How Haneen Zreika and Bachar Houli dealt with the Christchurch tragedy

Originally published by The Age.

On the afternoon when 50 Muslim New Zealanders were murdered in a Christchurch mosque, a distressed Bachar Houli left work at the Richmond Football Club and went home, while Muslim AFLW footballer, Haneen Zreika, overcame her misgivings and decided to take the field for the Giants.

On the following day, Houli returned to Punt Road Oval, where he would broach the topic of what happened in Christchurch with 70 or so kids — all of them Muslim boys under 14 who were involved in Houli’s academy.

Houli, the AFL’s most recognised Muslim, told the boys: ‘‘Be proud of who you are and keep the faith.’’

Essendon’s Adam Saad, a committed Muslim, trained with teammates on Friday morning before the carnage unfolded. Several teammates are understood to have reached out to him over the weekend.

Zreika was in her hotel room in Canberra, about seven hours before the first bounce of the GWS v Geelong game, when she first learned of the massacre via a friend’s Snapchat. Her initial reaction was that she would not play that evening.

‘‘When it first happened, I was telling myself ‘I shouldn’t play today’.’’ But her mentor from her junior club in Sydney’s west, Amna Karra-Hassan, called and implored Haneen to play the game, for the sake of her community.

‘‘She told me, ‘you need to play tonight. We need it.’ People from our community need hope because of what happened today, but it’s something, a bit of hope.

‘‘I thought about it and I said ‘she’s right’ … she gave me something — inspire, to do something for other people, which made me play.’’

Zreika, who turns 20 in a few weeks, did watch some of the horrifying footage of Brenton Tarrant’s rampage that had been uploaded on the internet.

‘‘Yeah, I saw the video of the guy, what he’d done … yeah, I saw the actual shots.’’ She added: ‘‘I sometimes think I shouldn’t have watched it. I think [about] what he did and I have no words to explain.’’

The first call Haneen had received was from her GWS coach Alan McConnell. ‘‘Have you seen what happened?”, he asked. ‘‘I’ve seen a bit of it,’’ Zreika replied.

McConnell asked if she was OK.

‘‘Once I got off the phone, I looked and I’ve seen the live videos and that’s when it got me — I was heartbroken … like how? Why has this happened to these people? Especially when they were praying.

‘‘I was emotional, but I didn’t want to show it … I didn’t want to show to them … I didn’t show to the girls that it got to me. I just brushed it off.’’

Haneen, a convert from rugby league in that sport’s western Sydney heartland who had played Australian football for just four years (she’s in her second year with GWS), subsequently went down to the park, where her teammates congregated.

‘‘Has anyone seen the news today?,’’ McConnell asked his players. ‘‘Everyone’s like ‘yeah’,’’ Zreika recalled.

McConnell continued: ‘‘We have a young Muslim player, we need to get around her, and we are wearing black arm bands to show our respect.

‘‘Once, he said that, it made me feel way better. Like, my club’s behind me. They support, they’re feeling for us … then the girls got around me.

‘‘I was emotional. I did cry when he was telling the girls.’’

Players from both sides also observed a moment’s silence. ‘‘It was beautiful,’’ the 157cm midfielder said.

Haneen’s fifth game for the GWS Giants would be her best yet, earning her the rising star nomination for the final round of the AFLW home-and-away season.

Several family and friends had intended to come to Canberra to watch her play, but events across the Tasman meant they stayed in Sydney.

Her Lebanese-born mother, who ‘‘pretty much raised me’’ after her father’s death, her two brothers and her two sisters were at Lakemba Mosque while Haneen excelled in the midfield and the Giants overcame the Cats.

‘‘I had a lot of people coming to watch me, but they couldn’t come because of what happened. Friends and family and I just said ‘I’m just going to play, I’m going to play for them.’’

Post-game, Zrieka received a flood of messages from AFLW colleagues from other clubs — players she’d never met. ‘‘They were all messaging me saying ‘we’re behind you.’’

Zreika had crossed codes at high school. ‘‘There was really nothing for girls, when I was 13, 14, 15, I wasn’t really doing a sport … then at school my teacher said ‘come and play with the boys AFL’ and I told him I don’t know what it is.’’

As much as it horrified her, Zreika thought that the terrible event in Christchurch could bring people together. She noted that Christian priests had been at Lakemba mosque on Friday with her family.

‘‘I think after this everyone will realise we need to stick together. And stuff like this is not OK.’’

Keep up-to-date with all AFL NSW/ACT related news by following us on FacebookInstagram and Twitter