I wrote this for The Australian Newspaper today:
Days like this don’t happen in New Zealand.
We’re not this violent. We don’t hate like this. We pride ourselves on welcoming immigrants and refugees.
Part of the mythology we hold onto is that we are the people who welcomed refugees from the Tampa when the Howard government in Australia refused to take them back in 2001. Helen Clarke, our prime minister at the time, the hero of the day. Howard, the villain.
I met some of those refugees, working the Avondale markets in Auckland, where they sell roadside junk that Aucklanders put out on the weekends to be cleared away by such as them. Doctors, lawyers, some of them — but selling junk at the markets to get by.
Regardless, New Zealanders feel good about themselves for being people who open the door to such as them. Not all New Zealanders, of course. There are some who preferred we close the gate — or hold it slightly ajar.
Our first refugee MP, Golriz Ghahraman (Greens) from Iran, is mocked because of her name, her politics, her story. People even reject the idea she was a refugee at all, or dig into her past to prove that as a criminal defence barrister she wasn’t always on the side of the oppressed. So, there’s that side to New Zealanders too.
But if there’s one thing all New Zealanders agree on, it’s that Christchurch should be given a break.
We all united in grief when, on February 22, 2011, a massive earthquake caused incredible damage to the city of Christchurch and killed 185 people. The city was already reeling from a magnitude 7.1 earthquake in Canterbury the previous September.
Residents of Christchurch not only had to bury their dead and start rebuilding their city (which still continues), they had to live through months of aftershocks, forcing many of them to relocate to deal with their trauma. Christchurch brought us together in sorrow, in support, and in prayer.
Even if you’re not a fan of the Crusaders (and who is, unless you’re from Canterbury), we can all agree that Christchurch and the Canterbury district have had their fair share of suffering.
So, today, when Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern described the shootings at two mosques in Christchurch as one of New Zealand’s darkest days, it was not lost on any of us that the previous “darkest day” also belonged to Christchurch.
“What has happened in Christchurch is an extraordinary act of unprecedented violence,” Ms Ardern said.
“It has no place in New Zealand. Many of those affected will be members of our migrant communities — New Zealand is their home — they are us.”
They are us. The Prime Minister was talking about the migrant communities, people like those from the Tampa who worked the markets to survive.
And she’s right. They are us. That’s what we who choose to live in New Zealand believe. What happened today was not meant to happen here.
And those words, “They are us”, can just as easily be applied to the people of Christchurch … yet again. As in 2011, you are us and we are you. You have suffered immeasurably but you are not alone. New Zealand is big enough to share your pain and walk with you through the dark times.