Is this us?

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Everything changed on March 15, including the content of this magazine.

In the days following the Christchurch terrorist attack, two journalists who contribute to New Zealand Geographic, Anke Richter and Kate Evans, began reporting on the nascent aid response led by members of the country’s Muslim and refugee communities. Photographer Lottie Hedley flew in to spend a week shadowing volunteers and victims’ families.

We listened, and we waited. It took us a while to figure out what kind of story New Zealanders ought to hear—what kind of story New Zealand Geographic ought to tell.

It was becoming apparent to the nation that the Muslim community was one we had not, collectively, paid much attention to. Muslims are barely represented in newsrooms or boardrooms or council chambers, and we rarely hear their stories.

Yet through their actions in the wake of tragedy, the Muslim community has writ large the principles of the religion for all to see: grace, forgiveness, openness, gratitude. Anke, Lottie, Kate and I witnessed how Islam guided people’s responses to an incomprehensible event—just as it had long provided a framework, structure and routine to their lives.

Since the attack, New Zealand Muslims have been telling a story about this country that’s jarringly different from the one that the majority of us have been telling ourselves. These are the stories we have focused on in our feature about the Christchurch attack. We set out to learn: how has Islam guided people through life in New Zealand thus far—and now? What would they like to add to the story we’re telling ourselves about who we are?

This is us, we heard: well-meaning and friendly, a bit ignorant, not great at reaching out a welcoming hand, sometimes rude to women in hijab.

We can’t ignore the negative parts of ‘us’ if we want to turn New Zealand’s outpouring of aroha into genuine acceptance of minority communities.

We have to stop confusing unity with homogeneity. We have to recognise that sharing values doesn’t require conformity.

“When I hear people talking about New Zealand being unified and one voice for all—all that means is suppression, it means that in order to achieve that, you all have to be the same,” says Anjum Rahman, profiled here, who spends her time combatting discrimination and division, largely on a volunteer basis.

“What I don’t understand is why white supremacists are full of so much rage,” says Nada Tawfeek, who has lived in Christchurch for a decade, and lost a family member in the attack. “What happened to them to make them hate others so much? What injustices have they seen in their lives to make them this traumatised? We need to look at what the root cause of white supremacy is rather than just tackling the symptoms.”

As many people quoted in the story point out, it isn’t enough to not be racist—inclusion involves effort and discomfort. It involves getting to know people who might choose to exercise their freedom differently. Integration and inclusion are active processes, requiring participation from all. Like Haji-Daoud Nabi, we all have the responsibility to say, “Hello, brother. Hello, sister.”

Our refugee community is particularly good at this. In the wake of the tragedy, volunteers flew to Christchurch from other parts of the country to help. Many carried with them a shared understanding of trauma. One person featured in our story, former refugee Yobi Rajaratnam, arrived in Auckland five years ago after fleeing Sri Lanka in a people-smuggler’s boat. “Our dictionary is the longest,” he wrote of his experience as a refugee: the entries for ‘terror’ and ‘loss’ and ‘sadness’ are extensive. He flew to Christchurch to help others navigate their rapidly-expanding dictionaries: new emotions, new grief, new words.

By listening, we can tell a story about ourselves that’s truer. A story that doesn’t leave anyone out.

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