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Christchurch mosque attacks: Donna’s story

Christchurch mosque attacks: Donna’s story

In May 2019, Donna Miles-Mojab spoke to MiNDFOOD about the Christchurch mosque tragedy. The Iranian-Kiwi writer and Christchurch resident was visiting family in the US when she heard news of the terrorist attack. She reflects on the impact of the attack on her beloved adopted homeland and on her fellow Muslims.

Christchurch mosque attacks: Donna’s story

WORDS BY DONNA MILES-MOJAB

The minister addressed his congregation: “We are standing on holy ground to acknowledge that every life is a sacred gift, on holy ground we dare let loss stir our souls, we dare let the image of 50 empty prayer mats begin to whisper to our hearts the enormity of loss. We dare this because to become callous to such evil is to lose our very souls. We do this because in grief we are not alone. We are on this journey together. The poet wrote: grief can be the garden of compassion. If you keep your heart open though everything, your pain can become your greatest ally … through love the devil becomes an angel.”

The words spoken by Reverend Floyd McKeithen, a United Methodist minister, filled the King Fahad mosque in Culver City, California, with moving echoes of “Allah o Akbar” [God is great].

I am visiting family in the US and seeing such a tender display of compassion for my country in a land supposedly filled with division and hatred reduced me to tears.

The city’s vice mayor, a representative from the local synagogue and the head of the local education board also offered beautiful and moving words.

I attended the mosque for the Friday Prayer with my American- Iranian cousins who organised the visit, found me a scarf to wear, and drove me to the mosque so that I could experience the love and support for my wounded country.

“We have to follow New Zealand’s lead and show solidarity with the Muslim community,” sisters Mahtab and Mozhgan Mojab told me.

I wasn’t the only Kiwi at the mosque. Sam Vanderkolk from Palmerston North was there too. He said the full force of his emotional response came when he saw his country’s reaction to the event. He told me he attended the Friday Prayer at the mosque because he wanted to “share some love, to share some support”. “It is not for the Muslim community to come forward, it is our time to step up,” Sam added.

We shared our experience of hearing the news while being overseas. “There is something about experiencing pain at a distance”, Sam said. He is right. Ever since the attack, the mere mention of New Zealand by anyone makes me feel emotional. New Zealand – my pure and beautiful adopted country has been violated by a cruel act of hate.

My sadness is deep. I know how Muslim mothers grieve. In my mind’s eyes, I see their wailing and their uncontrollable sobs. I cannot help it. It is the mother in me that feels their pain. My eyes well up with tears as I read a grief-stricken mother of one of the victims has died of a heart attack before her son’s funeral. Sorrow literally broke her wounded heart.

But all this pain is not in vain. Sam was sure that the mosque terrorist attacks in New Zealand and his resultant experience of attending the Friday Prayer would have “some sort of life effect” on him.

Many Kiwis feel the same. Our much-revered Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, who has shown the world a human side to political leadership, echoed the same sentiment. “We are all forever changed,” she said.

The messages that have flooded my phone since the attack reflect this change. A friend, who not long ago shared an Islamophobic post on her Facebook page, messaged me to say she visited her local mosque for the first time – “it was grieving that sent me”, she wrote.

Every email, every text, every phone call is ladened with love and support. A yoga studio owner rang me to say they would be happy to offer their “beautiful and peaceful” studio spaces between classes should some Muslims feel fearful to return to their mosques or if extra prayer spaces were needed.

Another American-Iranian I met at a gathering said he had never stepped foot inside a mosque but was determined to travel to Christchurch and attend the Al Noor mosque on the anniversary of the terrorist attack.

“I will be there in Christchurch on the 15th of March,” he told me assuredly. The outpouring of love and support for the Muslim community in New Zealand has been truly heartwarming. People are going beyond the usual expressions of sympathy through flowers, messages and vigils – they are reaching out to Muslims.

For years, the Muslim community has struggled against the Islamophobia industry that has demonised their religion and stigmatised their people.

Now, with a cruel twist of fate, a barbaric act of terrorism, meant to spread further hatred and division, has shone a positive light on Muslims who continue to suffer from alienation and dehumanisation all around the world.

The Christchurch mosque attack, in a matter of days, changed many hearts and minds. There is an overwhelming willingness for people in New Zealand and people around the world to listen to Muslims.

The Vice Mayor of Culver City in California, Meghan Sahli-Wells, told me she felt, as a local leader, it was important for her to show solidarity with the Muslim community because in her country “the hateful rhetoric from highest offices” made hate “very banal” and violence “something all too acceptable”.

The New Zealand Prime Minister’s genuine display of humanity has set a great example for the rest of the world.

There is even talk of her nomination for the Noble Peace prize. When asked about her leadership and response to the Christchurch terrorist attack, Ardern said she felt she was merely echoing what most New Zealanders were feeling and wanted to happen.

For that reason, I would like the people of my adopted country, New Zealand, to be nominated for the Noble Peace Prize. They are the ones who have shown us how to overcome hate with radical love.

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