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Lauren Schaefer was a member of the Disaster Welfare and Support Team in Christchurch. In the immediate aftermath of the attacks on 15 March, and in the days that followed, she provided emotional support, information and comfort to loved ones of those who died. Lauren is currently a geologist and Research Associate at the Colorado School of Mines in Golden, Colorado.
When I first heard of the attack, I was at university in the lab. I received an emergency notification that we were in lockdown. There were so many rumours flying around it was hard to figure out what was going on, and it was scary.
It really hit me during the press conference later that night when it was announced how many people had died – it felt like the wind had been knocked out of me.
I was already awake when I received a phone call from our team leader at around 3am on Saturday morning. My husband was a volunteer with the local Civil Defence Response Team and was already deployed to help set up the welfare centre.
When we first arrived at the welfare centre, we helped to set up. Then throughout the day, I helped wherever I was needed – sometimes just sitting with people in a quiet space, other times helping people navigate through the chaos to find information, and sometimes being present for support as family and friends received devastating news about their loved one.
There are many things that stick with me about this deployment.
The atmosphere in the centre was heavy, and the intense grief was something that I can’t put into words. People were scared, angry, confused, heartbroken, and most of all, they were desperate for answers. Having to wait for information was agonising. Throughout the day, the centre became more and more crowded – at one point you could hardly move through the hallways.
The intense shock and grief was indescribable, but the speed with which the community came together to support each other was also very emotional. People were flooding to the welfare centre with flowers and cards and food all weekend, we could hardly clear the tables before more things showed up.
I often think about all the people affected, and wish them comfort.
There’s no denying that being present in the immediate aftermath was difficult. As a Red Cross team, we worked hard to comfort people, to clarify misinformation where we could, to connect people and to seek out information. I think our Red Cross uniform was a symbol of relief to people that weekend, and I am really proud to have been a part of that.
We all want to help people, so to have the training and resources to be able to help is empowering. I’m also proud to know that while disaster response team members like me were there in the very early stages of this tragedy, New Zealand Red Cross volunteers and staff also provided support to people in the days and months that followed.
Two weeks before the mosque attacks, Christchurch was reinstated as a refugee settlement location – the city welcomed new Kiwis for the first time in eight years. Farahnaz Khosravi, a refugee support volunteer, was matched with a former refugee family from Afghanistan. For the past year she has been helping this family as a volunteer and then a friend.
On 1 March, the families arrived in Christchurch – the first former refugees since the earthquakes. It was an exciting time for us volunteers, but also for Christchurch.
Welcoming our newest Kiwis at the airport was one of the best parts of being a volunteer– it was such a beautiful moment, so many people were there with flowers. All I could feel was love in the air from each and every person. I could tell it was so exciting for everyone.
We were doing everything we could to give these new Canterburians the best welcome. I personally wanted to give them a warm welcome, just like Christchurch had done to me and my family a few years ago. I wanted to help other people have the same experience that we had.
I hope they will never forget that day. I certainly won’t.
The family I supported was made up of a single mother and her three teenage children. As I speak Farsi, I was able to welcome them in their own language when they arrived at the airport. But with all the people present on that day, Red Cross staff and volunteers as well as local representatives of the community, I think it sent a strong message of kindness and welcoming to them so that the language we spoke didn’t matter. The language of kindness is universal. And I could see it from their faces that it was a special moment for them too.
The first two weeks went well. The family was pleased with their new home and we cooked some of their traditional food for their first meal in Christchurch. It was a special time for all of us.
Then March 15 happened. It was a horrible day. A day where everything changed for them.
I got in touch with the family as soon as I heard about the attacks. I found out they we really scared – truly scared. Everyone told them that New Zealand was a safe place, especially Christchurch, so they thought they had moved to a safe place. But within only two weeks, all their thoughts and hopes were ruined. They said they wanted to go back to Malaysia, where they were before coming to New Zealand.
The family kept asking me questions. A lot of questions.
I told them not to worry, their house was far away from the mosques. But they kept asking more questions.
The two teenage girls didn’t want to leave home. They would normally wear a hijab, but they were scared something would happen to them because they were Muslims.
Once they started going outside again, the girls would wear a hoody instead of their headscarf. They told me they felt safer this way.
As volunteers, it felt like we couldn’t do much to help them overcome the trauma and their sense of anxiety. We did what we could: we went to see them frequently and showed that we were there for them, we answered questions, we supported them to get out of the house, we shared our own positive experiences of Christchurch and we did our best to reassure them.
We were just being their friends. And, little by little, things got better.
They saw the response of the whole country and how beautifully people reacted, and that was reassuring to them. They also received support from their community.
Twelve months on, we may have moved on, but we have not forgotten.
We learnt to care about each other. We learnt to question things. We learnt to raise our voice.
New Zealand, please keep being kind. You were amazing back then, don’t stop now. Keep showing love to our Muslim whānau.