Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 18 August 2019

Hajj 2019: Aya Al Umari makes pilgrimage to Makkah for brother killed in Christchurch

'I want a house for me and my family in heaven so we can join my brother as well'

A photo of Hussein Al Umari, a victim of the Christchurch mosques shootings, carried by his sister Aya while performing Umrah for her brother. Courtesy of Aya Al Umari
A photo of Hussein Al Umari, a victim of the Christchurch mosques shootings, carried by his sister Aya while performing Umrah for her brother. Courtesy of Aya Al Umari

The last time Aya Al Umari was in Makkah, she was a child travelling with her parents and her brother, Hussein, from their former home in Abu Dhabi to perform Umrah for the first time.

This year, Ms Al Umari returns to the spot where many years before she stood in front of the Kaaba and gazed up at it in wonder. Only this time, her brother will not be by her side. He exists only in the picture of him she carries around – although he is also the reason she is there.

"One of my brother's favourite [Arabic] verses is 'God please build for me a house in heaven' and that's one thing I've been saying over and over again; I want a house for me and my family in heaven so we can join my brother as well," she told The National from Makkah.

Ms Al Umari is among the dozens of people affected by the Christchurch mosque attacks on March 15 who were invited to take part in Hajj this year by Saudi Arabia's King Salman. Hussein died at the Al Noor Mosque as he ran towards the terrorist, attempting to save other worshipers.

Several weeks ago, King Salman instructed the Ministry of Islamic Affairs to co-ordinate with the families of the victims and those wounded to arrange their travel for Hajj. Ms Al Umari and her family were overjoyed, and planned for Ms Al Umari to travel with her mother, Janna Ezat, to perform Hajj in memory of Hussein.

However, Ms Ezat could not go for health reasons. But Ms Al Umari says she does not feel alone – the flight to Saudi Arabia was two-thirds full of others affected by the shootings, who have grown close in the months since.

"It was a very nice feeling travelling from Christchurch to here – you go to the bathroom and pass by many familiar faces. It's like seeing family," she said.

"Grief has many waves of emotions so I was feeling very unsettled [at home], I felt like I needed to do something. So doing this, it's made me feel like now I can relax. In a sense it is closure, but it's more like continuing the legacy and doing good deeds for Hussein."

Aya Al Umari poses with a photo of herself and her brother Hussein on July 30, 2019. AP Photo
Aya Al Umari poses with a photo of herself and her brother Hussein on July 30, 2019. AP Photo

After a quick turnaround time – she found out at 9am on Saturday that she would be travelling at 9 that night – Ms Al Umari said the farewell to her family in Christchurch was emotional, and that her mother was crying with happiness.

In Makkah, Saudi Arabia has grouped the Christchurch travellers together, and taken care of all of the logistics – including food, lodging and most domestic travel.

"It's the perfect gift to be given the ability to come here and do this. I am so humbled and grateful to get the opportunity to come," she said.

"The generosity of the king and the hospitality of the Saudi people is fantastic, it just feels like you're at home."

While this is Ms Al Umari's first Hajj, it is not her first trip to Makkah; her family came when she was a child to perform Umrah. At the time, her father was working at Adco in Abu Dhabi, and her mother was an esteemed calligraphy artist.

But from that trip, she only remembers the Kaaba, and seeing the top few metres of it from the hotel the family stayed in.

"I could remember just gazing up there as a kid and looking at it. I had a pendant of the Kaaba and remember thinking, 'I wonder how similar it is to my pendant'. I still have that pendant."

This time around, when Ms Al Umari arrived in Makkah, the feeling was different.

"It took me by surprise this time. I stood in one place and looked right and left to try and figure out where I was going and [the Kaaba] was right in front of me... I just thought 'Oh my god I'm here, I made it'. I was over the moon. It gave me goosebumps. And the first thing I said when I saw it was 'God, please build for me a house in heaven'."

That verse is just one of the prayers she has come with to Makkah. She also has prayers for her mother and father, one for other Christchurch victims, one for herself, and some that her friends at home have asked her to say on their behalf.

"The main one is really for Mum and Dad, to give them patience and to bless [them]. I can see their pain every day since March 15," she said.

"Another thing that I'm really concentrating on is to bless all the families of the injured and to get through the next year of the trial, and for God to give us justice in what's going to happen next year."

Aya Al Umari in Makkah. Courtesy Aya Al Umari
Aya Al Umari in Makkah. Courtesy Aya Al Umari

Ms Al Umari has performed Umrah twice on this trip, once for herself and one for Hussein, accompanied by a photograph of her brother. She took a photo of that photograph at the starting point for her brother's Umrah, and another at the end. Her final picture is an extraordinary juxtaposition of Hussein's smiling face high above the gathering of pilgrims, surrounded by thousands of other Muslims down below. Ms Al Umari gets emotional as she recounts the experience.

"I had this sense that he was accompanying me. When I did my Umrah I did it on the ground floor. But when I did my brother's one it was so busy on the ground floor I had to do it on the top floor – and on the top floor the circumference gets bigger and bigger as you go up, so one round would be about three times the distance," she said.

"So I felt like my brother was telling me 'You need to go for a walk', because he loved walking and exercising. He would walk seven kilometres from his house to my parents' house every day almost. He has his own ways of teasing me up there, like he was saying: 'Well you're going for a long walk for me now because that's how I would've done it'."

In a few days, each of the Christchurch travellers will go together to Mount Arafat for the day of Arafah, a pivotal day of Hajj. The week has been physically gruelling, Ms Al Umari says, but she has been spurred on by the memory of her brother and the thought of her parents at home.

"I do say to them that I've been praying for them a lot, even if we don't talk about it openly, but inside they know.

"The second I remember the reason why I'm here I get this sensation and energy and adrenaline to carry me to finish the mission."

It may not necessarily bring her closure over what happened on March 15, but she believes it might fill "a part of me that was missing". She is now filled with "tranquility and piece for Hussein".

"Mentally I'm just expecting to be much more at peace when I get back. One weird thing about me is that I have social anxiety, if I'm in a group of people when I don't know anyone. But here it's gone, there's no social anxiety at all – it just feels like family. I hope I get rid of it when I get home."

Updated: August 8, 2019 02:53 PM

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