At a meeting in Christchurch, public sector agencies are told some home truths. David Williams reports.

On the evening of March 15, 2019, Anjum Rahman, of the Islamic Women’s Council, revealed her group had warned authorities of a potential attack on Muslims.

“We need to be taken seriously and we want firm action taken,” Rahman said, as the Muslim community, and the country, reeled from the Christchurch terrorist attack, which killed 51 people who were praying at two mosques, and injured dozens more.

A clearer picture emerged at the end of that year, when Rahman’s colleague, Aliya Danzeisen, spoke at a political studies conference at the University of Canterbury. She detailed her council’s five fruitless years of banging on the doors of officialdom.

“We made specific, clear statements about our concern with the alt right in New Zealand. And we gave examples.” She added: “Had I not had a hijab, I am confident that we would have been heard.”

A year later, the Royal Commission into the Christchurch shootings reported what it had heard from the Muslim community. While they were grateful for the general support and empathy from New Zealanders, there were many frustrations with the public service. “Common themes were a lack of cultural understanding, a perceived lack of effort to improve cultural capability, and policies and practices that were not pragmatic enough to support people’s recovery needs from this particular, albeit extraordinary, event.”

Yesterday morning, in Christchurch, Danzeisen spoke again – this time directly to bureaucrats attending a national hui on terrorism. As reported yesterday, it was a session the Islamic Women’s Council had pushed for out of concern voices for the Muslim community needed to be heard.

It was an emotional, tearful address, which painted a bleak picture of some – but definitely not all – agencies.

“We should not have to upskill you. You should be upskilling yourselves.” – Aliya Danzeisen

Danzeisen revealed since the 2019 attack she’s been threatened six times. Authorities have not been able to identify the perpetrators, or say, definitely, the level of risk, she said. Given the vacuum, Danzeisen, who lives in Hamilton, established an amateur social media team to investigate – which identified some people, and passed their details to authorities.

“You’re responsible for protecting me – I shouldn’t have to protect myself,” Danzeisen said at the He Whenua Taurikura hui yesterday. “When the authorities tell me, ‘You’re safe’, I don’t feel safe. I have evidence that I’m not safe. And I’m asking you to make me safe.”

Police officers, and people from other agencies, are empathetic, Danzeisen says, but don’t have cultural understanding. “We should not have to upskill you. You should be upskilling yourselves.”

Time and again the Muslim community has heard from public servants: ‘We’re here to learn from you’.

“That’s not the right thing,” Danzeisen told the audience at Christchurch’s Town Hall. “You should be coming in and saying, ‘I found A, B and C to learn, is there anything else I’m missing?’ And you should have done A, B and C. And often you don’t.”

Her step-children are young, Muslim women of African descent – “you can imagine the harrassment”.

“They get it when they walk to school, they get it in the classroom, they get it from teachers.”

Each time, Danzeisen has to build them back up – teach them to believe in New Zealand. But at the same time she’s reassuring them they’re safe, she’s having to walk them through a personal protection plan, should something happen at their house.

Dr Maysoon Salama says she felt betrayed and let down by the Government, which had a duty of protection to the public. Photo: David Williams

As a leading voice for Muslim women, she doesn’t get “my own hate”, Danzeisen also feels the burden of the rest of the community. “When they don’t know where to go, or where to report, or when you have not received them well, they come to me. And I have to advise them. And I have to tell them what to do and where to go.”

It’s not one woman, or one community – it’s across the nation.

Yesterday, Muslim women shared their experiences with hate.

Iman Bsisov recalled 12 years ago, two government workers pointing their fingers at her, like guns, and calling her a “terrorist”, while she was installing a car seat for her children. At the same agency, years later, at a time when her head scarf covered most of her face, a government worker said he had found a house for her and her children. “Show me your face and I’ll give you the keys.”

Tasnim Yassin and her sister were abused in public a few weeks after the March 15 massacre. But they never heard from police if the offender had been caught – or even spoken to. Young Muslim women have taken to travelling in groups, to feel safer. “A lot of people just don’t make complaints because they don’t see the point in complaining when nothing’s going to be done.”

(Yesterday, Police Commissioner Andrew Coster said changes to its 105 non-emergency form should make it easier for hate crimes or hate speech to be reported. In March, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said: “There has to be a better way to respond to those things that may not reach a criminal threshold.”)

Radiya Ali came to New Zealand from Yemen in 2005. Last week, she went to a hospital to get her baby immunised but was asked by the receptionist to produce a birth certificate because “we need proof that he’s your son”. (Her husband is Scottish.)

“That’s the discrimination that we’re facing now.”

(Recent cases have been reported in the media, including that of Said Abdukadir and a woman appearing in court last month after allegedly racially abusing the mother and sister of a March 15 Shuhadah.) 

Dr Maysoon Salama’s son Ata Mohammad Ata Elayyan was killed in the March 15 terror attack, and her husband, Mohammad Atta Ahmad Alayan, was injured. Salama runs daycare centres in Christchurch and Dunedin.

She told the conference yesterday: “One teacher in Dunedin she had to resign because she felt every time she was walking into the centre somebody’s going to shoot her in the back.”

The suffering of the community continues, she says. That includes dealing with her own fears as she walks across the road to the Christchurch daycare centre.

“Nowadays I feel somebody might hit me with a car, because of what we hear in the news.”

Radiya Ali was asked by a hospital receptionist to produce a birth certificate. Photo: David Williams

Danzeisen said those experiences were a sample; the tip of the iceberg.

“There is a depth to hate. And that depth of hate is more than words being thrown at you. It’s the depth when you’ve told people and they haven’t acted – when they haven’t heard you, and it’s ongoing. It feels, at times, intentional. And at the best, it feels negligent.”

To ease the pressure, she has quit her job as a high school teacher. “I’m now able to sleep at night.”

Danzeisen has been told public service workers think she’s always critical. “I’m not critical, I’m protecting my community. And I’m protecting my family and I’m protecting myself.

“And so I ask you from the Islamic Women’s Council, from family, and from myself, that you find the urgency in your heart to acknowledge it’s real, to acknowledge it’s urgent, and to acknowledge that you have to do better.”

At the same hui on Tuesday, during a panel discussion on media, Khairiah Rahman, a senior lecturer at Auckland University of Technology’s School of Communication Studies, brought up a lukewarm apology for a media story that wrongly stated Muslims worship the Prophet Muhammad.

“Unless you recognise what the problem is, and you care, things will not change,” Rahman said. “At the end of the day, the Muslims are going to feel that you’ve given us the space to talk but we’ve not been heard.”

David Williams is Newsroom's environment editor, South Island correspondent and investigative writer.

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