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Refugees seeking 'safe haven' among 49 killed in New Zealand massacre

A police officer stands guard in front of the Masjid Al Noor mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand, Sunday, March 17, 2019, where one of the two mass shootings occurred.

VINCENT YU/AP

By SIOBHÁN O'GRADY AND KATIE METTLER | The Washington Post | Published: March 16, 2019

Forty years ago, Haji Daoud Nabi fled war in his native Afghanistan and resettled his family in New Zealand.

In his new home, the 71-year-old would come to run an Afghan Association, welcoming other refugees and attending the Al Noor mosque in Christchurch where he usually sat in the front row, his son said.

But on Friday, Nabi was late, so he took a seat in the back - a decision that would place him on the frontlines of New Zealand's deadliest mass shooting in recent history.

When a gunman espousing white supremacist views and a cadre of weapons stormed the mosque just before evening prayers began, Nabi reportedly shielded a family friend from the gunfire, his son told reporters.

The friend survived; Nabi did not.

"There's no words," Nabi's son, Omar Nabi, told local news organization Newshub. "People were praying, people were praying at their mosque. They got shot in the back. This is not... this is not what humans do."

At least 49 people were killed Friday in a rampage that spanned two mosques in Christchurch, on New Zealand's South Island. The shooting suspect, 28-year-old Australian Brenton Harrison Tarrant, killed 41 people at Al Noor and another seven at nearby Linwood Mosque, authorities said. Another victim died at a hospital.

Officials have yet to release the 49 names, but friends and family have slowly begun to identify their loved ones as those who perished in the mosques. The victims include refugees from a number of countries, high school students, toddlers, academics and leaders of local Muslim organizations.

Survivors are sharing harrowing stories of those who ran toward danger to save others. In the absence of information from officials, some have identified dead loved ones through the shooter's livestream video and conversations with those who witnessed the gruesome aftermath.

Two members of one Syrian refugee family who came to New Zealand in 2018 were killed in the massacre, and a third was injured, the organization Syrian Solidarity New Zealand confirmed. Khaled Mustafa attended prayers Friday with his two sons, Hamza, 14, and Zaid, 13. Mustafa and Hamza were killed in the shooting, Syrian Solidarity said, and Zaid underwent a six hour operation to mend his wounds.

Zaid is in stable condition, the organization said, but he does not yet know his father and brother were killed.

"It is deeply saddening that these refugees have come all the way from Syria to New Zealand, thinking that it was a safe haven," Ali Akil, with Syrian Solidarity, told Newshub. "They escaped death and torture in Syria, to come to New Zealand, and be killed here."

Abdulrahman Hashi, 60, a preacher at Dar Al Hijrah Mosque in Minneapolis, told The Washington Post that his 4-year-old nephew was among those killed. He received a phone call Friday morning from his brother-in-law Adan Ibrahin Dirie, who was in the hospital with gunshot wounds. Dirie had been worshiping in Christchurch that morning with his five children when the gunman opened fire. Four of his children escaped unharmed, but the youngest, Abdullahi, was killed.

The family had fled Somalia in the mid-1990s as refugees and resettled in New Zealand.

"You cannot imagine how I feel," he said. "He was the youngest in the family." He said that he would preach against Islamophobia during Friday prayers. "This is a problem of extremism. Some people think the Muslims in their country are part of that, but these are innocent people."

Adeeb Sami's trip to New Zealand was supposed to be joyful - a chance for the Dubai-based father to surprise his twin children in time for their birthday.

Instead, the 52-year-old ended up in surgery to have a bullet removed from his spine after he dove in front of his two sons to protect them from a gunman who stormed a mosque in Christchurch on Friday, Gulf News reported.

By the time the rampage was over, the gunman had killed 41 people. An attack at another mosque killed seven more, and one victim died at a hospital, leaving the country reeling in the aftermath of its deadliest mass shooting in recent history.

"My dad is a real hero," Sami's daughter, Heba, told Gulf News on Friday. "He got shot in the back near his spine in an attempt to shield my brothers, but he didn't let anything happen to them."

Heba told the Dubai-based news outlet that she lost five family friends, including a 12-year-old boy, in the attack.

The gunman live-streamed the attack on social media. In gruesome video footage, which The Post is not publishing, the attacker approaches the entrance to the mosque and raises his weapon. One man tries to greet him calmly, calling out "Hello, brother." Then the gunman opens fire. In addition to the 49 killed at the two mosques, dozens of others were wounded or are missing.

Shafiqur Rahman Bhuiyan, honorary consul for Bangladesh in Auckland, told the AP that at least three Bangladeshis were among those killed in the attack, and others were wounded. "One leg of an injured [person] needed to be amputated while another suffered bullet injuries in his chest," he said.

Jordan's state-run Petra news reported that two Jordanians were killed in the attack, and Pakistani Foreign Ministry spokesman Shah Mahmood Qureshi said Saturday that at least six Pakistanis were killed, according to the Associated Press.

On Facebook, a user named Alta Marie said her husband Zulfirman Syah and her son were both shot at the Linwood Islamic Center in Christchurch.

"I was recently united with my son, who has a gunshot wound to the leg and backside," she wrote. "He is traumatized, but we are all alive."

Asim Mukhtar, secretary general of the Pakistan Association of New Zealand, told The Post in a phone call that at least two members of the Pakistani community were wounded Friday, and five are missing. He said the Al Noor mosque is the largest in Christchurch, and that the shooting started 15 minutes before Friday prayers, when many people were still in the parking lot or walking toward the mosque. If the shooting had started mid-prayer, he said, he thinks the death toll would have been higher.

"This is a time of distress, we are in disarray, we don't know why this has happened," he said. "This is probably the last thing on our mind living in New Zealand that this will ever happen."

"We are really not feeling safe at the moment," he added.

Yasmin Ali told New Zealand's 1 News that she lost a close family friend who she loved like a grandfather and now fears she could be targeted just for wearing her headscarf in public.

"Family friends that we've known for 19 years - dead. People who were there for my engagement - dead," Ali told the news outlet. "You don't think something like this can happen in New Zealand, in Christchurch of all places with such a small community, kind and loving."

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The Washington Post's Alexandra Baumhardt contributed to this report from Minneapolis, Kareem Fahim from Istanbul.
 

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