Sara Qasem’s father, Abdelfattah, was killed in the Mosque shooting on March 15, 2019 and Sara is one of seven members of the Muslim community affected by the attacks to appear in the TV3 documentary Patrick Gower: On Hate. She talks to Capsule about what got her through those horrendous early days, the dangers of white supremacy and the fierce pride she has for her father’s legacy.
When someone you love dies, you go through one of the most personal and profound experiences a person can have, as you move through your grief. When someone you love dies in a live-streamed terrorist attack, that rocks a nation – and a world – to its core, then that private experience is suddenly put on display for the world to see.
Sara Qasem’s father, Abdelfattah, was one of 51 worshippers killed in the March 15 terrorist attacks in 2019; Abdelfattah was praying at the Al Noor mosque when he was killed in the second round of shooting, after staying in the mosque to help his friends. There are two different ideas that go through Sara’s brain, she says, when she thinks about how she has balanced the private grief with the public event.
“One of them is ‘legacy’ and the other one is ‘I’ve already been through the worst thing in the world, so anything after that is small in comparison,” she says. The legacy of Abdelfattah is that he died as he lived. “The reason he’s not here with us today is because of his character. He is a wonderful friend, he is a deeply, deeply caring person and the second round of shooting was unfortunately the fatal shot, because he told his friends ‘I’m not going to leave you.’”
She and her family are “fiercely proud” of her father’s legacy. “When you think about how fearful you would be in that state and how much bravery, courage and trust in the world that you would have to have in order to [stay inside].” She shakes her head. “When we had to go back into the mosque – and I say ‘had to’, very intentionally – [we saw] the exit door was right behind him. And that just cut me to bits.”
“When we had to go back into the mosque – and I say ‘had to’, very intentionally – [we saw] the exit door was right behind him. And that just cut me to bits.”
On the hardest days, it’s that legacy that keeps her going. “I think ‘Come on, buck up a little, you come from a long line of absolute heroes.’ Because not only was my father a hero, but he is fiercely Palestinian,” she says. “My people are told that we shouldn’t exist from the moment we are born, and so to be quiet and be small is not really an option.”
There is often talk of the strange sort of empowerment that comes from grief, from going through a situation so traumatic that, as Sara says, you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemies. “I’ve gone through the biggest thing that I will probably ever go through in my life and at the age of 23,” she says of the terrorist attack. “It’s sort of like, if this hasn’t broken me – and it’s not that it hasn’t broken my heart… but if this hasn’t broken my hope for this world, then nothing else can.”
In the latest instalment of Patrick Gower’s documentaries – Patrick Gower: On Hate – Sara opens up about the loss of her father and why there is a wider perspective necessary on the events of March 15. “Now that the dust has settled a bit, there’s an opportunity to reflect on what happened, and in some ways try and understand why it happened… there are some really important things that we need to be aware of and we all need to, in some way, take responsibility for, so that my community doesn’t have to support other people in the future that will go through this. We don’t want this to happen to anyone else, period.”
“We can’t change the past and we can’t change people that come in from outside New Zealand and think that this is an okay thing to do,” Sara says. “But what we can change is what we have here, within New Zealand. It’s uncomfortable to accept the fact that there is racism here and that we do have pre-existing biases and that’s something we really need to work towards changing.” She believes we as a country are up to it. “I know that New Zealand will be willing to listen, simply because of the incredibly compassionate and loving response after the attacks.”
“It’s uncomfortable to accept the fact that there is racism here and that we do have pre-existing biases and that’s something we really need to work towards changing.”
But that sense of ‘otherness’ is pervasive throughout our culture. Sara arrived here from Kuwait when she was seven and she says, like a lot of other people who immigrated to New Zealand when they were young, she’s never sure “where I sit on the scale of Arab versus Kiwi.” Growing up, she was made to feel very aware of this divide. “I just accepted that people were going to call me ‘terrorist’ or whatever… and then something like this happens and you’re like ‘This isn’t mine. And I’m not going to carry it anymore.’”
The horrendous irony of a young Sara being called “terrorist” in this country, and then losing her father to a major terrorist attack, perpetrated by a white Australian, against her very community, isn’t lost on anyone. “It’s something that goes so far back behind the generalisation and the lack of education about ‘what is religion’ and ‘what is radicalisation.’”
In the early days after her father was killed, it was a combination of her father’s legacy, her own faith, the Muslim community around her and the wider NZ community that kept her going, Sara says. She said she was driven to talk about her father so publicly in the aftermath of the attacks because she was “so terrified he would become a number… as much as I hated the camera and the sound of my voice, I was so adamant to tell his story as widely as possible.”
“What you really want, more than anything, is for people to listen and be willing to speak about your loved ones who have passed, because although he’s not here, my dad is still my dad. And he still matters to me a lot.”
Now, two and a half years later, it’s just as important that others help her hold up the memory of Abdelfattah. At this stage of grief, she says, “what you really want, more than anything, is for people to listen and be willing to speak about your loved ones who have passed, because although he’s not here, my dad is still my dad. And he still matters to me a lot.”
When it comes to the national response to the On Hate documentary, Sara wants us to keep in mind that the ongoing threat of white supremacy is very real. “Nobody here is looking to point fingers but people have the right to know that this wasn’t a ‘wrong place, wrong time accidental thing.’” There are many dark days in New Zealand’s history: wars, natural disasters. This was a well-planned, extremely pre-meditated terrorist attack and this is a terrorist who found a home and a community within New Zealand.
“So many doors were open to him,” Sara says. “And it’s challenging – and I hate this word, but it fits in this context – being one of the ‘victims’ that has reaped the consequences of this, seeing how many doors were open to him that could have been slammed shut and stopped him.”
“That’s a painful reality that highlights as much as we think that we can’t change the world, or that one voice isn’t enough, sometimes all it takes is for one voice to speak up, then others speak up, and then we get a domino effect and we create a strong and collective voice that can reap change.”
More than anything, it’s increasing the importance of communication – particularly with people who come from a different walk of life to you – that Sara wants to highlight as the easiest way to create that change. “The love that we have certainly outweighs the hate, but we certainly need to be conscious of the hate that is there. For those who are willing to listen: invite them in and have a conversation. You might just change someone’s perspective.”