Journalist and Human Rights Advocate



Symbols of love can help heal pain of New Zealand attack, the Ottawa Citizen

The flags were flying at half-mast at my children’s school here in Ottawa.

The principal spoke over the loudspeaker to explain why. He addressed the horror that was inflicted on the town of Christchurch, New Zealand. He offered support to the middle and high school students who might need it, spoke about how racism and discrimination are anathema to their school and to our society.

Those gestures won’t solve the world’s problems, nor address the troubling tide of white supremacy and far-right movements that contributed to the radicalization of the terrorist who shot dead 50 people at prayers two weeks ago. But those words and actions send such a strong signal to our young people and to the adults in their lives.

It is such efforts that make all the difference.

It is why people everywhere are lauding New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. In both word and deed she symbolized the empathy and humanity we all search for when the worst kind of evil is on display. When we are at a loss to explain to our children why anyone would carry such hatred and commit such violence, we look for symbols and gestures of love and compassion.

Young people were sharing the video of the attacks on Snapchat shortly after they had taken place more than halfway around the world. My daughter and her friends were together for a sleepover and awoke their mother in tears at what they had inadvertently just witnessed.

When they returned to school, there were conversations about what had happened. There were those who had talked about it with their families, those who hadn’t. Not all schools provided space to address the tragedies — understandable because, as my children’s principal told me, there are so many horrors in the world and where would it end?

Yet, just as gestures have an impact, so do the omissions. So, too do the things we do not say to one another, the smiles we do not share, the space we do not offer.

The invisibility of our experiences can have a harmful effect on our sense of belonging. If our educators cannot acknowledge how a world event could impact their global student body, if our law enforcement agencies aren’t sensitive to the heightened anxiety of minority communities, if our media outlets fail to address xenophobic currents or appropriately explore threats, then we can’t help but feel abandoned.

If our political leaders refuse to accept that Islamophobia exists, or to unequivocally condemn far-right and white supremacist ideologies, we feel all the more vulnerable and alone. If the public does little to oppose policies implemented to limit religious expression, undermining our ability to both practise our faith and serve the public, we are further isolated.

It’s why we should hold up and acknowledge the efforts that are made to reach out and bring people together. When fear and bigotry influence social consciousness, we each need to highlight and express the opposite of those attitudes. We need to spotlight the compassion and care we give and receive in times like these.

There are those who see our pain, who feel the depth of our anguish. Knowing that is integral to the healing we need to begin. Those who rush to provide protection to places of worship, those who take a moment to send messages of solidarity and peace, those who dance the Haka in honour of those who were stolen from us, those who don a hijab for a few moments in kinship.

All of this permits us to fully grieve, even to forgive.

There is no simple solution to confronting the radicalization of those who are threatened by the mosaic of cultures and religions and experiences that make up our multicultural societies. But there are ways to counter the hatred and provide a balm for those who are hurting.

“We are brokenhearted, but we are not broken,” said Imam Gamal Fouda, the imam of the Al Noor mosque in a speech one week after the attack, surrounded by thousands of fellow new Zealanders, united in grief.

It is the gestures and symbols of love that keep us whole.

Amira Elghawaby