ChCHStrap

It began like any other Friday for Hisham Alzarzour.

He got up, ate breakfast at 8am, chatted to his wife, tended to his children.

Then his friend Khaled Mustafa picked him up to go to Friday prayer at the Al Noor Masjid.

They found a park, walked in and took their seats.

And then, the gunfire came.

And the screaming.

And the smoke.

Seconds later Hisham was bleeding from a wound in his hip.

Khaled and his son Hamza were lying dead on the masjid floor.

It began like any other day - but by the end, Hisham's life would never, ever be the same.

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When the Herald first met Hisham exactly two weeks - almost to the minute - after the shooting, he was lying in a bed at Christchurch Hospital.

While many in hospital were desperate to get back to their own homes, Hisham preferred his room on the ward.

There, he was surrounded by people, by sounds - so he had little time to think or feel.

Hisham Alzarzour was shot three times and was in hospital for more than two weeks after the March 15 attack. Photo / Dean Purcell
Hisham Alzarzour was shot three times and was in hospital for more than two weeks after the March 15 attack. Photo / Dean Purcell

There, he knew there was security - locked doors, armed police, guards.

There, he felt safe.

Eventually he did go home, but, almost a year later, safety is still a feeling that eludes Hisham and his family.

He has come a long way since that day in the hospital.

The Herald has followed Hisham's journey since the attack and watched him recover, relive, regress and rebuild his life.

Where his dark eyes were once haunted, now they shine and almost sparkle again.

Where his voice was low and slow, it now bounces and is tinged with hope, growing happiness.

Where once he was haunted, he is now healing.

Hisham still has his moments - days where the flashbacks are too real, the pain too great and the fear and anxiety is cloying.

But he's ready to face the anniversary of the terror attack and begin the next, and hopefully best, chapter of his life.

The beginning


Hisham was shot three times on March 15.

The bullets tore through his hip and he fell to the floor.

Bodies piled on top of him and all he could do was lie there, trying to be still and silent, terrified the gunman would come back and finish him.

When the shooting stopped, he managed to wriggle free, and saw his friend beside him.

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"I started crying and trying to help him, I held his hand… I said 'you're going to be okay'.

"Khaled was smiling - as he always smiled - and I thought he had taken his last breath.

"I realised I could not help him… then I looked for other people that needed help… I remember that feeling."

Hisham and Khaled were both born and raised in Syria near the capital Damascus, but did not meet until after they had both fled with their families to Jordan.

Khaled Mustafa was killed alongside his son Hamza in the March 15 attack. Photo / supplied
Khaled Mustafa was killed alongside his son Hamza in the March 15 attack. Photo / supplied

They forged a strong friendship - as did their wives Susan and Salwa - and when the two families were offered a chance to come to New Zealand as refugees, they did not hesitate.

They settled in Christchurch and were so happy to be here.

Their children started school, their wives started to study English, the men got jobs to support their families.

Khaled worked as a farrier and Hisham as a plasterer - though, holding a masters degree in geography and working as a teacher for years in Syria, he had bigger plans for his future.

The men spoke every day, at least half an hour on the phone, about their lives.

"Every two or three days he came to my house and we drank coffee, we sat together and talked," Hisham said.

"Every Friday he would come and take me to the mosque, I went with him and his family … Every Friday."

"We went together to the mosque, we walked in the front door together and we sat together to pray - there was only 1m between us.

"After about five minutes we heard the first three or four bullets.

"We did not know what it was, we thought it was someone playing a game … We looked to the front door and we could see bullets coming everywhere … He was shooting the walls, the roof, then the people started to run …"

Somehow, despite his injuries, Hisham could still walk.

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He stumbled out of the mosque and called Susan.

He knew word of the shooting would spread quickly - and he did not want her fretting.

He kept the conversation simple.

Armed police guarding Christchurch Hospital where many wounded were rushed after the massacre. Zekeriya Tuyan was among them. Photo / Amber Allott
Armed police guarding Christchurch Hospital where many wounded were rushed after the massacre. Zekeriya Tuyan was among them. Photo / Amber Allott

"I have been shot, I am alive," he told her.

Susan met him at the hospital later.

"She was crying, I was crying … " he said.

There they learned Khaled had not survived the attack, nor had his son, Hamza.

The teenager was gunned down while speaking to Salwa on his cellphone.

Back then, Hisham could not stop replaying the massacre in his head.

He lay under the bodies of his brothers for just 17 minutes, but it felt like a lifetime.

"That 17 minutes was unbelievable … I don't know how I could survive," he said.

"It was a very hard 17 minutes."

Later, lying in his hospital bed was trying to make sense of it, to see if he could find his friends in the fracas, to work out who had lived and who had died.

Physically, Hisham's condition was serious - doctors removed some but not all of the bullets.

Then a blood clot travelled to his heart and he was rushed to intensive care.

After he was discharged, he was taken back to hospital for another clot.

Physically, Hisham had a long recovery ahead of him.

But back then, he never anticipated how the massacre would affect him mentally.

The middle

A couple of months later, Hisham spoke to the Herald from his couch.

Susan was not far from his side and his three children Rena, then 8, Zead, 7 and Roua who turned 1 just two days before the attack.

His bullet wounds were pretty much healed, but the nerve damage was still intense.

Hisham Alzarzour with his wife Susan and youngest daughter Roua in March 2019 while he was recovering in hospital after the mosque attack. Photo / Dean Purcell
Hisham Alzarzour with his wife Susan and youngest daughter Roua in March 2019 while he was recovering in hospital after the mosque attack. Photo / Dean Purcell

He wasn't sleeping much because of the pain - in spite of the array of prescription meds he was taking.

"Last night was the first night I slept well … before that I would only get three or four hours sleep," he said.

"It's hard, I get grumpy."

Hisham had other battles raging, too. Emotionally and mentally, he was not coping well, and he was desperate for his parents to come to New Zealand to support him.

After they fled Syria they settled in United Arab Emirates and, because of complications with paperwork, they were not able to come here immediately to support their wounded son.

That meant Susan bore the brunt of everything on her own.

On top of looking after Hisham, she was also was dealing with three young children, running the home, being there for Salwa and running herself ragged trying to hold everything and everyone together.

"It is hard to see the other victims with their families … my wife is very alone, I am very alone, isolated," Hisham said in May.

"The community has helped us, but it would be good to have our family in our home with us.

"My health, my mental health, it's so bad I just want them to help me … It has been a very hard few months," he said.

By May, things were getting "a little bit easier" and Hisham did everything he could to stay busy, to keep his mind occupied, to not think about the attack.

"I can't keep thinking about what happened … I try to be busy, I try not to be in the position where my mind thinks about it," he said.

"Of course, this will be with us for the rest of our lives - we just need to work out how we deal with it in our own way.

"For the next few months I just want to focus on my family … taking it slowly."

By October, things had taken a good turn.

When the Herald visited, Hisham's mother was in the kitchen with Susan and the older children making traditional Syrian food - the intoxicating scent filling the house.

Hisham's parents and brother had been approved to visit New Zealand for three months and he said it had made a huge difference.

"At last, they came … I was very emotional when they arrived. It was very, very nice and hard at the same time," he said.

"At first they did not ask but then yes, they had questions. It was helpful for me to talk about what happened. My family know their son and they know how they can deal with him."

Hisham still could not work and he was getting frustrated.

Financially, it was not easy. But sitting all day, unable to be productive or contribute to his family was doing his head in.

Police stand outside the Al Noor mosque soon after the shooting. Photo / NZME
Police stand outside the Al Noor mosque soon after the shooting. Photo / NZME

He wanted to at least volunteer, to get out of the house and make something of his day.

But the lingering nerve pain made that almost impossible.

"At some stage, maybe there will be no pain? But maybe it will stay forever," he lamented.

"It's less than before, so it means it's healing."

Being able to speak to his parents and brother helped a lot.

"Mentally, I'm not very good. I didn't have counselling. In our country we talk to our wives, our parents, our friends.

"I talk to my wife, she knows me best. She knows the details, all the problems.

"It is very good to have my family here - I can talk to them also."

The end

In early March 2020, Susan answers the door to the Herald again.

She has a broad smile on her face as she greets, welcomes, calls to Hisham who is out the back of the house.

He strolls in, barely a limp, and sits down in the lounge.

The kids are watching videos on YouTube, sucking on lollipops on the lazy Sunday morning.

Hisham grins at them, especially Roua who turns 2 on March 13.

She's grown a lot since the Herald first met the family, and she's becoming quite the independent little character - her deep brown eyes showing the unmistakable spark of sass and mischief.

They are good kids, and they know how to help their dad.

Rena is the only one who has asked about what happened.

Initially they told the children their father had been in a car accident. Hisham and Susan wanted to shield them from the truth.

"We explained a little bit to Rena, but I don't need the children to think about this at this age - they are children, they should think that life is normal and easy and fun," Hisham said.

Terror attack survivor Hisham Alzarzour fled the war in Syria only to start a new battle for his life in Christchurch. Photo / Dean Purcell
Terror attack survivor Hisham Alzarzour fled the war in Syria only to start a new battle for his life in Christchurch. Photo / Dean Purcell

By and large, the Alzarzour kids have not really been affected by March 15.

And their parents are slowly starting to unravel the damage done.

Hisham says a huge part of his own healing has been because his family were able to stay in Christchurch.

They are in the midst of a residency application and, in the past few weeks, have moved into their own home in Ilam.

Hisham's brother has a one-year work visa, allowing the talented engineer to apply for any jobs he can find.

His father is an experienced crane operator and, once he is granted residency, he is told he will have no issue getting work in and around the Garden City.

Having them here, knowing they can stay, has lifted a huge weight of Hisham.

"Until they came, my wife did everything and it was hard for her," he said.

"She was telling me recently how it affected her - her feelings most of the time were anger, sadness, depression.

"When I had pain, she worried. When I had mental health issues, she worried.

"Before this happened I would play with the children, talk to my wife all the time - but after I didn't do that, I didn't spend time with my family, I sat alone …

"I wanted to be alone, I say by myself just thinking how I was so very sad and angry."

Things are still up and down but, increasingly, Hisham is feeling better.

Every week day he and Susan attend an English language course.

Two or three times a week he volunteers with the City Mission.

Susan is learning to drive and is hopeful she will soon have her restricted licence.

Hisham is studying social work.

The night of March 15 2019. Police were armed and on high alert near the Al Noor mosque. Photo / NZME
The night of March 15 2019. Police were armed and on high alert near the Al Noor mosque. Photo / NZME

"I still remember that day - sometimes every little detail," he said.

"There are still dreams about it, not daily but often … and sometimes something will happen to take me right back to that time.

"Sometimes, Susan wakes me up in the night and tells me I have been screaming in my sleep.

"But I am getting stronger … it is getting less."

In terms of the anniversary, Hisham and Susan will go to the memorial on March 15 with his parents.

"It will hurt, but it's good to remember the people we lost," Hisham said.

"March 13, at the mosque will be more important for us - it is Friday prayer, so really the anniversary of what happened at that special place.

"It is Roua's birthday that day, but we will probably do something before - she will lose that day this year."

One of the biggest changes for Hisham is feeling safe again.

He says he will never truly let his guard down, but he is now comfortable in his own home again, satisfied his wife and kids will unlikley be harmed there.

"Are we safe? 100 per cent it's hard to say," he said.

"There are still bad guys out there, but it's not as scary any more.

"This will never change, they will never be finished, there will be people like this out there forever.

"Something like this could happen again … but we have to look to the future."

Susan said from her perspective, while March 15 was terrifying, the months that followed were just as scary.

She watched her husband's lowest lows, his biggest struggles, his darkest days.

The days he would sit in silence, the nights he would not sleep, the hours he would spend away from the house in a bid to keep busy and not let himself rest for fear of the thoughts that would creep in.

It was exhausting keeping an eye on him, trying to be what he needed and be ready to react to any and all of his suffering.

"Emotionally, my wife is stronger than me," Hisham says, glancing over at his bride.

"I have to be," Susan replied, matter of factly.

"There is a saying, if it does not kill you, it makes you stronger … I am so much stronger, I can deal with anything now."

Most of the victims of the March 15 terror attack were buried together in a Christchurch cemetery. Photo / Alan Gibson
Most of the victims of the March 15 terror attack were buried together in a Christchurch cemetery. Photo / Alan Gibson

As a couple and as a family they are also stronger and closer.

They are looking forward to their future - which will be in New Zealand - and working towards their dreams.

"When I think that it's been a year since the attack, I think I've gone crazy because I remember it like it was yesterday," Hisham said.

"Now, we just want to get past the anniversary and have a quiet life, a normal life.

"We just want everyone to be peaceful, like before."

Where to get help:
Lifeline: 0800 543 354 (available 24/7)
Whats Up?: 0800 942 8787 (1pm to 11pm)
Depression helpline: 0800 111 757 (available 24/7)
Youthline: 0800 376 633
Kidsline: 0800 543 754 (available 24/7)
If it is an emergency and you feel like you or someone else is at risk, call 111.