Rola Elayyan never knew she had relatives in New Zealand until she read in the news that they had been shot in a terrorist attack while attending Friday prayers.
The Australian student, 18, found out she was related to Atta Elayyan less than a day after the 33-year-old Palestinian man was murdered by a white supremacist on a shooting rampage. Mohammed Elayyan, Atta's father and Rola’s grandfather’s cousin, was injured in the attack and taken to hospital.
She was one of many who were related to the 50 people murdered in the New Zealand terrorist attack that shook Muslim communities around the world. But for the Palestinian diaspora – who live in exile after fleeing Israeli violence and occupation – Friday’s mass shooting is bringing once-disconnected extended families closer together.
As a Palestinian living in immigrant communities around the world, losing touch with extended family is a common occurrence for asylum seekers. It’s painful, Ms Elayyan said, as Arab families, forged in the close-knit communities of Palestine, had been torn apart by the Israeli occupation, in acts sometimes as atrocious as the ones committed on Friday.
“I felt anger because I didn’t even know of Mohammed and Atta. I had family right around the corner, but I lost them before I even knew of it," Ms Elayyan said.
"The feeling of loss was strange because the bond I formed with them was formed on the basis of loss. My entire family is shocked at the fact we had family so close, yet so far,” the Macquarie University law student said.
But in an odd twist, the event brought members of the Elayyan family, who are spread out across the world, from the US to New Zealand, closer together. That is in spite of many of the family's younger generations having never met or talked to each other. Ms Elayyan said that it’s in troubling times that family matters most.
“So when the news came about, the devastation was beyond real because it was so close to home. I didn’t think I would be personally related to anyone there but they’re still my brothers and sisters – I was raised to know and believe everyone around me was my brother and sister,” she said.
Like many Palestinians living in exile, Ms Elayyan views family as home and her kinship as the closest semblance of national identity that she can get living so far from her ancestral homeland. The Palestinian diaspora in Australia, like many living around the world, fled in the many refugee waves caused by Israeli atrocities or by choice to search for better opportunities.
Many Palestinians lost contact with their extended families since the first wave of refugees fled in 1948. Reconnecting with relatives has, for the large part, been a difficult task, with communication to Palestine being as difficult as it has in the past and with families forced to flee to whatever countries they believe will provide the best living conditions.
For the young Palestinian who was born in Sydney, this event has made her want to close that distance and connect with her kin both in New Zealand and around the world.
“One of the first things I did was call my family back home and speak to them all. This has made me want to pursue my family, especially those I don’t know of,” she said.
For Atta’s family friends from Kuwait, where the Elayyans lived before the first Gulf War, the news came as a tragedy, after having last heard about him when invitations were sent out for his wedding in 2015. Those closer to him heard about the birth of his daughter less than three years ago.
“He had a really special place in our hearts,” said one of the Palestinian family members who knew him from their time in Kuwait. Although she had not met him, the 32-year-old said she had always heard praise associated to the family name coming from older members of her family.
Atta, who was born in Kuwait, recently became a father and was a popular member of the Christchurch tech industry. He had also fully committed himself to becoming a citizen, as a goalkeeper for the New Zealand national futsal team – a variation of five-a-side football played on hard courts.
Now, after his death, family and friends from far away are reading about the man people who described as “loving and smart”.
“It’s shocking and I am still thinking about how small the world is. To hear about news like this in a place that is really far away from you and suddenly it's people that you really know and care about. What's the chance that something happened in New Zealand and suddenly you know the family and they are close to you,” Ms Elayyan said.
Abdel Fattah Qassem Al Dakka, 59, was among the six Palestinians killed in the attack. His distant relative Farrah Fayyad, also an Australian immigrant, said the news of Abdel Fattah’s death affected her deeply despite never having met him.
“It’s a very difficult feeling to describe. It hit close to home. It touched on both my identities as an Australian and a Muslim, which makes this intersection all the more complex,” Ms Fayyad said.
The Palestinian-Australian doctoral candidate said the event is further reason for her to keep in touch with her extended family around the world.
“Even though I didn’t know him or knew he existed, it changed my perspective in that it has hit home differently – firstly geographical, secondly familial. Knowing that someone from my extended family was there definitely has an impact. It’s actually quite surreal,” she added.
She urged the wider Palestinian and Muslim community to maintain their connections despite the distance among the diasporas from crisis-stricken countries.
"Stay strong. Stay united. Most importantly, know that the support and love we’ve received from the community outweighs the hate and fear mongering by extremists," she said. "This is our home and we are here to stay."