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“It is a very extraordinary message and he is an extraordinary man.”
Outside a small brick home in the Christchurch suburb of Hoon Hay, the word PEACE is spelled out in large white capital letters on five rocks.
It is a familiar slogan, drawing on a long history of anti-war protests, but for Farid Ahmed, it is an aspiration born out of personal and community tragedy.
Four years and four months ago, Ahmed’s words of peace and forgiveness echoed across the world after his wife, Husna Ahmed, was one of 51 worshippers killed in the shootings at the Al Noor Mosque and Linwood Islamic Centre on 15 March 2019.
Two weeks later, he addressed a crowd of around 23,000 people at the National Remembrance Service in Hagley Park. “I don't want to have a heart that is boiling like a volcano,” he said. “That’s why I have chosen peace. I have chosen love and I have forgiven.”
Farid’s message of forgiveness spread across the globe. He has meet with world leaders, been honoured with an international peace award while speaking at the Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies, and continues to call for peace on the global stage.
As he tells Frank Film, “I had never imagined that one word is so powerful – forgiveness. Forgiveness is the result of just common sense. If we just question ourselves, what is going to benefit me in the future? Anger or forgiveness?”
Ahmed’s path to forgiveness, however, began long before that fateful day in 2019.
Farid Ahmed was born in 1962 in a village in Bangladesh, one of six children. He learned English from a young age and studied engineering at the Sylhet Polytechnic Institute. He arrived in New Zealand in December 1988 at the age of 26. Unable to use his engineering qualification, he studied towards a qualification as a homeopath.
On moving to Nelson, marriage was on his mind. He had his heart set on Husne Ara Tajmin, a young woman from the Zangal Hata village. Despite losing her mother when she was only eight months old, and her father around 11 or 12, she was resilient, says Ahmed, a confident young woman, a good sportsperson with an infectious smile. “She had many marriage proposals but nothing was clicking.”
His parents asked him to return to Bangladesh to marry but, concerned for his own safety, Ahmed asked that she be allowed to travel to New Zealand, on the understanding, he says, that they would marry “the day she arrives.”
Even as her family hesitated, the young bride-to-be told her parents, “I want to go”.
They were married in Auckland in 1994. After they were married, he writes in his 2020 book, Husna’s Story, “we decided her name would be Husna Ahmed.” Two days later, they moved down to Nelson.
“We blended just straight away,” he says. “We were a happy family. We felt that we were blessed by one another.”
Tragedy struck on the morning of 23 February 1998. Ahmed was walking to work when a young drunk driver, travelling at 100km an hour in an 80km zone, careered towards him. “Then what happened I do not know”.
Observers said he was thrown into the air. He fell on to the windscreen and rolled on to the street – in panic, the driver ran over him. When he woke up in Nelson Hospital, he was told he would never walk again.
“It was like a bomb. All my life I was playing and running, and suddenly when I hear that I was not able to walk again – disbelief, shock, disappointment.” As his condition worsened he was flown to Christchurch Hospital where he was given a 7% chance of survival. As he writes, a doctor told his wife to “go home and find another husband”. But Husna Ahmed did not give up on him. “She wept, but she was not broken”.
Ahmed was in Burwood Hospital for over five months, suffering from a broken back, broken legs, chest injuries and concussion. By the fourth month, he was gaining strength. He attributes his survival to the doctors, homeopathy and the love and extraordinary forgiveness of his wife. As she told Ahmed, the young man who nearly killed him “must have had a bad day, the poor guy”.
In December, the couple moved permanently to Christchurch and in 2004 their daughter, Shifa, was born.
Ahmed’s lesson in forgiveness would be given its most severe test when, just before 1pm on 15 March, he and his wife parked outside the mosque on Deans Ave. Ahmad headed to the main room of the mosque, while his wife went to the women’s room. It was the last time they would see each other.
Sunlight now stripes the floor where Ahmed greeted a sick friend on his way to the main room. That’s when he heard the sound of shooting. “People started running out. Two of the doors were jammed with people trying to flee. I was basically getting ready for my last moments, because I realised that I could not escape.”
Eventually he was able to push himself out, fearing he would be shot from behind. When he went back inside, he found the women’s room empty. “That gave me instant relief – she was alive somewhere out there.”
He was outside, still waiting for his wife, when he was told she was no longer alive. As he wrote in his book, the pain “hit me like a wall of wind”.
He later learned she had re-entered the mosque three times to help the injured and look for her husband. “She could have run away, she didn’t. And that I can never forget.”
Ahmed recalls the words he said to his daughter later that day. “We have two options. Be broken down, be miserable, or be resilient and move forward. Which path should we take? She said…” Ahmed pushes his hand forward in a gesture of advancement.
Like so many who lost family members that day, Farid Ahmed still feels the acute loss of his wife. “Life without her is…. not full. I could take the path of depression because I miss her, but I remember her and her memory is inspiring me to contribute. Definitely I am optimistic. Life is still beautiful. The world is beautiful, the sun is shining. There are a lot of things to be thankful about.”
It is this strength, says Gamal Fouda, Imam at the Al Noor mosque, that four years ago set the scene for forgiveness and peace. “It is a very extraordinary message and he is an extraordinary man.”
Producer/Director/Cameraman/Interviewer: Gerard Smyth
Editor: Oliver Dawe
Researcher: Erina Ellis
Writer: Sally Blundell
Production Manager: Jo Ffitch
Sound Design/Mix: Chris Sinclair