People too traumatised by the Christchurch mosque attacks to work want to know why Victim Support is holding onto millions donated to the city’s Muslim community while they struggle, write Veronica Schmidt and Max Towle for RNZ.
Yama Nabi is a butcher, but these days he struggles with the sight of animal blood. It sends his mind careening back to 15 March. He sees the steps of the Al Noor mosque, blood flowing down them. He sees a woman’s body lying in the road, and another nearby. He thinks of his father, killed by a gunman along with 50 others that dark day in Christchurch.
Nabi isn’t ready to work again after what he saw and the people he lost. But he is back at the meatworks, working with carcasses, wrestling with flashbacks. He has no choice. ACC declined his application for support – the corporation doesn’t cover mental injury unless there is an accompanying physical injury or the person was at work when they were traumatised – and the millions donated by shocked well-wishers remains largely undistributed.
“My heart’s still broken,” he says. “But who’s going to pay the mortgage? Who’s going to pay for food for the kids, the family?”
Bianca Lindstrom is delivering food and clothes and offering advice to Christchurch families affected by the mosque attacks and, in her rare downtime, she’s worrying that some of them will end up dead. She has been working for the Christchurch Victims Organising Committee since the attacks and has watched survivors’ and grieving families’ recoveries stall or deteriorate.
“We’re worried that we’re going to see a lot of suicides… There’s a lot of people who aren’t coping and aren’t getting the help they need,” she says.
“What we’re finding is that they are traumatised. They can’t go to work, but they’re not getting paid. So that is being the biggest issue. And that’s why we’re thinking that it’s just going to get worse. Because if you’re stressed out and you don’t have the support or the money to be able to take that time out, then you’re going to feel isolated and then, you know, it’s downhill from there.”
This isn’t the vision of a grieving community surrounded by support that emerged in the days after the Christchurch attacks. Back then, New Zealanders placed flowers at mosques, posted messages of love on social media, and donated incredible amounts of money to those who had lost so much.
So, where is that $19.5 million now? Why are traumatised people like Yama Nabi left struggling to make ends meet?
Victim Support is best placed to answer that question. It holds the purse strings for more than just the $10.5 million donated via its own fundraising push. RNZ understands responsibility for the close-to $3 million raised by predominantly Islamic groups – the At Taqwa Trust, Islamic Information Centre, Federation of Islamic Associations (FIANZ), Al Manar Trust, Handshake People, the Muslim Association of Canterbury and the North Shore Islamic Association – has also been given to Victim Support.
Victim Support is also in close contact with the Christchurch Foundation, after it helped set up a “funders’ group” to consolidate and coordinate the distribution of donated money. After discussion, Christchurch Foundation chief executive Amy Carter says the roughly $6 million raised via the foundation’s fund is now is earmarked for long-term support.
But Victim Support has stopped giving media interviews, employing two PR companies – first Acumen then Porter Novelli – to represent them. Following multiple interview requests and questions from RNZ, this week the organisation released its first statement since 10 April. It said 977 people had registered with Victim Support and it had made payments to 47 families and 80 people hospitalised.
It said it had distributed $3 million via two lump sum payments of $15,000 to the families of each deceased person, and two payments of $5000 and $8000 to hospitalised victims. Some grants had also been given to help people cover their immediate expenses.
The organisation would not give a timeline of when the rest of the money would be distributed, or say when further decisions or announcements would be made. It would not say when it would resume giving media interviews again.
In the statement, chief executive Kevin Tso said: “These are exceptional times and finding all those who need our help is an extremely complex process, which takes time.”
Farhaan Farheez’s needs are immediate. He is behind on his rent and bills and is relying on a friend for food. “I’m living like a beggar’s life,” he says.
Seven weeks ago, Farheez was a “workaholic”. He had two jobs and was signed up with an agency to try to get extra work to squeeze in around the edges. Then on 15 March he was at the Linwood mosque for prayer when the gunman entered and shot seven dead.
Farheez has post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and struggles to explain what he went through that day. “I’ve never experienced anything like that before in my life.” He pauses, repeats himself, then stops. “Sorry, I just don’t have the words.”
He is under the care of a GP, a psychiatrist and counsellors, and is too unwell to work. After the attacks, he says Victim Support gave him enough money to cover his lost wages for two weeks, and checked in on him each day. Then, he says, the organisation told him they could not give him any more payments and the phone calls stopped.
“As soon as they were not able to sort of provide any financial assistance, they stopped calling me – just call me once a week maybe if I’m lucky.”
He is perpetually worried about how to make ends meet. “My main goal at this point in time is just to recover and just get back to work, but the added stress does not help at all with the PTSD… I can’t even focus on my health and well-being.”
Bianca Lindstrom says he’s one of many people who need access to the donated money. “I see a large number of victims that we feel have fallen through the cracks, and they’re not getting any help.”
She’s visiting numerous people who are traumatised, but not physically injured, who are unable to work. They don’t qualify for ACC and haven’t received payments from Victim Support. She’s seeing people who have lost family members and friends, who have watched them gunned down on the attacker’s video live stream, but who are not considered the next of kin so Victim Support has not prioritised supporting them.
Many of them have hidden themselves away at home, terrified to go outside, scared to gather with their own community for fear of more attacks, and worried about being seen as ungrateful if they ask for support, she says. After all, so many millions have already been donated that they are afraid of looking greedy if they complain that they are struggling to pay for their shopping or rent.
“We’re giving them donations of boxes – like we’ve been from the beginning – boxes of food, clothing, whatever they need, we are still supplying that. Yesterday, I gave an Indian family $200 worth of Pak’nSave vouchers,” she says.
“We’re getting calls saying, ‘Hi, Victim Support said to call you.’ Really? Because we don’t have any funding or resources or staff so we’re out working through all hours of the night and weekend getting Immigration sorted, trying to get them to get into mental health, we got someone a house yesterday.”
Lindstrom is angry and perplexed. “Where is Victim Support? What are they doing? They’re not doing anything… They’re not doing the right thing,” she says. Then she lowers her voice and the words come out staccato. “They. Are. Not. Doing. The. Right. Thing.”
It puts Christchurch Victims Organising Committee in a difficult position, she says. They still need donations so they can continue to support families, but the public, who have already opened their wallets, have seen the news stories about the tens of millions raised and want to know how any more could be needed.
“We’re getting bombarded on our Facebook page saying, ‘Where’s all this money? Why do you still need donations? Where’s all the money gone?’ Well, we don’t know. We actually have no idea what’s happening to the money.”
“I feel so bad for those people [who donated] … and what I’m scared of is this is going to create more of a gap between the Muslim people of New Zealand and other New Zealanders. All they’re going to cop is, ‘See, this is why we don’t support Muslims… Because they think they’ve got the money. Why are we still giving? [The answer is] because we don’t have the money.”
Lindstrom says the Christchurch Victims Organising Committee has approached the prime minister and the mayor of Christchurch to point out that the support system is full of cracks. They’ve also asked Victim Support for a meeting – they wanted to tell them what was going on in the community and what was needed – and were “brushed off”, told by the organisation they were “too busy”, Lindstrom says.
Yama Nabi is afraid to ask where the donated money is – he doesn’t want to seem ungrateful. He received a small payment from Victim Support, but it is long gone – weeks off work with children to support chews through cash. Now, it’s his mother who both ACC and Victim Support recognise as the victim in his father’s death. He wants her supported, of course, but wishes he could access some help. He wants a bit more time off work to “just heal up”.
Farheez wants Victim Support to understand it is not their money – that it was donated to the community who he says are suffering and in need. “At the end of the day this money isn’t Victim Support’s money. It’s the money from the people of New Zealand and technically Victim Support is a third party who is supposed to help people like myself and others … I feel they’re simply not doing their job.”