On March 15, 2019, Sara Qasem lost her father, Abdelfattah Qasem, in the Christchurch terror attacks. In honour of her father, Sara shares her grief odyssey and the journey towards hope and healing. 

When I was seven years old, I flew in a plane which departed from the Middle East and dashed above the most glorious rivers and mountain ranges of Aotearoa my eyes would ever see. 

I created a game for myself - count the number of mountain peaks your eyes catch. 

If you miss one, you lose. I lost.

I can’t help but take you up on the opportunity to engage in a new game. 

Feel free to join if you’d like, otherwise, just skip this part. 

Firstly, put a finger up - it can be any, your thumb, index or pinky.

Now, put a finger down if you’ve ever typed the words “what to do when your dad is killed in a terrorist attack and you feel like your heart is going to claw its way out of your chest and its been three years but it still hurts just as much” into your Google search tab. 


Salaam, my name is Sara Qasem. 

When I turned 23, I marked the tallest mountain I would ever climb, and the most unruly river I would wade through. Her name? Grief. 

I liken her tumultuous waterflow, to what I imagine paddling through a stream of deep, dark Palestinian date molasses would be like. 

Your intention is to try and carry on and follow the current of life, but it somehow feels paramountly more intense in its effort. 

You’ll feel stuck quite often, and yet, this flood of treacle will slowly render itself invisible to those looking in from the banks of the river. 

Truthfully, that’s one of the worst parts - nobody can fully see your grief except for you. 

I’ve learnt to accept this. Mostly, anyways. After all, it is impossible to imagine a colour you have never seen before, is it not? 

My story of grief is the same.

In the late afternoon hours of March 15, 2019, I was teaching French to a wonderful group of students. 

Within those hours, I came to learn of a white supremacist who opened fire at a mosque in Christchurch.  

I rang my father exactly 27 times in the course of five minutes. 

A paramedic picked up my call on the final dial, and told me to stop ringing this number. Bad news. Bad, bad news

In the late afternoon hours of March 15, 2019 , I realised my dad was gone. 

Like, gone, gone

I remember feeling the air escape my lungs, turning them to stone. A museum of two precious pounamu. Sitting in silence on my classroom floor, as I watched them fly across this syrupy river of grief with the help of a wind that I didn’t bargain for.

Is this a dream? 

My gentle giant, my baba, Abdelfattah Qasem, was caught in the grips of a terrorist attack alongside some of his most cherished community members and friends - our family away from home.

To say, the last three years have been a series of difficult pills to swallow - not ones drenched in the sweet honey notes of my mama’s baklava, would be an understatement.

In all honesty, she, (grief), has remained heavy in her sadness, and yet, all the same, I see how sickly sweet she can be in the gentle way she carefully carries the memory of my baba.

For the first two years of my grief journey, I took a grave to my purpose, and put her to rest. 

Now, I have found solace in yoga, my heart-people (those I can count on the most), community, summiting those same glorious mountains I came to see a shy 13 years ago, the kindness of gentle strangers, and poetry. 

Poetry was a mother tongue which allowed me to communicate all that I could not. She once recounted to me that in the early days, I would jam polaroids of my loved ones into a typewriter, and try with all my might to rewrite the past and capture a future with a much softer hue.

Frustration was a familiar face all along, too. Far too often, my community has been handed a cape to wear and patted gently, congratulating us on our strength. 

I grew tired of being called strong. I wanted softness, I wanted ease, I wanted grace; I longed to never be called strong like stone again.

Yet, be that as it may, I soon came to acknowledge a beautiful truth: your hands had blisters from sharing the load, too. 

You, reader. Yes, you. 

A lesson amidst the fog was born. You are never alone. 

Beyond the yesterdays and tomorrows which can sometimes seem a little emptier (one person short), the notion of support too often has wiped its feet at our door when we’ve least expected it, and from those we’ve least expected it, too. 

Though suffocating at times, it was enough to fill the void in our hearts to find the courage to move forward.

You see, our story of grief and forgiveness, though not a tidy grave, is unique in the sense of it being rather public. 

Time and time again, I have been unravelled, and sewn back up again by many things, including  those around me who cared for me most - more times than I could count the stitches on my feathering grandfather's keffiyeh. I can’t help but liken this to my baba and his natural ability to string people together. (Legend has it, he could make stone hum melodies of delight with the greatest of ease.)

Grief is pretty unpredictable, but we are slowly navigating our own ways home. 

So where is home? The square of land you place your feet upon and declare as safe? In all honesty, I don’t always feel safe here. 

Poetry would say, I still sometimes feel that if I'm in a place of worship, on the wrong day, at the wrong time, I will come to hear the whistles of bullets in the house of god, and end up in the presence of god instead

So, the question remains; where is home, and how do I get there? 

Two options prevail. 

Home: the safety of a daughter within a father’s embrace. 

Also home: the feeling shared when people are willing to listen, foster their receptivity to one another through compassion and deep communication, and be willing to question any pre-existing biases. We aim to ensure nothing like this ever happens again, to anyone.

The task of bringing forward both the issues of the rise of Islamophobia, and an alarming growth of white supremacy has been no easy feat.

Alongside this, we have all, simultaneously so, battled a Covid-19 world, and shared a collective grief within that. 

Navigating the path to healing through these times has been complex and demanding. We are all feeling an element of loss, in whatever form that takes. 

Grief is not secular to bereavement alone. But, we must know that there is life after loss, and there is still much hope to blossom too.

The murder of our 51 shuhada (martyrs) should come to no surprise to anyone. 

Its likelihood of occuring has been a monster lurking in the shadows, dressed in a tidy disguise of deeply rooted colonialism and white supremacy, with significant misinformation of what it means to be a Muslim. 

The time is now for these issues to be brought to the light, and effectively laid to rest. 

We, the people, He Tangata, are the walls which hold up the whare of this nation - and believe me, these walls have ears. Our actions (or lack thereof) today, will be the legacy of tomorrow.  

Do not let our loved ones die in vain. My heart whispers; this was not a necessary grief. She is right, for my community should not have to suffer for there to be a recognition around the importance of speaking up and speaking out against radicalisation, institutional racism and Islamophobia.

I leave you with one final note, it has been three years since I lost my best friend but I find healing knowing we can better ourselves for a brighter future, and pave a gentler path for all

Our compassion for one another dwells within the sweet scent of acceptance that sits on our breath. 

Fear, however, masks this perfume, and steers us far away from our neighbours when we are at a time in which we clearly, all, need one another the most.

Poetry has been nagging me, and she has one final thing to say:

Dear 23-year-old me, 

Having your dad, as your dad, was the BIGGEST flex. But you already knew this, and I’m so pleased you did. 

Hey 23-year-old me,

I’m really sorry, I didn’t want to have to be the one to tell you this, but, today’s actually the last time you’ll speak with Dad. Please, try to make it a good one. Steep his tea a little longer and play his songs on the radio extra loud; You know, that Tina Turner one he loves the most. Like a baker to a recipe, follow that with a Palestinian traditional folk song, and watch him melt 30 years away within seconds of a melody. He’ll glow; Just you wait and see. Radiant.

Hey 24-year-old me,

You may not know this, but resilience and humility are old friends. You are tired. I can see it in your eyes. Let humility take your hand a little more often, and lead you to someone else's instead. You do not have to live in pain with hope for the future just yet; there will be much time for that in the coming years. For now, you are humble beginnings in motion. Always remember; a blooming lotus grows from the mud. You will learn how one can still foster outstanding grace in such dire circumstances, without failing to dismiss the unwritten rule; 

we too, must grow               from           the         ground          up
we too, like a lotus, must grow                            from             the              mud. 

Oh, and p.s., 

you’re going to have to change your emergency contact and list a new one, soon. 

This part is  going to suck - I’m so sorry.

Hey 25-year-old me,

Where did that year go? 

Hey 26-year-old me,

This paradox of grief will be the balance between the oscillation of grieving the loss of your father and restoring your world. The fog is surely lifting. How people choose to respond to your grief is a reflection of their reality, not the validity of yours. You’ll still ponder everything that was, and everything that could have been. The bravest thing you will ever do will be to continue with life after he died, and to do so beautifully too.

Don’t forget; people who live in honour of someone they love, carry a special mana about themselves. 


Remember;  it’s okay to drop a false smile every now and then, and let the tears flow; the cure for anything is salt-water. Or in baba’s case, is in the tea - extra, extra sugars - just the way he liked it.

Sara Qasem is a high school teacher living in Ōtautahi. She is a proud Palestinian, amateur poet, lover of the outdoors and a humanitarian. Through her poetry, she hopes to touch people’s hearts and leave them with more love than when she found them.

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