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The colour of peace

Three years ago, Ahmad Almasri left Jordan to make his home in New Zealand. He was deeply shocked at the mass shooting of his Muslim brothers and sisters in the country he now calls home. Ahmad talks to Mark Peters about what it is to be Muslim in both his homeland and in New Zealand . . .

Listening to the Quran on his phone helps Portofino restaurant owner Ahmad (William) Almasri get a couple of hours sleep at night.

The words of the central religious text of Islam are a balm after the massacre in Christchurch last Friday.

Masjid Al Noor, the “mosque of light”, where Ahmad married his Samoan partner, was one of two Christchurch mosques the hatred-driven shooter entered to murder men, women and children at prayer. Many of them were Ahmad’s friends. Among the wounded was Wassem Alsati, a close friend Ahmad emigrated to New Zealand with in search of a better life, and Wassem’s daughter.

Ahmad closed the doors to his business to head south and be with the people he calls brothers and sisters.

“We were in shock,” says Ahmad.

“We came here because it’s safe, it’s comfortable. We never expected this to happen. Never ever.”

Ahmad saw 17 minutes of the footage live streamed from the killer’s GoPro.

“When I see the video I am shocked, I cried. Later on. I cannot do anything in the restaurant. I can’t stand on my feet.”

He was shocked because this was happening in New Zealand — but what he saw was not unfamiliar to him. Real-life death and destruction screens on television every day in his homeland.

“We grew up with these things. Here in Gisborne you don’t see what they see back home every day.”

Ahmad and Wassem left Jordan five years ago in search of a better life in New Zealand. Often referred to as an “oasis of stability”, Jordan is bordered by Saudi Arabia to the south, Iraq to the north-east, Syria to the south, Iraq to the north-east, Syria to the north and Israel and Palestine to the west. Both men’s parents lived in Palestine but fled to Jordan to get away from the bombing and shooting.

“In Jordan was a hard life — especially for kids. You need a good job, good income, good house. Life is hard for everyone in Jordan.

“Wassem and I came here to make a good life. We couldn’t see our future in Jordan as we saw it here in New Zealand with kids, family life and freedom and lovely people. This is a safe country. Everyone treats us equally.”

Before he left Jordan people told him the New Zealand passport was the best in the world. New Zealand has no wall, they told him.

“We are proud we are in New Zealand. New Zealand has showed up for us since we came here. They love us. We don’t feel different here. As we say to each other, we are brother and sister in New Zealand.

“I loved that I can marry in my mosque in New Zealand.”

Ahmad’s Samoan wife Rina Lopati converted from Christianity to Islam two years ago. The Somalian man who conducted the wedding was in the mosque at the time of the attack and was wounded. He survived.

Refugees were among the killed and injured in Christchurch, says Ahmad.

“If they die, it’s not New Zealand. It’s one bad person. Who is he to say he needs to stop Muslims or refugees coming here?

We will still come. We’re not scared of anyone. We’re only scared of God if we do something wrong.”

Militant group ISIS (Islamic State) is responsible for death and destruction in countries that include Libya, Lebanon, Syria and Kyrgyzstan, says Ahmad.

“We hear ISIS, ISIS - who is ISIS? People think Muslim people are ISIS? This is not human being to do that. Our religion says ‘do not kill’.

“We hear the bombing, the shooting 24/7. We cry to hear that. That is not us. We need the world to open up and think about Islam or any religion. All people are human beings, all have been created from God. Respect, care and love each other.”

'God will judge him'After the Christchurch attack, he and his wife decided to shut up shop so they could go to Christchurch.

“We went there to support our friends but it was shocking. The hospital was in lockdown but I couldn’t see Wassem and his daughter anyway in this situation. It was too hard because I feel to see him like this we are already broken-hearted.

“Even now I can’t sleep normally. All the images come into my head. I have my Quran audio. I put it on to sleep. I’m hearing God’s word.”

The Muslim community will forgive the killer, says Ahmad.

“God will judge him.”

Since the attack on Friday Ahmad’s parents have phoned three or four times a day. They did not sleep for three days, he says.

“They said ‘pack up your bag and come back’. But one person doesn’t make the country unsafe.

“I have been here five years. I have a business, I have a beautiful wife, beautiful people are around us. I want us to raise kids here.”

A trained chef, Ahmad worked for six years in five-star hotels in Dubai long before he came to New Zealand. He returned to Jordan to be close to his parents but three years later planned to return to Dubai or go to Kuwait.

“But it would be the same. I wanted a beautiful life.”

A friend recommended New Zealand.

“He said life as a chef is different in New Zealand. Here you have freedom, you have a voice, everyone knows you. High position, low position, everyone respects you. Then I think ‘go to New Zealand’.”

He and Mr Alsati bought one-way air tickets.

On arrival though Ahmad was held at customs for four hours while his background details were checked.

“That’s fair enough,” he says.

“They wanted to keep New Zealand safe.”



GREEN LAND: Portofino restaurant owner Ahmad Almasri and his wife Rina Lopati shut shop after the hate-driven killings in two Christchurch mosques so they could head south to be with the Muslim friends they call brothers and sisters. Picture by Rebecca Grunwell
The massive floral tribute to the victims of the terror attacks at the Christchurch Botanic Gardens. 20 March 2019 New Zealand Herald photograph by Mark Mitchell
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in Christchurch speaking to representatives of the Muslim community at the Canterbury refugee centre. New Zealand Herald Photograph by Lucy Bennett
HELPING HAND: Police relocated flower tributes from Hagley Park to Masjid Al Noor in Christchurch. New Zealand Herald photograph by Michael Craig