New Zealand attack: Pakistani expat family mourns with pride

Relatives look the pictures of Pakistani citizen Rashid Naeem, and his son Talha Naeem, who were reportedly killed in the Christchurch mosque shooting, on a cell phone at their native home in Abbottabad, Pakistan. (Aqeel Ahmed, AP)
Relatives look the pictures of Pakistani citizen Rashid Naeem, and his son Talha Naeem, who were reportedly killed in the Christchurch mosque shooting, on a cell phone at their native home in Abbottabad, Pakistan. (Aqeel Ahmed, AP)

The question caught Ambreen Naeem off-guard.

"At 2pm, my sister called and asked where my son Talah and husband Naeem were," Ambreen says quietly.

"I remember thinking, 'why is she asking me?', because it's normal they would be at Friday prayers at this time'," she adds, nervously pressing her fingers against one another.

Unknown to Ambreen, 21-year-old Talah and Naeem, 51, were trapped in the middle of a deadly onslaught on Al Noor mosque by a white-supremacist suspect armed with semi-automatic rifles and other assault weapons.

Neither made it out of alive.

They were among 50 Muslims killed on Friday at the now shuttered Al Noor and Linwood mosques in New Zealand's southeasterly city of Christchurch in an act that New Zealand's Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has branded a terrorist attack.

Leaving Lahore for New Zealand

Many of those who are believed to have died in the attack had emigrated to New Zealand, leaving country's from Fiji to Malaysia for a multiplicity of reasons.

Some fled conflict, such as 16-year-old Syrian refugee Hamza Mustafa and his father, Khalid.

Others, like Pakistani-born Naeem, left home in Lahore to chase a dream.

Sat in a downstairs bedroom in her big sister Naeema's home in Christchurch, Ambreen recalls the journey her deceased husband undertook a decade ago.

"He was a banker [in Pakistan] and wanted to change to teaching, so he came New Zealand to do a PhD," she says, flanked by Abdullah, her now-oldest son, and Naeema.

"He started [the PhD] but never finished," she adds, glancing across the room at her youngest boy, 6-year-old Aayan, who's busy trying to win her attention.

"We had a son, instead."

There was no doubt, she says, where the baby would be raised. The family stayed on in New Zealand because Naeem had fallen in "love" with the natural beauty of its piercing blue skies and rolling green meadows.

'This life is temporary'

Over the course of the next 10 years, Naeem assiduously built his new life abroad, weaving his family in to the fabric of Christchurch, a leafy city of nearly 400 000 people.

He worked hard, balancing life as a business tutor with being a caring and devoted family man with time to teach his children, too.

"He would help me through everything, and would always put me and others first," Abdullah, an engineering student, says.

"When I used to get stuck doing scholarship calculus, Dad would take the time to explain to me how to think about it... he was always so keen," he adds.

"It was so fun talking to him, if I had any worries he would always make me feel so much better. But this life is temporary, you know."

Talah, the oldest son, was always at hand to offer guidance too.

Abdullah, in particular, remembers long afternoons spent playing football together in the park while listening to his brother offer valuable snippets of life advice, or roaring down hillsides together on their beloved mountain bikes.

"My brother was there for me every second of my life," Abdullah says.

"He loved taking risks and I was always very scared, but because of him I realised that sometimes you should take risks in life to achieve something more," he adds.

"Mountain biking is something I would never have tried, but because of him I love it ... I have had exposure to so many more things, and got so much more out of life."

Triggered by the memory of bruises and cut knees, Naeema says she will miss the photos Talah would bring her from his cycling trips high up into the hills surrounding the flat, arable land of Christchurch.

"He would bring me pictures of the different sceneries, or of a beautiful leaf if he saw one," she says wistfully.

'Beautiful souls'

As of this autumn, that will be no more.

Instead, similarly suspended vignettes of family life are being told in many other nearby homes, with Muslims accounting for no more than a few thousand of the city's overall population.

Friday's attack, the worst mass shooting in New Zealand's history, has robbed many families here of their loved ones and rocked the Pacific Island to its core, prompting a flood of public grief nationwide.

In the privacy of Naeema's home, where hushed men gather in a circle and drink tea in a cleared-out garage, indelible sadness is lined by pride, however.

Flanked by her now-most senior son, Abdullah, and big sister Naeema, Ambreen smiles softly as she recounts how half of her immediate family died, only a few days ago.

"My husband and son have really made me proud … [because] they died saving others," she says sat in Naeema's bedroom.

"Both of them were beautiful souls."

Naeema, 54, leans in closer to her and joins in the storytelling.

"[Naeem] was the man that took on the killer … and now he'll be a hero forever," she says.

Faced with a chorus of bullets on Friday afternoon, Pakistani-born Naeem attempted to hit back.

Praise from Pakistan PM Khan

Footage captured on the suspect's headcam and streamed live to horrified watchers across the world on a suite of online platforms showed him attempting to tackle the gunman.

Badly injured during his act of bravery, he was taken to hospital where he later died. 

Among those quick to pay tribute to his actions was Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan, who praised Naeem's "courage" and said he would be recognised with a "national award".

The move has been warmly welcomed by Ambreen.

"The award will be a very nice thing to show to my children, especially my younger son, he will be happy to know when he grows up that his father was so brave," she says.

Talha, the family say, also died while trying to protect others.

"When Talah got shot, he fell on another boy and whispered to him to stay still. When the gunman left [the mosque], the boy got up, alive, from under him," Naeema says.

"He was a jolly good fellow… a role model for the younger generation."

'This is his home'

While many expat Pakistani Muslim communities elsewhere around the world favour returning those who die overseas home for burial, Naeem's family has decided to honour his wishes and lay him to rest in New Zealand.

His son will be buried with him, alongside scores of others.

"Both will be buried at the mass grave," Ambreen says, citing the burial site dug out at Christchurch's Memorial Park Cemetery for victims of Friday's attack.

"Naeem wanted to be buried wherever he died, so I'm going to follow that … and this is his home," she adds.

But around the home, all three know the rhythms of family life will never be quite the same again.

One thing Naeema will notice, she says, is how there'll be plenty more cookies left in the jar without Talah around to constantly gorge on them.

Abdullah, meanwhile, knows he's skipped from being the middle son to the family's most senior man, bringing with it new pressure and expectations.

"I'm going to be there for everybody, especially my mum and little brother," he says. "I'm going to provide them with support and live up to my dad's expectation."

As for Ambreen, bereft of her eldest boy and partner, the changes will be too many to count. But one such difference might, in fact, help maintain her connection with the family she has lost.

"I don't know if the mosque will be open ... [and] I didn't used to go for the Friday prayers, but maybe this time I will," she says, thoughtfully.

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