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Flowers and tributes near the Al Noor Mosque. Photo/Getty

What happened to the Christchurch terror attack donations?

Following the money is not for the fainthearted. Sarah Lang 
traces the millions of dollars donated to victims of the Christchurch mosque attacks and financial aid from government.

Read Part 1: A traumatised community struggles in the Christchurch terror attack aftermath

One of community worker Zhiyan Basharati’s top priorities has been striving to ensure victims were properly consulted about the allocation of donated funds. The two major organisations who collected and distributed donations were Victim Support (VS) in the short-term, and the Christchurch Foundation in the medium- to long-term.

VS collected $13.4 million of public donations, raising $10.9m through its Givealittle crowd-funding page, and $2.5m from other sources, including an over-the-counter appeal at The Warehouse. (Most Islamic groups that received donations agreed that VS could distribute them.)

VS CEO Kevin Tso says all $13.4m went to victims, with none going to administration. VS made $1.6m of emergency payments (between 18 March and 30 June) to victims for travel, funerals, childcare, accommodation, groceries etc. However, VS distributed most public donations through four lump-sum payments. The first, on 18 March, gave $10,000 to the next-of-kin of each deceased victim (shahid), and $5000 to each hospitalised victim.

Zhiyan Basharati. Photo/Ken Downie

Basharati says victims were confused, and would ask her about the remaining donations. On the morning of 13 April, she met with the presidents of the two mosques. “I said big decisions shouldn’t be made hastily without direct consultation with victims. I said I was meeting 40 bereaved widows, mothers and sisters that very afternoon. They were being left out of discussions.”

That afternoon, Basharati helped the women draft a letter (sent to VS, the Prime Minister’s office and politicians) expressing their wishes regarding donations, and a desire to be represented by a lawyer. However, the second VS payment went out on 18 April regardless: $15,000 to each shahid’s next-of-kin, and $8000 to each injured person, without splitting the injured into different categories.

In early April, Basharati had met lawyer Andrew Oh, a partner at law firm Duncan Cotterill, when he was visiting his bullet-injured neighbour at hospital. Basharati and Oh talked about the importance of unity and transparency regarding the distribution of funds. On 29 April, after the second VS payment, Basharati arranged for Oh to meet the victims, who accepted his pro-bono help. Oh and Basharati developed a consultation form giving anyone affected a say on distribution and compensation models.  

The consensus? “That the deceased should be considered one victim group,” Oh says, “and this happened. Each life should be valued the same, whether it was a husband earning income or a child learning to read. However, VS initially treated those physically injured the same. If you sprained your ankle, or were paralysed, you got the same. We pushed for the physically injured to be split into three, if not four, categories – according to injury, length of hospitalisation etc.”

Oh first contacted VS through its lawyer on 1 May, sharing a draft of the consultation form. “I first met with CEO Kevin Tso, their lawyer and a DIA [Department of Internal Affairs] representative on 7 May. Our primary focus was getting Victim Support to talk directly to the victims – not just to Muslim community groups – about their needs and concerns before it made decisions.”

Oh asked VS to postpone the third payment until proper consultation happened. But its third payment went out unaltered on 10 May: $15,000 each to a shahid’s next-of-kin, $12,000 each to those injured, and $12,000 each to the other 160 people present at the mosques. Oh and Basharati weren’t thrilled. “Needs assessments should have been done,” says Oh.

However, having Duncan Cotterill’s logo on documents must have helped. From 22 May until 7 June, Tso met with victims directly and thoroughly, Oh says. “I believe this was a direct result of Zhiyan’s work. She spent many hours listening to victims about their concerns when no one else asked them. She’s a special person with a big heart.”

On 25 June, Oh sent the final consultation forms to VS. Many victims wanted the shahids’ next-of-kin and the seriously injured to get the same amount (that wasn’t Oh’s personal view, but he simply passed on their wishes). Like Oh, the victims wanted the injured to be divided into different categories, and for the traumatised to get a smaller but decent amount. Most wanted a fixed rather than variable compensation model, and only a few wanted discretionary funds reserved. Oh encouraged VS to consider compensation models used after the Grenfell Tower fire and Boston Marathon bombing.

Progress at last. For its fourth, final and largest payment, VS used a compensation model similar to what victims had requested. On 27 June, VS distributed $50,000 to each shahid’s next-of-kin, $26,000 to the 40 shot, $9000 to the 49 injured in other ways, and $5000 to others at the mosques. Oh wasn’t unhappy. “But the physically injured should have been split into more categories.”

Tso says: “The fourth and largest lump-
sum payment was made only after comprehensive consultation with the community.” This implies the first three payments weren’t made after comprehensive community consultation. However, Tso says VS “engaged continuously with other fund-holders and Muslim community groups throughout the entire process”. Between the third and fourth payments, VS directly and thoroughly consulted with victims one on one. “We met with victims in their homes, businesses and hospital wards. We spoke with people on the phone across New Zealand and in India, Pakistan and Australia. We received clear feedback that the bereaved and seriously injured must be prioritised in the final distribution, but that other victims present must still receive support to recognise mental trauma.”

Basharati knows VS had good intentions. “But they weren’t happy to be told they weren’t consulting comprehensively with a diverse community, when they believed they were.”

In total, VS gave $90,000 to each of the 51 shahids’ next-of-kin, $51,000 each to 40 victims shot, $34,000 each to 49 injured but not shot, and $17,000 each to 160 people present but not physically injured. This totals $11,016,000 (not counting some contingency funds).

That might sound like a lot but, when divided by 300 people, it’s about $36,700   (though some, of course, got more and others less). The median income of New Zealand’s working-age population in 2019 was $52,832 a year. “Many people think the victims got more than they actually did,” says Basharati.

After VS’s final payment, the Christchurch Foundation became the official organisation handling donations. VS gave the foundation $421,834 earmarked by two anonymous donors for a long-term medical fund. VS transfers its remaining contingency funds to the foundation on 15 March – the first anniversary of the shootings.

VS also administered the government-
funded Victim Assistance Scheme, which provides financial support for victims of serious crime, and provided various emergency grants and counselling to those affected by the mosque attacks. The 51 next-of-kin each got $5000.

Christchurch mayor Lianne Dalziel. Photo/Getty

The Christchurch Foundation was set up in 2017, before the attacks, to take donations and allocate funds to different causes across the city. Within hours of the shootings, the foundation launched the “Our People, Our City Fund” on behalf of the Prime Minister and Christchurch mayor Lianne Dalziel.

So far, the fund’s been gifted or pledged $11m. Foundation chief executive Amy Carter says all money went (or will go) to victims, and nothing to administration, despite the foundation incurring $70,000 in directly related operational costs. “I made this commitment on 19 March and said we’d involve the community in the decision-making.”

Two million of the $11m was quickly distributed as large “donor-directed gifts”, including $1.5m from Saudi Arabian businessman Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, to divide between shahids’ next-of-kin.

On 27 June, when the foundation took over as chief distributor of funds, it launched its “Listening Project” regarding donation allocation. Independent adviser Raf Manji, working voluntarily, held 100-plus meetings with groups and individuals through July, August and September. He spoke to victims, community leaders, expert advisers and at least 21 organisations.

During this period, Manji met with Basharati, Oh and the victims. “Families were initially confused about the foundation,” says Basharati. “But Raf listened to us and read our consultation forms.”

The outcome? Seven million (of the remaining $9m) went to a Victims’ Fund which, as of 15 January, had distributed $6,845,000: each shahid’s next-of-kin got $70,000-$75,000, and each bullet-injured person got $25,000. A $1,375,000 Children and Widow Support Fund and a $500,000 Hardship Fund were established (applications are required for both). These decisions also took into account major donors’ wishes.

Of the remaining $2m, an Education Fund received $1.5m. The children of the shahids and the bullet-wounded – and the siblings of children killed – can be given up to $15,000 for post-high school study. A Community Support Fund got $500,000: the foundation’s still accepting donations for this, and for the medical fund transferred by VS.

Basharati talks with family members of Matiullah Safi, killed at Al Noor Mosque (from left): his mother, Chambily Zaman, and sons Jibran and Jawid Safi. Photo/Ken Downie
With the shootings classed as an accident, some victims were covered by the Accident Compensation Corporation. ACC has accepted 180 claims related to the attacks and declined 67. ACC says 46 “decline decisions” were due to no evidence of physical injuries. Of the remaining 21 claims denied, ACC says 11 clients didn’t want to proceed.

There’s been confusion about whether people would qualify for ACC if they were mentally but not physically injured: people are eligible for mental-
injury cover only if they also have a physical injury, or if it’s a work-related mental injury (for example, mosque employees working at the time, or emergency responders). Of the 180 claims accepted, 33 were for physical and mental injury, and six were for mental injury only.

Basharati says the system is unfair. “ACC wouldn’t cover people who weren’t physically injured but were traumatised and couldn’t work.” She’s been advocating for ACC to cover survivors with psychological issues that currently prevent them working.

By 24 January, ACC had paid $889,187 in weekly compensation (80% of pre-
injury income) to 58 claimants. People with ACC cover who are ineligible for weekly compensation can access other ACC benefits and support such as medical treatment and counselling. ACC directs those it doesn’t cover to agencies including the CDHB, the Christchurch Foundation and MSD.

Then there are death benefits. By 22 January, ACC had paid death benefits totalling $1,557,223. These include 51 funeral grants totalling $275,819 (on average, $5369 each); and 37 survivors grants to spouses totalling $214,537 (an average $5798 each). They’ve paid 18 survivors’ grants to children totalling $98,572 – an average $5476 per claim (one claim per family, though multiple grants might be made).

Other death benefits are 21 ongoing weekly compensation payments to spouses, so far totalling $677,662 (an average $32,268 each); and 16 weekly compensation payments to children, so far totalling $212,101 (an average $13,256 each; again, one claim per family). These weekly compensation payments will continue for five years, or until a shahid’s youngest child turns 18 (or 21 if they’re studying fulltime). ACC has also paid 15 childcare claims totalling $78,533 (an average $5235).

Residents pay their respects by placing flowers for the victims of the mosques attacks in Christchurch at the Masjid Umar mosque in Auckland on March 17, 2019. Photo/Getty
The Ministry of Social Development (MSD) hasn’t been involved in any discussions about public donations or their distribution, although it appointed case managers to help victims.

MSD’s Ministerial Welfare Programme (MWP), begun on 3 June, has provided some of those affected by the tragedy with approximately what they’d get had they been eligible for government benefits. Based on certain criteria, and subject to income tests, these “mirror benefits” have been granted to people in various situations, including those waiting for a Christchurch special-visa category (which confers permanent residency) to be approved; victims’ family members who have flown in and need some money for living costs; and locals connected to one of the mosques or the Christchurch Muslim community who are traumatised by the events. MSD has accepted 101 MWP applications and declined six. This 12-month programme is set to end on 3 June.

MSD’s other practical support has included helping people to gain employment, get drivers’ licences, and attend English-language classes.

For these “mirror benefits”, MSD deducts a dollar for each dollar provided by ACC. If the ACC payment is more than the MWP amount, it’s a no-go. But residents may still be eligible for an accommodation supplement, temporary additional support or a disability allowance through MSD – or Working for Families tax credits through IRD.

“Money isn’t everything,” says Basharati. “But it helps you deal with what’s facing you.”

Read Part 1: A traumatised community struggles in the Christchurch terror attack aftermath

This article was first published in the March 2020 issue of North & South. Follow North & South on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and sign up to our fortnightly email for more long-form journalism.