News of the deadly attack on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand seemed surreal to Ilkay Cakirogullari, a student at Selkirk College.
“I have been to New Zealand, and I visited one of those mosques,” he said. He said his experience with that community was one of welcoming and sharing.
“They didn’t even know I was a Muslim, I just went into the mosque and they invited me in for tea. I spent a few days with them and they invited me to their homes.
“I can remember going through the mosques’ doors, you could just go in. This [shooter] was 28 years old, like me, and he just walked through those doors too.
“It is so horrible, that community was so open to me.”
The attack killed 50 people, and was explicitly planned to fan the flames of race hatred. It prompted condemnation around the world.
That’s why Cakirogullari joined nearly 100 other people for a vigil on Thursday at the Mir Peace Centre at the College.
He says for him the vigil was not only a moment of reflection, but a chance to appreciate what he has in Canada.
“I can walk around here and say ‘I am a Muslim’, and that’s fine. That’s how it should be.
“It makes me feel good, to feel happy because I am really grateful people came. Even the police showed up and that’s great, to see the police coming as well.”
Zakeea Al Hanafy, a rural pre-med program student at the College, said the vigil also helped affirm for her that she belongs to a caring and open community.
She said when the attack first happened, her mother didn’t want her to go to the College that day.
“I said ‘Mom, this is Castlegar, this is my community, this is my college, this is my home’,” she recalled. “This is where I feel safe and supported.
“So being here today confirmed for me ‘you are right, you are safe here’.”
The names of the shooting victims were read out, with brief biographies about many of them. Holding votive candles, participants were asked if they would like to speak. Many chose to talk about love and hate, peace and violence, caring and community— and what they felt they could do to make the world a better place.
After the gathering, Centre staff shared plates of bread from cultures around the world. The chair of the Mir Centre for Peace, Jennie Barron, said she was thrilled with the turnout, which packed a large room in the Mir Centre building.
“I was expecting 20 people,” she said. “So this is wonderful.”
She said the vigil was held for many reasons.
“It is expressing condolences, our shock and horror of the event, but also wanting to support all those who feel threatened by the rise of the alt-right, the white nationalist movement,” she says. “And thirdly, to reaffirm for ourselves there are things we can do and we are going to do them.”
Barron says one thing she would like to see is more dialogue and interaction between people from different cultures.
“We have a pretty diverse mix at the College, but that doesn’t always ensure people interact,” she says. “So we have to create spaces, and opportunities. We have to create forums for dialogue and building friendship.”
One of those opportunities will be on Friday, March 29, when the College’s Peace and Justice Studies students are holding a “community conversation” on embracing the city’s changing cultural and social landscape. The meeting is from 4-6 p.m. at St. Rita’s Church in Castlegar.