Christchurch Massacre: The story untold.
Under overcast skies and light rain drizzle, Jamal drove his car full of boxes heading to the storage unit, while I was tuning the radio looking for some easy listening music. It had been a very exhausting two days so far as I was helping my friend Jamal move houses. All of a sudden, he glared at me, tuned back the radio to the news station I just skipped and said ‘ Listen!’, that’s when the tragedy unfolded. On Friday 15th of March 2019, 49 lives — the number increased to 51 since — were lost in two mass shootings of the Muslim community in Christchurch, New Zealand, during the Jomm’a prayer in two mosques. The shock was over whelming, we looked at each other in disbelieve. What did we just hear ?!! did this really happen ?!. Little did we know at the time.
In the few days that followed one of the worst mass shooting incidents in the world, and the most fatal terrorist attack in New Zealand history, the depth of the cowardly attack started to unravel. Broadcasting the murders online as the terrorist was shooting his victims, gruesome cold blooded murders of children as young as three years old, heartless desecration of dead bodies by running them over by the getaway car!. The cruelty of this attack was unprecedented in the whole world. At the same time, stories of heroism and self scarifies surfaced of some of the victims as well as non-Muslims who were present in the vicinity of the attacks while trying to save and/or protect the victims.
Like the rest of New Zealanders, we — Muslims of New Zealand — are grieving the loss of our country’s innocence as we are waking up to the cruel realities of the current world. I moved to New Zealand over 13 years ago from Egypt, not because I was looking for a better career, nor was it because I was concerned about human rights or safety back in Egypt. I actually had pretty decent life and great job there. I decided to move to New Zealand after I visited it on a holiday, and simply was captured by it’s beauty inside out. In addition to New Zealand’s undeniable natural beauty, I fell in love with it’s diversity and harmonious community. This article is not about why you should love New Zealand though, it’s about what may have gone wrong.
The merciless attack, raised multiple question marks through out the country, why Christchurch ? Why Muslims ? why now ?. It’s important to mention that, I don’t claim that I have precise answers to any of those questions, nor do I claim that these answers may provide a scientifically based explanation to what went wrong. History taught us though that reflecting on the surrounding environments that preceded certain events, helps us understand the different factors that created and shaped those events. So let’s sail back in time few years, and look on some of the significant events that may have shaped this catastrophe.
For any New Zealander, Christchurch has a certain soft spot in his/her heart. Since it was rattled by a devastating earth quake back in 2011, which claimed 185 lives, the images of the fallen city, heart breaking stories of victims and displaced families, had been haunting the nation’s collective memories ever since. No one forgets how Christchurch city-center was turned literally into a ghost city within few weeks after the quake. Understandably, many of Christchurch residents moved to other cities for few months at least. The migration of 10,600 of Christchurch residents to other cities in New Zealand following the devastating quake, created an immediate drop in the city labour force by 2.4%. New Zealand is a small size country with a population that does not exceed 4.8 million people. Christchurch city hosted almost 367,700 resident just before the 2011 earthquake. A 2.4% drop in its labour market would have been very hard to be recovered through the local labour force pool. On the other hand, the Canterbury Employment & Skills Board announced in August, 2011 that 30,000 workers are required for the rebuild of our beloved devastated city. With already 10,600 residents left the city, the only way to source the required workers for the rebuild would have been from outside Christchurch, and even from outside New Zealand. In June 2013, Construction sector leaders group released a plan for the rebuilt of Christchurch which stated clearly their policy for sourcing workers, sourcing preference, challenges and expectations. For instance, the plan states that due to the sharp decrease in labour force in Christchurch after the earthquake, most labour will be sourced else where, including from overseas. It also stated that due to the unstable nature of the seismic movements at the time, most kiwi families will not be willing to move to Christchurch, while the expectations is that successfully sourced labour force will be mostly single male workers . In other words, by 2013, there was substantial need for workers to rebuilt the city, with the expectation that most New Zealand based workers with families will not be interested in moving to the Christchurch due to safety concerns about there families.
On the other hand, 2011 was also the beginning of the unrest in the Middle East and the Arab spring. As we all know, that also was the start of the heart breaking ordeal in Syria which resulted in a huge number of Syrian refugees all over the world including New Zealand. Things in Syria didn’t go dire immediately though , it took a couple of years or so until the situation became inhuman and the refugee flood gates opened, which of course would have reflected on the amount of Middle Eastern based refugees that arrived to New Zealand. That effect can still be felt till now, ( e.g. New Zealand government has increased it’s annual refugee quota from 750 to 1000 since 2018, with the extra 250 refugees to be sourced from Syria). According to Immigration New Zealand’s ‘Refugees and asylum seekers- fact sheet’, refugees resettlement strategy has seen some major changes in 2013. Some of which aimed to increase the number of employed refugees and reducing government financial assistance to refugee
Increasing the number of former refugees in paid employment and reducing the number receiving unemployment-related benefits.
Reducing the proportion of former refugees receiving housing assistance.
The same document also affirms that resettlement of refugees will be according to employment opportunities per resettlement location.
Quota refugees are settled in one of the settlement locations (Auckland region, Hamilton, Palmerston North, Wellington region, Nelson, Christchurch, Dunedin and Invercargill) based on community links, employment opportunities and access to services to help support their integration.
IF we contemplate about those last two unrelated pieces of information, we find that, in 2013 Christchurch rebuild was still ongoing, and there was huge shortage in working force. While at the same time, there was increase in the Middle Eastern based refugees in New Zealand, with a strong government incentive to resettle these refugees in areas that can provide immediate employment to them, to take away the refugees financial burden off the New Zealand government.
On the other hand, I have few friends and acquaintances from Christchurch who are from European or Maori decent. Naturally, we have talked about this topic few times since the attack. Of course, they were all deeply shocked, horrified and sad about what happened to their Muslim neighbors. To my big surprise though, they also revealed to me an unexpected ‘different’ perspective from what has been widely shared in the media. It seems that, there have been a growing under-the-surface resentment toward refugees from Middle Eastern background in Christchurch. Apparently, Middle Eastern refugees seem to have a bad reputation of being rude, offensive and aggressive. My friends told me few of there own personal experiences with random pedestrians in Christchurch who ‘ looked like refugees according to them. The experiences ranged from just being hasty and impatient in queues, cutting people off through super market aisles without apologizing, to clear snarky remarks and aggressive body language. On a different note, there was also an undertone of blaming refugees for the lack of employment opportunities in Christchurch.
Without going into too much details, other than the lack of employment issue, those stories sounded very familiar to me. They sounded simply like Middle Eastern cultural norms. All Middle Eastern countries share very similar cultural norms and communication styles, which are very different to the New Zealand ones. Smiling to strangers is considered rude in Egypt for instance while, it’s highly appreciated in New Zealand. Time is money in the Middle East and people are highly accustomed to a very fast pace in life. Clear and direct communication is very encouraged and being indirect or unclear enough is very frowned upon by the whole community. It seems to me that the refugees mentioned in those negative stories are simply acting as if they are still in the Middle East. It doesn’t sound like they have been integrated in the New Zealand cultural fabric yet. The refugee program in New Zealand has many steps that aims to screen out individuals that may cause risk to New Zealand security. All accepted refugees must attend a 6 weeks comprehensive reception program which teaches them about how to live and work in New Zealand. Are only 6 weeks enough though ?! and do refugees only need a reception program ?! How about a long-term integration program ? From my own personal experiences, it took me at least 10 years before I started to feel fully integrated in New Zealand culture, and I am a person who is actively mixing with New Zealanders outside my Middle Eastern community. Integrating into a culture that is completely foreign from the one you been raised in, is extremely challenging, can be debilitating and cause social withdrawal if faced by too many confusing experiences.
We can now imagine one possible scenario of what may have gone wrong.
Christchurch earth quake caused a significant reduction in the workforce within the city while at the same time there was an influx in the amount of Middle Eastern refugees coming in New Zealand. New Zealand government at the time may have put emphasis on resettling these refugees in Christchurch in order to recover the lost workforce. This may have caused a considerable increase in the percentage of Christchurch residents from Middle Eastern origins and a decrease in Christchurch-born residents . At the same time, New Zealand government announced it’s intention of encouraging refugees paid employment, which means that most probably employers were offered incentives to encourage them hiring refugees. After the city rebuild started and the seismic activities subsided down, the old resident of Christchurch who fled the city after the quake, would have started to return back to Christchurch, where they found a big amount of refugees already living , working and rebuilding the city. Finding employment may have been hard for those returning residents as many of the jobs that they left , would have been filled by the new residents from refugees background. At the same time, these new residents of Christchurch, did not get integrated in the New Zealand culture yet. They are on new lands, aware that they are being judged by everyone around them, but they do not know or understand why! This would have only caused frustration and pretty much would have encourage them to keep within there own circles where they know how to act and belong. This lack of integration most probably would have caused lots of misunderstandings and grief throughout the city. All of that would have created this atmosphere of intolerance and suspicion toward refugees from Middle Eastern background within the city. Then a year ago, a terrorist arrives to New Zealand, planning a mass murder against Muslims, finds this crack within the Christchurch community and use it. This scenario answers the three questions asked earlier : ‘Why Christchurch? why Muslims? why Now?’
This scenario does raise another question, Is New Zealand truly racism free ?. Answering this questions is not as easy or straight forward as one may hope. This topic will be addressed in the next article though.