Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has told a Christchurch high school which lost two students in the city’s terror attacks that it is OK to grieve, while warning about the “hate and division” spread on social media.
Cashmere High School has suffered disproportionately from last week’s shootings at the Al Noor and Linwood mosques.
Year 10 student Sayyad Milne and Year 12 student Hamza Mustafa were killed in the attack, while former student Tariq Omar also lost his life.
Thousands of Christchurch students attended a Students Uniting in Love vigil in Hagley Park on Monday, organised by Cashmere High School head boy Okirano Tilaia to pay tribute to the victims of the attack.
Entering the school hall, Ardern and a number of Christchurch-based Labour MPs were greeted by a stirring haka from the students.
Addressing hundreds of students, the Prime Minister said she had wanted to visit to hear about how the school had handled the loss of students and friends in an attack of the like New Zealand had never experienced before.
“These kind of things don’t happen here where we live: we are a place that is peaceful, diverse, that has over 200 ethnicities and 160 different languages and we celebrate that. And so for something like this to have happened here in our country, this is completely alien to us.”
Ardern asked the students to look after each other, and not to be afraid to seek assistance from their friends, teachers, and the 1737 government helpline.
“It’s OK to grieve, it is OK to ask for help, even if you weren’t directly affected. These things, these images that people are seeing, they’re really, really difficult to process.”
Many people had a sense of helplessness and wanted to do whatever they could to help, she said.
“That is why I think you see hundreds and hundreds of messages outside of mosques, it’s why you see your school being offered cakes and morning teas and funds to support the students who have been affected, because that is what we do, that is who we are – when we see need, we try and meet it.”
Ardern also offered praise for the student leaders who organised the vigil, saying they had used social media for good.
“Never underestimate the power of just sending a message, looking out for someone, performing a haka – there is power in that because in doing that, you are sending a message of solidarity and of support.”
However, she warned against the dangers of social media; a number of hands went up when she asked how many students had seen or heard things on social media which made them uncomfortable.
“It was a tool to help people together to send a message of love and support, but it can also be a place where messages of hate and division are spread.”
Ardern said all New Zealanders needed to work together to ensure there was “no environment for violence to flourish, where we don’t let racism exist”.
“Let New Zealand be a place where there is no tolerance for racism ever, and that’s something we can all do.”
Opening the floor to questions, the Prime Minister was first asked how she was feeling: “Thank you for asking, I’m very sad,” she replied.
There were a number of questions about what changes the Government was going to make for gun laws, how people in the city would be kept safe, and what memorials there would be to the victims.
Before departing the school, Ardern asked one favour of the students.
“Yes there will be interest in the terrorist who did this. But if I can request one thing: don’t say his name, don’t dwell on who he is,” Ardern said.
“Dwell on your students and your friends, because they’re the most important people that we need to remember right now.”