Terror in Chch

Thrown together by tragedy, united by cricket

Police uniforms were switched for cricket shirts at a special game with Christchurch’s Muslim community yesterday. David Williams reports

In their home countries, this mightn’t have happened.

A Christchurch Muslim team took the field against the Australian Federal Police in an unpublicised game yesterday, while uniformed local police watched on – a sign of the caution still deemed necessary because of the terrorist attack in the city last year. Wandering among the onlookers was Canterbury’s district commander, Superintendent John Price.

Habib Ullah, the Muslim team captain, who is of Pakistani descent, says: “In our country, talking to a superintendent – not even talking to a superintendent, talking to an inspector – is a huge thing. Whereas here we can talk to any person.”

Ullah said many immigrants and refugees had unpleasant experiences with police in other countries. “Unless we meet those people, front-to-front, and we laugh with them, we chat with them, that barrier is still there. For me these events are a great opportunity to remove that barrier.

“And we can think, yeah, it is OK to call somebody if we are not feeling OK – if we think we need it.”

Gamal Fouda is Imam at Masjid Al Noor, one of two mosques attacked by a gunman in March last year. (Imam Abdul Lateef, from the Linwood Islamic Centre also attended.) Fouda was present at Al Noor that day, when 51 people died and almost as many were injured, many seriously, while some of the uninjured now suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.

Fouda, who has since been elected to one of the city’s community boards, says those in the Muslim community who have lived in this country a long time are familiar with police and other government agencies, but some might remain hesitant about dealing with them.

That’s where sport comes in. Last October, a police football team played a Muslim side, dubbed Ummah United, at Christchurch’s English Park. Of yesterday’s cricket match, held at Redwood Park in the city’s north-west, Fouda says: “It is very important to connect to people, to start doing something different.”

Former Sydney Thunder rookies Hameed Kherkhah, left, and Nazir Shinwari. Photo: David Williams

Two players from Australia lent the day some serious cricketing credibility. Hameed Kherkhah and Nazir Shinwari won community rookie contracts to join Sydney Thunder, in the twenty-20 Big Bash league. They play first-grade cricket in New South Wales.

The pair, who have Afghan roots, ran coaching clinics at high schools Shirley Boys and Hagley Community College last Friday. They also visited the local Muslim community, and met old acquaintances.

Kherkhah, an off-spinner, knows Linwood mosque hero Abdul Aziz from his Sydney days, and was delighted to see him again. “What he has done, words cannot put it together. It’s really good to see him.”

Visiting Masjid Al Noor left Kherkhah, the son of an asylum seeker, in goosebumps and tears. He was also moved by photos taken by an Afghan survivor at the Linwood Islamic Centre. “It’s terrible it happened. But the outcome: [the gunman] tried to divide people, but the community got stronger.”

The Australian Federal Police (AFP) was formed in 1979 in response to terror. The previous year, a police officer and two rubbish collectors were killed by a bomb that exploded outside central Sydney’s Hilton Hotel.

One of the AFP’s big bosses – Brett James, acting commander of operations in New South Wales – is in the police force’s touring cricket team, which lost to a Christchurch police side last Thursday, and will play southern police in Queenstown tomorrow.

The Australian Federal Police say they're 'building communities' through cricket. Photo: David Williams

James says a big contingent from the AFP, including a superintendent, were sent to Christchurch after the mosques attack, and stayed for weeks. The force’s specialties include victim identification work, forensics, and drone-use. (The AFP also answered the call for help after Christchurch’s deadly 2011 earthquake that killed 185 people.)

Last year’s terrorist incident spiked the AFP’s interest, James says. “We want to learn from it, we want to understand it. It’s not about simply reacting it, it’s about taking what was a really horrible incident – what was just a tragedy – and trying to get something out of it to protect people.”

When the idea of a week-long South Island cricket tour germinated, the AFP wanted to involve the Christchurch Muslim community.

“Because we can’t do it alone,” James says. “There’s no way you can police without having a close bond and association and partnership with the community. And things like cricket, they allow us to bring the human side back into the policing. People see us as police not as humans sometimes.”

The sentiment of seeing police in a different light also resonates with Superintendent Price, the Canterbury police commander.

“I think also it just shows us moving back into events that are normal in our society,” he says. “Sport has an interesting dynamic. It brings people together no matter what race, creed, gender – it’s an equaliser. It means everyone can be part of it.”

The teams in yesterday's cricket game at Redwood Park. Photo: David Williams

A cricket match provides light entertainment in what will be a heavy year. The anniversary of the attack will be marked at a national remembrance service in Christchurch’s Hagley Park.

“That will be the thing that is going to bring a lot of emotions back,” Ullah says.

Then, in June, an Australian man faces trial on 51 murder charges, 40 charges of attempted murder, and one charge of engaging in a terrorist act.

Imam Fouda, of Al Noor mosque, says it will be a very stressful year for the affected families, especially for the widows, of whom he thought there were 17. “They will need special care.”

It’s not just the Muslim community suffering, it’s the whole community, Fouda emphasises. “We are New Zealanders and are working through this together as a nation.”

For the record, the Muslim team won the cricket trophy yesterday, chasing down the AFP’s 143 from their 20 overs, thanks to an unbeaten 77 from Muhammad Ali. As player of the day, Ali won a bat signed by the Bangladesh World Cup team. (Some Bangladeshi players were near the Al Noor mosque last March when the shooting started.)

Before the trophy game, Muslim youth and kids from the host Marist Harewood club took part in coaching sessions run by Canterbury Cricket. Fouda says he’d like to see youth from different parts of the city take part in something similar. “I want to see lots of things like this, together not only with the police but with the wider community.”

He may get his wish. Superintendent Price says policing – including presenting the “best possible prosecution case” – is just one part of the response to the March 15 attack. At the cricket match prizegiving, he vows: “This is just the beginning.”

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