Christchurch, she worries about intergenerational trauma in a small community where she knows everyone’s children.

Dr Maysoon Salama, whose son Atta Elayyan was killed and whose husband was injured in the attack, photographed at the An Nur daycare centre. She worries about intergenerational trauma in her community. Photograph: Alex Lovell-Smith/The Guardian

“Loss of confidence, loss of businesses, loss of work, physical issues that people are facing are really hard for families to handle on their own,” Salama says.

In February, New Zealand’s incoming prime minister, Chris Hipkins, announced a hate speech law proposed by Ardern after the attack – a lightning rod for political controversy – would be shelved and referred to an independent commission for advice.

It was disappointing for Salama, because, she adds: “Islamophobia is on the rise in New Zealand, definitely.”

For all their efforts to influence laws and policies, she, Omar and Abbas are all driven by something more simple.

Images of those who died during the terrorist attack. Fifty-one Muslim worshipers were killed in the shootings at two mosques.
Images of those who died during the terrorist attack. Fifty-one Muslim worshipers were killed in the shootings at two mosques. Photograph: Carly Earl/The Guardian

At the August 2020 sentencing for the terrorist, who was sentenced to life in prison without the chance of parole after pleading guilty to all charges (he has since sought leave to appeal), Noraini Abbas told the court she would “live my life doing great things for our people, our community.”

She kept her word. Abbas manages Christchurch’s first Muslim women’s volleyball team, which will play a Filipino women’s side this week. In the absence of an official public memorial after the attacks, Abbas gathered support from residents near Lyttelton’s Pony Point, a quiet spot overlooking the ocean, for something informal.

There, locals planted 51 trees – one for each person killed.

When the young futsal players assemble before her on Wednesday wearing yellow – Sayyad’s favourite colour – his mother knows what she wants to say.

“If someone does something bad to you, you show them love,” she will tell them. “This person hated us so much, but we want to teach people what love and kindness is.”



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