Ahmed Mohssen was roughly 7,000 miles from his hometown in New Zealand when his younger brother sent a message to San Francisco about a shooting.
Police came into his brother’s university, shut it down, and told everyone to stay inside. When people asked what was going on, police said, “You don’t want to know.”
On March 15, a white nationalist killed 50 people and wounded 50 more at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand.
Mohssen attended Al Noor Mosque — the first one that was attacked — since his family moved to the country from Egypt when he was seven years old. As he watched the killer’s live-streamed video of the attack, he recognized someone he knew, 70-year-old Hussein Moustafa, get shot.
“Forty-five seconds into the video clip, I throw up,” Mohssen tells SF Weekly. “I sat there in my apartment in San Francisco in tears just calling everyone.”
At the Lake Merritt vigil on Monday, Mohssen remembered Moustafa as “a funny guy” who told never-ending stories on his couch while eating dates and peanuts. Among the dead he honored: three-year-old Mucad Ibrahim, 14-year-old Sayyad Milne (a football player with a twin sister), Ahmad Gamaluddin Abdel Ghani (“big personality” and “exemplary character”), 42-year-old Husne Ara Parvin who died shielding her husband in a wheelchair (“I think that speaks volumes”), and 33-year-old goalkeeper Atta Elayyan who played for the New Zealand Futsal Whites.
Elayyan’s father was also critically injured and Mohssen said, as of Monday, did not know his son — who has a two-year-old daughter — died.
Mohssen remembers Al Noor as a warm, special place that acclimated new Muslim immigrants and where he made friends attending Sunday school to learn Arabic. He always felt so loved and welcomed in New Zealand — a country shocked by the violence that has come together to financially provide for family of victims, ban semiautomatic weapons six days later, and whose Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has not hesitated to call it a terrorist attack.
Not so much in America, where the Trump administration banned nationals of Muslim-majority countries, separated migrant children from their families at the border, and refused to condemn white supremacists who see him as their great hope. The New Zealand shooter mentioned President Donald Trump in his manifesto, which SF Weekly will not link to as it further spreads the message he intended to send.
“No one should be given a platform to talk hate speech,” says Mohssen, who moved to the Bay Area three years ago. “White nationalism is on the rise and we should nip it in the bud.”
The hundreds of people at Monday’s intersectional vigil concur. Arab Resource and Organizing Center brought representatives from Causa Justa, Kehilla Community Synagogue, International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 10, Buena Vista United Methodist Church, and more that touched several perspectives.
Speaker after speaker linked similar white nationalist attacks, from the 2015 Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church that killed nine people in Charleston, S.C. to the 2018 shooting that killed 11 at the Tree of Life congregation in Pittsburgh, Pa. All called to remain united and recognize the larger issue of white nationalism, rather than seeing it as an isolated incident.
“I do feel like it had a unique spirit in the way it brought together so many communities about the way it impacted the Muslim community,” says AROC Executive Director Lara Kiswani. “When you’re part of an organization, you’re part of a community. That’s what it’s going to take for us to win.”
Kiswani stresses the day-to-day work that it takes to sustain a united front. On top of regular legal work and youth training for Arab and Middle Eastern clients, AROC helped form Bay Resistance as a network to bring together communities in the age of the Trump administration and beyond.
Mohssen, who felt isolated until the vigil, is giving people at home time to grieve before visiting. But the U.S.-born Kiwi won’t be moving back anytime soon — there’s too much work to do here.
“I want to stay and do my part to make sure this country doesn’t spread hate and fear,” Mohssen says. “There’s a new generation rising.”