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The Tight Community Of Muslims In New Zealand


The terrorist attack on two mosques in New Zealand struck a devastating blow to the small community of about 50,000 Muslims in that country. Forty-nine people were killed in those mass shootings during Friday prayers in the city of Christchurch.

Journalist Mohamed Hassan grew up in New Zealand, works now in Turkey. He is Muslim and woke Friday to dozens of anxious messages alerting him to the attack. We caught up with him at the airport as he headed back to New Zealand. And, naturally, I asked if his friends and family are OK.

MOHAMED HASSAN: Yes. Thankfully, all of my family and my close friends are OK. But there's 49 people, at least that we know of, that have been killed. Their names haven't been released yet, and we're still trying to find out, one person at a time. Inevitably, this is such a small community, so these people are going to be people that are familiar to us, even if we don't know them directly. There are going to be friends among that list. And there are going to be friends of friends or families of friends. There's still a large number of people missing, whose families aren't quite sure whether they made it out of that mosque alive or not.

BLOCK: So it's a tight enough community that this chain of knowledge would be quite intimate.

HASSAN: Absolutely. And I think at this stage, we're all trying to be there for each other as much as we can. There have been calls from the Christchurch community for Muslims from around the country to fly over to help with the burial processions, with the Islamic ritual of washing the body before it gets buried because they say they're simply overwhelmed by the enormous number of people that they're going to have to take care of.

BLOCK: Yeah.

HASSAN: And they're asking for as much help as they can.

BLOCK: When you were growing up in New Zealand, when you were in university, did you feel like you were the target of racism - of anti-Muslim sentiment ever?

HASSAN: Well, firstly, New Zealand is an incredibly peaceful country, also an incredibly welcoming country. For the large part of my life, I always felt safe wherever I went.

Having said that, the reality of growing up as a Muslim, especially after the attacks of September 11 and the rise of ISIS and all these things that have been happening on the news, is, inevitably, this affects your daily life. It affects the way people around you see you, the way they treat you.

And so as I've grown up, I've seen abuse hurled at members of my family, especially my mother and my sister, who wear the hijab. I've had to deal with discrimination, whether it's on a school yard or when applying for a job or being stopped at an airport repeatedly.

And this is an experience that is shared by many in our Muslim community. But I think at no point in time did we imagine that this would reach life-threatening levels.

BLOCK: I've read that the Muslim population in New Zealand has grown sharply as the country took in refugees from a number of countries since the 1990s. And when you look at the nationalities of those reported to be killed or injured or missing, it is a wide range - Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Syria, Turkey, Indonesia. Speaks to what an international community there is now in your home country.

HASSAN: Absolutely. And now we're seeing not only the Muslim community mourn, but you're seeing all these different communities. We know that there's been young Somalis that have lost their lives. We know there's been people that are of Turkish backgrounds that have been injured. And so all of these communities and, by extension, their home countries are mourning with us as we try and figure out what's happening right now.

BLOCK: And how do you expect the Muslim community in New Zealand to regroup after this?

HASSAN: Honestly, I'm not sure. It's going to take time. And it's going to take some healing. We're not the only ones that are feeling this. The entire country is mourning and grieving. We're going to have to figure out how to be there for each other in a way that we haven't been before. And this isn't just as Muslims; this is as New Zealanders. And this is as people that will never want to see anything happen like this again in our home.

BLOCK: Mohamed Hassan is a journalist with TRT World on his way from Turkey back home to New Zealand. Mr. Hassan, thank you so much for talking with us.

HASSAN: Thank you, Melissa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.