One year later, New Zealand mosque at­tacks al­ter many lives

Times-Herald (Vallejo) - - RELIGION - By Nick Perry

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 Al-Umari’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 AlU­mari 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 Peneha 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 Khanafer, a vas­cu­lar sur­geon, helped save the life of a 4-year-old girl who was shot at the Al Noor mosque.

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.”

PHOTO COUR­TESY OF AYA AL-UMARI

Al Noor mosque shoot­ing vic­tim, Hus­sein Al-Umari, with his sis­ter Aya Al-Umari, is held at the Emi­rates Palace by Aya in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emi­rates.

MARK BAKER — THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Aya Al-Umari, whose brother Hus­sein Al-Umari was killed in the Al Noor mosque shoot­ing, is seen at her home in Christchur­ch, New Zealand.

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