On Friday afternoon, March 15, Zhiyan Basharati was at her brother’s bedside on the 15th floor of Christchurch Hospital. Shoresh was recovering from surgery to manage his Crohn’s disease. His bed was by the window, so the sudden flurry of activity outside caught Zhiyan’s attention.
Armed police were surrounding the hospital. It looked like a scene from a television crime show. Fear started growing in Zhiyan’s gut, but she didn’t want to alarm her brother, so she didn’t say anything.
From the window, she watched as car after car arrived, and people were unloaded—covered in blood and unconscious. Zhiyan started counting the victims. Six, seven, eight. When she saw an injured child being carried in, she started to tremble. Her phone rang.
“Have you heard?” asked her sister. “It’s the mosque.”
As the daughter of the local halal butcher, and a long-time volunteer with Christchurch’s refugees, Zhiyan knew almost everyone in the Muslim community. She ran downstairs to the hospital reception and gave the staff her business card: “I said, I can answer phone calls, if you need bilinguals, if you don’t know what to say.”
She helped form a team of young volunteer translators to answer the flood of phone calls from worried relatives, in Arabic, in Farsi, in Urdu, in Kurdish.
The emergency room was packed, emotional. She found the imam of Al Noor mosque, Gamal Fouda, barefoot and in shock. He had been giving his Friday sermon when the shooting began. Only a week earlier, Zhiyan had been organising elections with the elders for various mosque committees. “Imam, you’re from Egypt, have you not experienced this?” she asked.
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” he told her. She found someone to take him home.
Zhiyan knew that her immediate family were safe. Though they were regulars at Al Noor, the site of the first attack, her parents and younger brother had been covering for Shoresh at the butchery instead of attending Friday prayers. She quickly learned that many of the people she knew and loved had been killed or injured.
“Just two days earlier, I was talking to a young boy I know—a friend of my sister’s—about how cool it would be to go back to the Middle East and visit there. But we were saying to each other, how could we leave New Zealand? This beautiful, safe place. Then this attack happened, and that young man’s father is no longer with us.
“He used to be always laughing, 24/7. When I saw him afterwards, he was shattered.”
Zhiyan had seen that look before. Where she grew up, it was normal.
She was born in a refugee camp, the third of six children, and lived there for the first 11 years of her life. Her Kurdish parents fled Iran in the early 1980s after the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq war. They carried their three-year-old, her mother pregnant with a second daughter.
Along with about 15,000 other Iranian Kurds, they ended up at Al Tash, a slum-like refugee camp outside Ramadi in western Iraq, surrounded by a sea of orange sand.
The camp was home, but it wasn’t safe. Every year, the Iraqi army would raid it, stealing valuables, beating people up.
“I remember running away from class when they came, holding my books tightly in my hand,” says Zhiyan. “That army uniform still scares me. I hate seeing it, I feel it in my guts.”
From the age of seven, Zhiyan was tutoring other kids in Farsi. She used to sneak out during afternoon naps to explore the camp, push the boundaries. Once she went too far, and a man outside the camp fired a gun at her.
Her father often left the camp to look for work in Baghdad and elsewhere in Iraq, leaving at 3am and returning after 10pm. Other fathers didn’t return from similar missions.
“Every time I would listen to that door squeak as my father went out, it broke my heart,” she says.
Zhiyan’s parents lived in the camp for 18 years while they waited for asylum. In May 2001, they were resettled in Christchurch.
There they made a new life, one of safety and security. Still, it wasn’t easy. The family relocated three times because of neighbours’ racism.
“Just egging the car, throwing diapers of their kids into the back yard, stuff like that. But I don’t want to focus on the negative things. New Zealand is the best country to be in—for a refugee it’s like winning Lotto. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. Of course growing up you go through racism. It’s normal in any place.”
The Basharatis started the butchery. The sisters went through phases of wearing the hijab, experimenting with their Islamic identity.
“We all wore it, took it off, wore it, took it off, and then it was my turn.”
Zhiyan wore the hijab for nine years through high school and university—an act of rebellion. “I wanted to show, ‘Yes, I’m Muslim—and whoever throws stones at me, whoever says anything to me, I don’t care.”
Once, a woman poked her head out of her car and told Zhiyan, ‘You don’t need to wear that here.’ Other strangers weren’t
The siblings threw themselves into study, went to university. Social work, international business, geology, law. In 2018, Zhiyan completed a doctorate in forensic psychology, studying the personality profiles of child molesters.
“I wanted to understand human behaviour, why people do what they do. I don’t want to look at an Iraqi and say, ‘It is your fault, what I experienced in the refugee camp’. I don’t want to hold onto hatred.
“It gave me peace. It gave me closure.”
She’s now 29. Along the way, she became an advocate for other refugees. For the past eight years, she’s been volunteering at the Canterbury Refugee Resettlement and Resource Centre.
“I used to ask myself, why am I doing all this work? Now I know what it was for.”
It was all training for this moment.
It’s four days since the attack. The bodies of the victims have still not been returned to their loved ones, much to the families’ dismay. Islam requires the dead to be buried immediately—but even with a team of 120 working around the clock on forensics and autopsies, it is taking days. Around Christchurch, groups are coalescing and mobilising to help the victims’ families navigate both atrocity and bureaucracy.
A small, bright-red building in the Phillipstown Community Hub is one such hive of manic, caffeinated effort. The Canterbury Refugee Resettlement and Resource Centre occupies part of a former primary school, one that closed after the 2011 earthquakes.
Ahmed Tani is receiving a stream of visitors in his office. Ahmed, a refugee from Somalia, founded the centre in 2008 to help new arrivals access services and connect with their neighbours. (In December 2018, he was made an officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit for his efforts.) He was walking towards the mosque when the shooting started. The gunfire gave him flashbacks to the civil war he escaped 20 years ago: “That was the last time I heard a gun.”
Volunteers—mostly young women, some in hijab—hurry up and down the corridor. In the front office, half a dozen people are working on phones and laptops. Under a corkboard printed with a map of the world, piles of donated food mount up—supermarket muffins, cameo crèmes, tea and instant coffee, pizza-flavoured Shapes.
“Can you put a post on Facebook asking for donations of sanitary items and nappies? We need that more than food right now,” says Sana Basharati. She is Zhiyan’s cousin—they grew up together in Al Tash. The 24-year-old corporate lawyer now works in Auckland, but she’s come home to Christchurch to help.
“When I was sitting up in Auckland, I was just crying all day, I couldn’t function, I couldn’t eat. It’s better now I’m doing something.”
Pākehā volunteer Bianca LeBlanc Lindstrom, a music publicist from Australia, is at the one proper desk looking after emails, social media, pulling strings. When the attack happened, she and her partner took donations to the hub for victims at Hagley Park. They befriended a family waiting for news of a loved one; the next day, they returned to discover that he had been killed. Bianca met Zhiyan and offered the use of her professional skills. “I know that there is so much that needs to be done. I’m good at hassling. I get shit for free. Airline tickets, houses, iPads for kids who are in hospital. At the moment, I’m trying to hassle bikes for a Syrian family with seven kids. Whatever they need.”
Another group returns from delivering breakfast to a family that lost its breadwinner and hadn’t eaten for two days. Someone arrives to say they’ve sourced a couple of massive fridges to store donated food. Sana completes the paperwork online to establish their new charity, the Christchurch Victims’ Organising Committee, or CVOC.
In the centre of it all, Zhiyan is shouting into her phone. She’s unquestionably the leader of this new organisation. She has barely slept in three days. Her slight body is constantly in motion—organising, persuading, directing, arguing, talking as fast as her brain is whirring.
“This is what she’s good at. She’s a machine, she’s a powerhouse, honestly,” says Sana.
Outside the centre, a container fills up with donated goods—sacks of chickpeas and rice, cooking oil, nappies. Every day, there is a new problem, a new need, says Yobi Rajaratnam. Yobi, 24, is a Sri Lankan refugee. He and his family spent 45 days lost at sea on a people-smugglers’ boat in an attempt to cross the Indian Ocean. He settled in Auckland five years ago; since then, he’s almost finished a degree in biomedical science and started a non-profit helping vulnerable youth learn entrepreneurship. After the attack, he flew down to Christchurch to help.
People need assistance with visas for relatives flying in from around the world. One family, early on, was too afraid to open the door to a Pākehā volunteer bringing meals. One widow can’t access any money. An Eftpos card was found on her husband’s body, but only he knew the PIN. Another man escaped the massacre after being buried under dead bodies, but was never admitted to hospital.
“He is sitting at home, still in shock,” says Yobi.
The CVOC team are trying to solve the problems as they arise, as well as identifying and tracking down all the people who may need help, to check they’re getting everything they need.
“Some people don’t even realise that they are traumatised,” says Zhiyan. “They don’t have words for this. It’s not in their culture to speak about it and seek counselling.”
Yet giving people prompt access to psychological support is crucial, says Philip Bagshaw, a surgeon who runs the Canterbury Charity Hospital, which offered counselling to thousands of Cantabrians after the earthquakes.
“There is no question—I’ve seen massive amounts of evidence—to show that early compassionate counselling reduces the risk of subsequent serious psychological disorder and post-traumatic stress.
“People who get counselling very quickly after an event often need only one or two visits.”
Three days after the shooting, the Charity Hospital started offering free sessions with around 40 counsellors. They and the team of clinical psychologists supervising them are all volunteers. The service is fully booked—they see about 100 people a week—yet they aim to get anyone who needs it into a session within 24 hours.
“We’ve had a complete mixture of people—people who were actually at the scene, people who were injured, we’ve had medical staff who were attending them, people who witnessed the thing—but the largest group is actually those who were triggered—it’s bringing back the stresses from the earthquakes.”
The Basharati family’s halal butchery is just a kilometre away from Al Noor mosque. They sell meat that has been slaughtered according to Islamic custom—the animal is blessed, its throat cut, the blood drained.
Inside, there’s a group of female customers, dressed in black hijab and long coats, their faces solemn and exhausted. Flowers, brought in by neighbours, sit in jars on the counter. Framed scriptures from the Qur’an hang on the walls, alongside a row of plastic watering cans in candy colours.
Khasraw Basharati, Zhiyan’s younger brother, is helping behind the counter in jeans and sweatshirt, dark circles under his eyes. The 23-year-old has a master’s degree in geology from the University of Canterbury.
“I’m a typical Kiwi guy,” he says, as he stacks packages of food into plastic bags. “But my Kurdish culture is important to me, too—I want to blend in but also keep this part
He’s been going to the mosque every Friday since he was a child, but on March 15, he was behind this counter, filling in for his brother in hospital.
So many of his friends and mentors were lost. Of the eight senior men on the mosque’s council of elders, five were killed.
“Those elders all had a positive influence on me. They drank tea with me, they showed me how to be a good, respectful Muslim. The young ones, many of them were able to run away when the shooting started. Not the old men.”
At the back of the shop, Miriam Basharati—Khasraw and Zhiyan’s mother—is preparing more food to take to the hospital.
“This is how she shows her love,” says Khasraw.
Across the city, Muslim women are cooking and organising. When 25-year-old Nada Tawfeek rushed home from Egypt after her father-in-law, Hussein Moustafa, was killed in the attack, she discovered the women in her community were just getting on with it.
“As soon as this happened, every single woman just had this sense of rolling up her sleeves, putting her cape on, and trying to help as many people as possible.”
Women used the text-messaging service WhatsApp to coordinate, made a roster to spend time with those who don’t have family in Christchurch, and organised sleepovers for the children.
Nada’s mother was one of many making vast quantities of labour-intensive, home-cooked traditional food to take around to victims’ families.
“Then she came home and realised there wasn’t any food left for us, but there was a knock on the door, and another woman came around to make sure we had eaten.
“It’s like the women have trained their whole lives to have this really strong faith, this belief that only good will come to them—and to use themselves as a tool to help others.”
One of the first victims of the attack was engineer Haji-Daoud Nabi, a 71-year-old Afghan community leader. Haji-Daoud apparently welcomed the shooter to Al Noor with the words, “Hello, brother.” The phrase ricocheted around the world, a symbol of peace in the face of violence, an open-hearted rejoinder to hate. It became a hashtag, a cartoon subtitle, and appeared in tributes left among the flowers.
That’s just the kind of man Haji-Daoud was, says Habib Hussaini, another member of Christchurch’s Afghan community.
Habib arrived in the city as a 14-year-old refugee, after a long and terrifying journey. He and more than 400 other asylum seekers were rescued from a sinking people-smugglers’ boat by a Norwegian ship, the Tampa. Australia refused the Tampa entry. Eventually, New Zealand offered to resettle about 150 refugees, including 37 unaccompanied teenagers: eldest sons, the family savings spent on one passage to freedom, one chance at a better life.
Habib had never heard of New Zealand before. He was resettled in Christchurch, part of a group of several dozen Afghan refugees.
Soon after they arrived, Haji-Daoud booked a hall and organised an Afghan party—music, food and joke-telling—to welcome the new arrivals.
“Hello, brother,” he said to them then, as they walked in the door. Haji-Daoud and his family had already been in the city for around 20 years, he told them, as the first Afghans in Christchurch.
“I felt so welcome,” says Habib.
Over the years, he heard Haji-Daoud say the same thing to many people: hello brother, hello sister. It was his catch-phrase. “That was in his tongue all the time.”
Habib now has a tiling business, a wife, two daughters of his own. Christchurch is home. He can never return to Afghanistan, he says. His home village, in Oruzgan Province, is a beautiful sweep of emerald-green cultivated land beneath dusty dry mountains. It’s called Hussaini, just like his family name.
In November 2018, the Taliban attacked Hussaini again. Dozens of people were killed, others kidnapped. Habib’s uncle, a schoolteacher and, like him, a member of the Hazara ethnic group, was the last of his family still living there. The Taliban threatened him, and he fled with his children to Kabul. “We are refugees in our own country,” says Habib. “That is a Hazara’s life in Afghanistan.”
When Habib heard about the attack on the mosques, he was working on a house in Prestons. The old fear returned. He locked himself into the house.
“I didn’t feel safe. People came as refugees from war zones, Afghanistan, Syria, Somalia, Iraq—we lost our homes, our lands, our jobs, our friends, our families. We came as refugees to a safer country. We feel like New Zealand is home, and when these things happened, it’s like, is anywhere safe?”
Sunday, 10 days after the shooting. Zhiyan hasn’t stopped moving since. Today, she’s visiting the injured at the hospital again, along with Yobi and Ashleigh Ali-Aziz, 29, a former refugee who is also of Kurdish descent.
Earlier in the week, the wards were crowded with visiting celebrities—Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, Kuwaiti sheikhs, the King of Jordan’s uncle, the Muslim All Black Sonny Bill Williams. Even Gloriavale sent a delegation.
Today, it’s quieter. Zhiyan goes from ward to ward, introducing herself: “I’m the daughter of the halal butcher.” She’s one of them—they can trust her.
In the intensive care unit, Nor Azila Abd Wahid, from Malaysia, sits in the tiny waiting room. The day before the attack, she defended her PhD in electrical engineering at Canterbury University.
Her husband, Rahimi Ahmad, was shot in the stomach and spine at Al Noor. Nor has been by his side during the six days he was in a coma and through four surgeries. A bullet fragment is still lodged near his spine. Nor’s mother has come from Malaysia to help look after their two kids, 8 and 11. The eldest, their son Ahmad, was in the mosque too—he was separated from his father in the confusion, and Rahimi didn’t find out he was alive and uninjured until he came out of the coma. Someone had thrown the boy over a wall into a neighbour’s garden.
“Please list all the kids, how old they are and what you need, and you will get a package delivered tomorrow,” says Zhiyan, glancing at her phone. She turns to Ashleigh and Yobi: “Okay, guys, more halal meat is coming from Auckland. We need chillers.”
In a ward on the third floor, they meet Mustafa Boztas, laid up in bed with a bullet wound in his leg. Shrapnel fragments reached his liver. He’s 21, grew up in Dunedin, where his family settled after emigrating from Turkey a decade ago. He moved to Christchurch just six weeks before the attack, to study engineering at university. Although he tried to attend Friday prayers every week, he’d skipped a few and felt guilty, so made sure he was at Al Noor on
When the shooting started, Mustafa thought it was one of Christchurch’s infamous earthquakes. Then he was struck in the leg and fell to the ground.
“I was telling the brothers beside me, don’t move, don’t scream, just act that you are dead.”
Around him, people kept falling, one by one.
The gunfire stopped. Mustafa noticed that a window near him had a bullet hole. He punched out the glass, crawled through, and started running. In the car park outside he saw a teenage boy on the ground, staring blankly at the sky. Mustafa tried CPR on the boy, then closed his eyes out of respect. The boy was clutching his phone tightly, still connected to a call. His mother was on the other end of the line.
Mustafa picked up the phone and told her, “I think he’s dead—please come to the mosque.” She asked if it was her husband or her son. He told her, “It’s your son.” The shooting started again. Mustafa ran until his leg gave out.
Later, in hospital, he couldn’t stop thinking about the boy. He played an audio version of the Qur’an from YouTube until, finally, he was able to sleep.
Zhiyan, Ashleigh and Yobi move from bed to bed. Outside the intensive care unit they meet an older Muslim couple who have flown from Auckland, without knowing anybody, to offer help and support. They are looking for injured people from Fiji, says the woman; it’s her homeland. She breaks down in tears. Zhiyan puts an arm around her.
“Keep crying,” she says. “It’s good.”
Finally, the bodies of the dead are returned to their families. According to Islamic tradition, each body must be washed, a process called ghusl, and shrouded, kafan, by close family members, or friends of the same sex.
“It’s an amazing honour,” says Saifal Dean McCallum. He converted to Islam about a decade ago, and has been a regular at Al Noor mosque—he had slept there with his son after the earthquake—but he wasn’t there that fateful Friday.
Saifal helped with the ghusl for two of the men killed. One was Musa Nur Awale, originally from Somalia, who officiated at Saifal’s wedding, shortly after his conversion.
“He was meek, humble, you’d never hear a bad word out of his mouth. He was always walking to the mosque—he walked like a turtle, a slow, peaceful walk.”
Such intimate contact with the dead isn’t easy. Before Saifal began the ghusl, he was emotional, overwhelmed. He prayed to Allah to keep him strong.
“You know when you’re a little kid, and your mum’s making the bed for you? That’s how it felt; it was like someone had chucked a blanket over me. I went in there, and I felt happy.”
They washed the blood from Musa’s body. One man holding him, one refilling the water, one pouring it, one in charge of the towels. They applied perfume to the places where he prostrated when he prayed—the head, the knees—and wrapped him in a shroud.
“It’s an amazing thing, let me tell you. It was beautiful.”
The massacre has changed New Zealand, says Saifal. People are treating each other differently.
“It took shock therapy, basically, to rip the veil of ignorance off—for once, people are looking straight through to the person instead of looking at you like, ‘Oh, look at what he’s wearing, nah, he’s from Pakistan, oh, he’s black, look he’s Māori, what’s he up to? The looks, smirks, whispering, stuff like that.
“People’s hearts are opened, you know.”
But will they remain open? The thousands of flowers and kind notes are touching—but they do not signal lasting change.
A permanent shift in attitude must take place for the 50 lives lost to have not been in vain, says Nada Tawfeek: “Things can never go back to how they were.”
New Zealanders must wake up to racism and hate, she adds. As a hijab-wearing Muslim woman, she encountered Islamophobia from the moment she arrived in the country, aged 16. The first week, as she and her sister walked to school, two young men came up right behind them and shouted, “Terrorist!” No one around them intervened.
A string of incidents, through school and university, made her feel unwelcome—usually involving the muttered word “Terrorist”, from strangers and shop staff alike.
The worst incident was in Brisbane Airport a few years ago. Her father, a gynaecologist, was visiting Australia to collect a professional award. Nada and her sister were detained for four hours at the airport. Authorities suggested they might have explosives, and searched their phones for, they said, pictures of bestiality—while their father waited outside, worrying about what had happened to them.
“I’m walking around scared because I’m visibly Muslim, and at the same time, I’m being treated like a perpetrator of violence, so I get both ends of the stick,” she says. “We have to carry the burden of both looking like the perpetrator and being the victim. I know it’s my choice to wear the hijab—but it’s also other people’s choice to be prejudiced or not.”
A 2008 Victoria University study of 2000 households nationwide found a sizable minority of New Zealanders held anti-multicultural views: 26 per cent said immigration increases crime, and 21 per cent believed allowing immigrant cultures to thrive weakened New Zealand culture. British immigrants were viewed the most favourably, and Somali immigrants the least. Despite this, the survey also found that 80 per cent of participants agreed with the statement, “It is important to accept a wide variety of cultures in New Zealand.”
One per cent of New Zealanders are Muslim, according to the 2013 Census, and the religion spans a multitude of nationalities, with adherents from Africa, the Middle East, Asia and the Pacific.
True multiculturalism goes beyond city councils staging the occasional cultural festival, says Zhiyan Basharati.
“It’s not about restaurants, it’s not about going to a noodle night market—it has to be embedded within the system.”
People working in government, councils, agencies and hospitals need to be more culturally competent, she says—and that starts with bodies such as Christchurch City Council and Victim Support being better connected with minority communities: “I want to see more diversity in the workforces of those agencies.”
For individuals, inclusion involves more than simply not saying or doing racist things.
“This inattention is a type of racism in itself,” wrote cultural anthropologist Catherine Trundle following the attack. “This apathy. Turning a blind eye. It speaks at a very deep level to a lack of Pākehā connection, accountability and empathy towards those who white supremacists targeted … It speaks to the social bubble that most Pākehā live in, where we don’t come to really understand the grinding, corrosive and threatening effects of everyday racism and hatred.”
Believing yourself to be non-racist isn’t enough, says Trundle: New Zealanders must be anti-racist, which is a more active task.
Making people welcome takes time, and it takes work—the kind of work that Zhiyan Basharati and Ahmed Tani have been doing at the Canterbury Refugee Resettlement and Resource Centre for close to a decade.
After the February 2011 earthquake, Ahmed knocked on the doors of 350 refugee families in the city, even though he had a newborn baby to care for at the time. Now, those people all know their neighbours, he says: “I’m only interested in unity.”
In the days following the attack, non-Muslim New Zealanders were reaching out to the Muslim community—seeing them, learning about Islam and various cultural traditions—in ways they hadn’t before. As a nation, we now need to have a “much knottier conversation” about who ‘us’ is, writes Trundle.
“‘Us’ means feeling connected to, responsible for, accountable to, in solidarity with, and empathetic towards people. That even in our diversity we all share certain baseline rights and deserve the same dignity. Not just in the most dire of times.”
Four weeks have passed since the attack. The alleged gunman is in custody, awaiting trial. Nada Tawfeek is preparing to move to Saudi Arabia. Mustafa Boztas has been transferred to Dunedin Hospital and might require another operation. Rahimi Ahmad still can’t feel his right leg, and will need many months of rehab. Out-of-town volunteers Yobi Rajaratnam, Sana Basharati and Ashleigh Ali-Aziz have returned home. Saifal Dean McCallum has been helping to renovate the Linwood mosque, and both mosques have now reopened. Bianca LeBlanc Lindstrom quit her job as a publicist with the Christchurch Arts Festival in order to continue working for CVOC—as this issue went to press, Zhiyan Basharati estimated the organisation would be required for another six months at least. She has just found accommodation for the brother of a victim who spent the previous three weeks sleeping at his bedside in Christchurch Hospital. “He is one of many who have fallen through the cracks,” she says. She’s also assisting a group of bereaved women who are struggling to access help: “They have questions, they want to be consulted with. There is so much confusing information going around—it worries me.”
The official aid response is still only patchily connected to the Muslim community, she says, and individuals and community groups continue to breach the gap.
Zhiyan has not yet returned to the mosque. She will need a day to prepare herself, she says. “I don’t want to go in there and think of who was praying where when it happened. I want to be there just with God.”
Every Sunday, Habib Hussaini takes his two daughters, aged five and 11, to Farsi lessons at Hagley Community College, so that they can learn to read and write in the language of his country. The classes were cancelled for a few weeks after the attack, when the college was transformed into a hub where victims’ families could meet and access help.
The lessons have just restarted, and as Habib and his girls walk across Hagley Park heading to the college, they can see the Al Noor mosque through the trees. The flowers are still arrayed outside, reminders of the violence, grief, and love.
But the park is crowded. People are playing soccer. Hundreds of children are taking part in a bicycle lesson, talking and laughing. Outside the college, the armed police
“From one side, you see the sadness of that mosque and what has happened in there—but from the other side, you still feel proud, life is keeping going,” says Habib. “People are living in peace.”