Deckchairs, friendly faces draw in those who need to talk

12:18 pm on 25 March 2019

As Christchurch grappled with the grief caused by the mosque shootings last week, a group of Muslim men, dealing with their own grief, set up deckchairs in different parts of the city, and invited people to simply sit and talk.

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People wanted to share their raw memories and pass on their condolences to the Muslim community at informal counselling sessions around Christchurch last week. Photo: RNZ / Laura Dooney

Hady Osman and Bakr Al-Saudi were in Christchurch to help their community and to farewell their close friend, New Zealand futsal representative Atta Elayyan.

The 33-year-old was praying at the Al Noor Mosque next to Hagley Park when he was shot in the terror attack.

Mr Osman and Mr Al-Saudi took their own time to set up chairs and invited people to sit down and chat. They sat near the cordon to the Al Noor Mosque, where people had left notes and flowers next to trees bound together by police tape.

They also sat at the Memorial Park Cemetery, on a day when several fellow Muslims had been buried, again to give people a place to sit and briefly unburden themselves.

The idea came to Mr Osman when he arrived in Christchurch the Sunday following the shootings and went to a memorial, where people were laying flowers, and mourning.

"I can see they don't have closure. They almost feel like they want to talk to someone, but they don't know who to talk to. They don't know who to give condolences to. I felt a lot of people looking at me, for example, they can probably tell 'this person is a Muslim', and I can feel that people want to come and talk, but they don't know how," he said.

While working in San Francisco recently, Mr Osman had seen people setting up chairs and inviting others to talk to them, in an effort to encourage more face-to-face human interaction.

This came to mind as he saw how people were reacting to the tragedy, and he thought it could be a good way to create a place for them to sit down and talk, and be heard.

Mr Osman had also seen and read dozens and dozens of cards written by people, to the Muslim community, in among flowers left as tributes to the dead.

Pictures of Christchurch mosques attack victims sits above flowers at a memorial site near the Al Noor mosque.

Flowers and other tributes near the Al Noor Mosque in Christchurch. Photo: AFP or licensors

One by a young child caught his attention. While scribbled and untidy, it showed raw emotion, Mr Osman said, and was addressed to the Muslim community.

"People are writing cards with very, very raw emotions on there. They must have taken their time; there are cards that are coloured, people have done paintings, people have put a lot of effort in a lot of this, and I was just like 'who's receiving all of this'?"

As a member of the Muslim community, he felt like the cards were written to him, he said.

And so he, Bakr Al-Saudi, another Muslim friend, and a German tourist set up chairs - with signs inviting anyone passing by to sit down, and chat. It was about listening to people, and encouraging them to speak about whatever was on their mind, Mr Osman said.

It often ended with people in tears, like one photographer who was in Hagley Park when people came out of mosque, bloodied and frightened.

"As soon as he was telling that story, he just completely broke down. He just could not make any sense of how something so tragic could happen in New Zealand ... and he just cried, and cried, and cried, and cried."

Bakr Al-Saudi said everyone had been affected in some way by the shooting, like one man he approached. "I just walked up and said, 'how are you holding up?', and he said 'I live six doors from the mosque'.

"At the time of the shooting he had his granddaughter with him, and he was fearing for his life, and so he needed to share that story with someone.

"Those little stories kept repeating themselves. Everybody's got some sort of connection one way or another with the incident, and I think it's really important these people let that story come out, as a first step to moving on."

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Mr Al-Saudi said having a simple conversation helped break the ice, and brought people together. Photo: RNZ / Laura Dooney

"At the moment everybody's sharing the same pain, so we wanted to strengthen that bond that's automatically happened.

"We recognise people will move on and probably get back to their busy lives, and we don't want to lose these precious bonds that are happening now.

"The bonds that are happening now are very, very unique. If you can capitalise on that to produce a better, positive future, why not?"

Mr Osman said he hoped to take the idea around the country, and through talking and listening to people, help create permanent, positive change.

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