When I was choosing where to study abroad, Christchurch was advertised as one of New Zealand’s smaller, quieter cities. Close to beautiful nature, a quaint, welcoming atmosphere, and home to pleasant people who were coming together as a community after the devastating 2011 earthquakes. These descriptions were constantly repeated, and I believed that Christchurch would be a nice change to the big cities I had previously gravitated towards. Living here these past 4 weeks have truly been a privilege as I slowly introduced myself to the city. Christchurch, in turn, invited me in and made me feel welcome and safe.
As many have probably heard, Christchurch, New Zealand suffered the worst mass shooting in its recent history last Friday, March 15. There were attacks at two local mosques, committed by a right-wing, extremist, white supremacist. The planned attack specifically targeted Muslims peacefully gathered for Friday prayers, many of whom are also immigrants or refugees to the country. The attack left 50 victims dead and many others injured. Within hours, three people were arrested and emergency responders secured the scenes. Victims were rushed to the hospital, and NZ government officials immediately condemned the primary suspect, labelling the tragedy as a hateful terrorist attack.
Sitting in my flat, eating lunch, and watching—of all things—the children’s animated movie “An American Tail,” an allegory of the immigrant experience in 1800s America. The idyllic afternoon was interrupted with the university-wide email that the campus was on lockdown due to an “evolving situation” in the nearby city center. A quick Google search led me to the news that a shooting had recently occurred. In the next few hours, updates about the continued lockdown, closed-off roads, and the devastating aftermath rolled in. Concerned messages from professors and study abroad coordinators asked after my safety and well-being. Friends and family back home texted and called on Saturday as the distressing news finally reached them.
I was fortunate to have been in a safe location 2 miles away from the primary attack site. I appreciate University of Canterbury’s response to the tragedy, IFSA’s emergency updates, and the wellbeing check-ups from my professors and colleagues. I commend the city’s huge show of support for the victims and their loved ones. I applaud the NZ government for baldly calling this act for what it was—a terrorist attack perpetrated by a white nationalist.
This cowardly act of violence against defenseless strangers stemmed from hatred and fear of “the other”. As a child of immigrant parents, I am reminded of the constant threat of xenophobia. As a person of color, I yet again am the witness to the dangers of racism. As an American, I wonder if our government could have acted as effectively and sensitively as the NZ government has. As an Islamic Studies and Arabic minor, I am heartbroken at the repeated victimization of these marginalized groups.
I am left to wonder what my role is in all of this. As an exchange student, how can I help without overstepping my bounds? How can I sympathize with those affected without appropriating their suffering? As a person, what can I do? I have decided that the best I can do is listen. I can empathize. I can volunteer. I can help in any way that I can. In times when the “other” is feared, studying abroad is just one of many actions that seek to promote cross-cultural understanding. It is an opportunity to learn from one another, to humanize each other, to appreciate the differences, and to recognize the similarities. I still believe that Christchurch and New Zealand are safe, welcoming places at their core; the rapid call for gun law reform is evidence to how quickly Kiwis are able to band together for the common good. New Zealand’s spirit is resilient, and the people readily prove that love is stronger than hate. While March 15th may be known as one of the country’s darkest days, I know that its citizens will not let this tragedy define them.