Christchurch mosque attacks: Volunteers ‘dropped everything’ to fly in and assist grieving families

Imam Muhammed Shaakir says his priority has been comforting the families of those who died or were injured in the mosque attacks in Christchurch. - Photo: RNZ / Robin Martin

The Christchurch mosque attacks left the spiritual leadership of the city's Muslim community distraught and in desperate need of support.

In response, Muslim clerics from around New Zealand and the world headed to the Garden City to help along with members of the wider community who downed tools or pulled out of school.

Auckland Imam Muhammed Shaakir heard the news of the atrocities in Christchurch just minutes after overseeing Friday prayers at the Avondale Islamic Centre.

After the initial shock he immediately wanted to help. A religious advisor at the New Zealand Council of Muslim Associations, Imam Shaakir got the call to head south in the early hours of Saturday morning.

"So immediately I just dashed out and, you know, just packed something in a carry-on bag and made our way to the airport not knowing how long it's going to be, how long we are going to be here for, what to expect, what to see.

"We just dropped everything. Whatever we were doing, dropped our families and jumped onto the plane."

Imam Shaakir's first job on arrival was to try and comfort the families of those killed, injured and unaccounted for. "From an Islamic perspective and from a spiritual perspective give them some sort of consolment and comfort, and a sense of love and strength as well in their faith.

"That was a very emotional moment; as much as we would like to be strong ourselves, we are bound by natural instinct and human nature and I tried to contain myself but we broke down as well."

Originally from South Africa, Imam Shaakir said the next days were difficult and tense as families waited for bodies to be released.

As the bodies were slowly returned to their loved ones he was part of a team who helped prepare them for burial - a group boosted by volunteers who came from everywhere.

"And people have come of their own accord. Nobody invited them. Nobody asked them to come, but they felt the need to come. They felt the responsibility and they jumped on the flights and they came.

"What we call the kafan. That is the material shroud we have. People carried those all the way from Australia."

Shocked Aucklander 'just came here to help'

Auckland engineer Omar Abul Jwaied was one of those who put work to one side to head to Christchurch.

"I came here because I'm shocked at what's happened in New Zealand here. This with the mosque has never happened before and I just came here to help.

"To see what we can do for the community and we needed to do something to help people. There was no time to think what you want to do because this is a tragedy that's happened here in New Zealand and everyone should help and be a part of it."

Mr Abul Jwaied arrived in New Zealand from Jordan in 2007. He said 19 people from Palestine and four from Jordan had been caught up in the attack.

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Auckland engineer Omar Abul Jwaied and his son, Yazeed, have put work and university study aside to help out in Christchurch. Photo: RNZ / Robin Martin

Mr Abul Jwaied and his son, Yazeed, have visited grief-stricken families at their homes and comforted victims of the attack in hospital.

"To see if they need anything or that they understand what is going on around them and we give them confidence and security.

"We are here. We are here for you. Don't worry we are all together here and we are helping each other here and we are one family and one united people."

Yazeed pulled out of his university studies to be with his father. "What happened is real sad but what can you do except come and support.

"You can't do much. You can't really help people who have passed away so we can try and support the family but at the end of the day their loved one will not be back."

The 18 year old took comfort in the fact the victims of the attack had died while at prayer.

"We believe that the deeds that you do at the end are the ones that count the most so they died while praying and they were pure.

"So we think they are kind of actually lucky because they got to meet God in the best way possible."

People gather outside Al Noor Mosque

The Al Noor Mosque where the majority of the 50 victims were killed. Photo: RNZ / Dan Cook

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