Love helping to face fear

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"Unreal love" . . . University of Otago Muslim University Students' Association (from left) president Hamzeh Obeidat, of Matamata, committee member Adibah Khan, of Wellington, and vice-president Naser Tamimi, of Dunedin (all 20), view a collection of flowers and read messages of support outside the Al Huda mosque in North Dunedin on Tuesday.PHOTO: SHAWN MCAVINUE

The Muslim community in Dunedin continues to “live in fear” but the love from the community is helping them get through.

University Students’ Association vice-president Naser Tamimi (20) said he moved from Palestine to live in Dunedin 10 years ago and was in his third year studying neuroscience.

“Dunedin has always been my home.”

He was in a tutorial in Dunedin when he first heard of the attack in Christchurch on Friday afternoon.

“I heard that my close friend got shot and I started crying.”

He left the tutorial and went to the house of his friend, association president Hamzeh Obeidat, as details of the attack unfolded.

The stream of “disturbing news” was constant.

“Every minute it kept getting worse and worse and worse.”

Fifty people died after the alleged gunman, who had been living in Dunedin since at least 2017, opened fire at two mosques in Christchurch.

While Mr Tamimi was at his friend’s house, he learned members of a Dunedin family he was close to had been hurt – the father shot and son killed.

Speaking to The Star on Tuesday, he said he was still struggling to come to terms with the tragedy.

“I can’t wrap my head around it.”

He was not alone.

The about 200 other association members included a “shocked and scared” Muslim student, who had been in Dunedin for three months, and declared he would never attend a Friday prayer session again because a friend had been killed in the attack.

The way people accessed Al Huda mosque in Clyde St, North Dunedin, to pray had changed.

“Police come and give us the thumbs-up, we open it, pray, come out and then close it.”

Community kindness . . . Messages of support are placed outside the Al Huda Mosque in North Dunedin on Tuesday. PHOTO: SHAWN MCAVINUE

Before the attack, the mosque door was left open for anyone to use.

It was not known if the mosque would ever return to the same level of accessibility.

“We now have to think about locking it up when there is a gathering inside.

“It’s hard to think we have to be careful every time we go in to pray.

“We live in fear that this could happen again.”

Otago Muslim Association deputy chairman Steve Johnston, “a fifth-generation Dunedin boy”, said life for Muslims in Dunedin had changed since the attacks and some were too scared to leave their homes.

On the day of the attack, he had prayed at Al Huda mosque.

Up to 300 people could be in the mosque to pray on a Friday.

After praying at the mosque, he returned to work and answered a call from a reporter seeking a response to the shooting in Christchurch.

The conversation was the first time he had heard about the attack and he asked the reporter: “Was anybody hurt?” he said, recalling the moment, breaking down and crying.

“It was not easy.”

The news that the accused gunman was living in Dunedin before the attack was greeted with “fear”.

Mr Tamimi said the fact that Dunedin was the original target made it “10 times worse”.

Mr Johnstone said after the attack the Otago Muslim Association got a “flood” of social media messages. Most were positive but “there’s been an unfortunate number of unsavoury comments”.

Racism was “alive and well” across the world but since the attack the show of support from the Dunedin community had been “overwhelming”.

The first flower bouquet and message of support was placed outside the mosque soon after the attack.

“I feel a lot of love and support from the community – it’s certainly helping me get through this.”

Mr Tamimi agreed.

“The love has been unreal . . . it was not just an attack on us Muslims – it is an attack on all of New Zealand.”