On Saturday afternoon we commemorated the Christchurch terror attack with a vigil in Auckland. A sea of Aucklanders poured into the city. We walked under a beating sun, barely holding back tears as we caught each other’s eyes, hugged, said words that felt insufficient to capture the magnitude of our emotions, and waited together at Aotea Square. I knew I would be speaking from the heart and as a member of the affected community. I was there as a politician but our community has so few visible leaders on the national stage, what they needed right now was to have their pain, their chilling fear, their righteous anger expressed. As we began to hear from each speaker, beginning with members of the Muslim and migrant communities most affected, as we heard the hardest truths come over the loud speakers, I felt the air fill our collective lungs. It was a relief. We looked around and felt the love that had brought us all together, even with all our grief.
Our nation’s heart was broken on Friday.
When it was my turn to speak, I thanked the crowd from the bottom of my Kiwi, refugee, migrant, heart. As a woman of colour, from the so called Muslim world, I thanked them for being on the right side of history. For turning up. For filling my beautiful, diverse, hometown with so much love.
It matters to our community to see that love right now. We are afraid for our lives. We will be afraid sending our kids to school, kissing our loved ones goodbye each morning, leaving our homes at night, for years to come. It was important to acknowledge too, that some of us have felt that anxiety for years before now. We have seen the swastikas growing in number around parts of our towns and cities. We have seen the comments sections, social media pages devoted to hate against us. We have seen the headlines and opinion pieces talking about us as a threat to the ‘Kiwi way of life’, just as we thought of ourselves as proud Kiwis.
What happened on Friday, happened to ordinary men, women, and little children. It happened to them because of their faith, because they look different, and because for years now, they have been actively pitched as the scourge of humanity by those who stood to profit from that hate. Some of them had already escaped violence and persecution based on their race, religion, political views elsewhere in the world. They had escaped war. That, after all is what refugees are made of.
So what I won’t be able to shake is the news that among the victims were a family, with little kids, who had escaped the Syrian civil war. They escaped that harrowing war to die in Christchurch, New Zealand. They died because they went to Mosque on Fridays, building their community bonds, as they healed the wounds of that war.
New Zealand will always be my home, since this was where my family and I first found safety and freedom. It will always be home because like so many of us, I believe in the values of inclusion and equality that I first found here. But what we owe the victims of the Christchurch massacre is the truth. That truth is that what happened in Christchurch was an act of terrorism. It was an act of terrorism committed by white supremacists. It was not an act committed by a lone wolf killer. It was an act that was part of the fabric of racism that exists online and in segments of New Zealand society, gone unchecked, even as members of that victim community made repeated pleas for help against its terrifying rise. This happened in New Zealand and we do need to own it, for the victims and their families rather than dismiss it as an aberration.
We need to send more than thoughts and prayers, though those do help right now. We need to take action to make those communities safe. Whether that comes in reviewing the way we police hate groups, or our gun control laws, we need to act. Importantly, we need to acknowledge that hate speech exists and it is dangerous. In fact, it is deadly. It has been weaponised against women and minorities for far too long. As we call it out, we need to have a conversation about our human rights laws. New Zealand is behind most modern democracies in defining and regulating hate speech, so we are vulnerable to the likes of Donald Trump and alt-Right hate groups. The New Zealand Human Rights Commission said so last year in its report to the UN.
We have seen the rise of the frightening politics of hate and division around the world over the past years. Now we need to heed the constant words of minority communities as they tell us that New Zealand was never immune. We need to protect not just those communities, but the values that keep us all safe. Equality, freedom from persecution, and inclusion are values we need to underpin our democracy.
The fact that thousands upon thousands of Kiwis turned out to grieve and support our Muslim communities this past weekend makes me infinitely hopeful that we will do that. It should make us feel proud and energised in tackling the hard conversations and the work ahead. It speaks to the strength and goodness of our values.Support Villainesse