Student vigil for NZ mosque victims brings thousands together

Carrying candles and guitars, thousands of students in Christchurch gather to mourn victims of mosque attacks.

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    Christchurch, New Zealand – When classes ended at Cashmere High School early on Monday afternoon, there was only one place Okirano Tilaia was headed to.

    The 17-year-old student had a date to keep. In fact, he had thousands.

    Looking out over a massive crowd of teenagers gathered at a park near Christchurch's Al Noor mosque, he said: "Wow, it was just one idea, and it turned out to be this. Amazing."

    Tilaia's plan had been simple. In a Facebook post on Sunday, he invited students from schools across the city to meet up and honour the 50 Muslims who were killed on Friday when a gunman opened indiscriminate fire on worshippers at the Al Noor and Linwood mosques. 

    Cashmere High School head boy Okirano Tilaia organised Monday's student vigil [David Child/Al Jazeera]

    Carrying candles, guitars and paper chains adorned with messages of peace and solidarity, students by their thousands came out to answer Tilaia's call.

    "We are letting everyone know that these horrific events do not define who we are, who we are as students, who we are as friends, who we are as families," he told them, from the centre of the crowd.

    "We are not turning to hatred … we are turning to love and peace."

    Local school loses seven

    Cashmere High students, 14-year-old Sayyad Milne and 15-year-old Syrian refugee, Hamza Mustafa, are believed to be among those killed in the mass shootings, which New Zealand's Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern branded a well-planned "terrorist attack".

    Neelofar Jaffari, Milne's classmate, described him as "kind and caring". 

    "He was so quiet ... but he loved football; he loved sport," the 15-year-old said.

    New Zealand is home to about 50,000 Muslims [David Child/Al Jazeera]

    According to local media reports, at least seven people associated with Cashmere are believed to have died or been wounded in Friday's attack, the deadliest in New Zealand's modern history. Authorities on the Pacific Island are yet to name the victims.

    Noorin Ikthtiari, a fellow Cashmere High student, described the sobriety of the first day of classes since the mosque attacks.

    "It was really sad this morning to come to school and not see some of the students that used to go there," Ikthtiari, 15, said. "They just weren't there any more … [and] we were devastated."

    'Giving grief a place to be'

    Schools, universities and other institutions across New Zealand have all held ceremonies in recent days to remember the lives robbed by Friday's attack.

    In Christchurch, the outpouring of public grief has been constant.

    Hundreds of students from schools across Christchurch attended the gathering on Monday [David Child/Al Jazeera]

    Brooke Taylor, who attends Christchurch's Avonside Girls High School, said she came to Monday's vigil to show respect.

    "Everyone here is standing together in order to support the victims, the families of people that have been hurt or killed, and the entire Muslim community," she said. 

    Margaux Halvac, a teacher at Cashmere, said the students wanted "to take positive action".

    "Grief is only love with no place to go, so that's what this event was about, giving grief a place to be."

    'The youth have a voice'

    At the memorial, some sung, while others gave speeches calling for "unity" and "humanity". They lit candles, passing the flame from one to another in a ripple towards the outer parts of the circle.

    There was a moment of silence, too, ended by an incandescent Haka, a ceremonial dance of the indigenous Maori people.

    Then, many drifted off to lay flowers alongside the already abundant bouquets placed at a makeshift roadside memorial for the victims of the shootings.

    Paperchains adorned with messages of love adorn park railings near Al Noor mosque [David Child/Al Jazeera]

    Watching them go, organiser Tilaia's thoughts turned to those who he would never again see in class or pass in school corridors.

    "Those students had so many aspirations in life, one wanted to be an engineer, another an architect, one was an amazing footballer," he said.

    "Every morning that I wake up from now on, I'll thank God that I'm able to live another day," he added.

    "The youth have a voice, and a positive one, we are not going to point fingers or blame others, we are going to focus on making sure those families [of the victims] are all right."

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News