I have been traveling around New Zealand for a month now, a country that has been beautiful, friendly, happy and lovely. This is a country renowned for its standard of living, its eagerness to please, its reputation as a safe space - even the police are normally unarmed here.
From the coastal towns to the larger cities, the national parks to the tiny mountainous villages, I have felt it. A sense of pride of being a New Zealander. A wanting to show off how great this place is without being obnoxious. Modesty underlies the beauty here. It's a wonderful place to be, especially as a young woman backpacking solo.
I landed in Christchurch, my first point of entry to New Zealand, in the middle of February. The weather was warm, a few clouds dotted the sky. Everywhere I went I encountered good-natured people going about their business. The biggest event people talked about that had impacted Christchurch was the 2011 earthquake. Lingering rubble is still visible on street corners in and among the sleek new architecture cropping up around the city. Rebuilding has been a slow process, but it's transforming the city on its own accord.
A month later, I was sitting in my hostel room in Mount Cook National Park in the early evening of Friday, March 15th just over three hours' drive west of Christchurch when my mum called and told me to look at the news. Christchurch was under attack.
I was shocked to watch the events unfold. The worst mass shooting in New Zealand's history. As live news streams flooded in, the jovial faces of those around me turned somber as we all realized something unthinkable was happening. I reached out to fellow travellers I had met who were back in Christchurch. They shared harrowing tales of the mounting loss of lives, hostels being in lockdown and the city streets abandoned.
When I returned to Christchurch on Sunday afternoon, it was to a city much changed from when I was here just a month ago. The normally unarmed police were carrying visibly large guns. Large sections of the city surrounding where the attacks happened were cordoned off with harsh red police tape. A sadness underlies day-to-day life.
This is a country I embraced as safe, welcoming, inclusive and united. There is no place for evil here. I can't imagine what the victims' families are going through.
The following morning, I visited the growing memorials around the Al Noor Mosque in Christchurch to pay my respects. I was moved to tears. A continuous flow of citizens arrived bringing flowers and tears. Thousands of flowers, cards, messages and candles adorned various spots on Deans Avenue, each sharing the sentiment that this should have been a safe space.
Everyone should have been safe here.
While the outpourings from the Christchurch community and the stance and compassion of leaders here and around the world can never erase what has happened, they have gone a long way to reinforce the good. Love will always win.
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Over the last few years, the world has waited for a courageous, empathetic and bold leader. Someone who steps forward, takes risks, challenges archaic systems and rallies for peace. With this photo, and her actions over the past twelve months, I believe PM @JacindaArdern is such a leader. She is leading with love and courage by being an undeniable source of comfort for the Muslim community, New Zealand and the rest of the world. Within the last twenty four hours, she has chosen language based on inclusion, compassion and belonging. She has challenged world leaders that incite fear and called them out. She has chosen to wear the Hijab in a mark of respect. This photo is even more powerful given the fact that she is the youngest female head of government, a woman, a mother, a leader who is presenting herself in such a manner that the world has not seen in years. She is challenging the stereotype that women are incapable and too emotional to handle national emergencies. More so, she is challenging the bias towards young people in politics. Prime Minister Ardern is paving the way for a new style of courageous leadership. I only hope that through her example, more will follow. Thank you for being a beacon of hope 💛💛 [Image: Christchurch City Council - Kirk Hargreaves]