Helping survivors a privilege: interpreter

Mustafa Derbashi came to New Zealand in 2001 without a word of English — last week he interpreted...
Mustafa Derbashi came to New Zealand in 2001 without a word of English — last week he interpreted at the country’s biggest criminal hearing. PHOTO: SUPPLIED
A former Dunedin man who interpreted for survivors affected by the Christchurch mosque attack says the experience was a "privilege".

Mustafa Derbashi calls himself an "emotional person" but at the sentencing of 29-year-old terrorist Brenton Tarrant in the High Court at Christchurch last week, he called on all his professionalism.

"One of the most important things is for us to be impartial — not to be dragged into the emotional part of it," he said.

In two horrifying attacks on the city’s mosques, Tarrant killed 51 innocent worshippers and wounded 40 others.

Scores of victims, family members and supporters from the Muslim community flooded the courthouse, watching three days of heartbreaking victim impact statements before the killer was eventually sentenced by Justice Cameron Mander to life imprisonment without parole.

Dr Derbashi — specifically requested by the High Court — assisted with Arabic interpreting both inside and outside the courtroom.

"Being part of the process, helping them be understood, is such a privilege," he said.

It was not the first time he had been involved.

Dr Derbashi also interpreted at the Forsyth Barr Stadium vigil which attracted 18,000 people in an unprecedented show of love shortly after the catastrophe on March 15, 2019.

After Tarrant’s sentence was passed, victims left the courthouse to a rapturous greeting from members of the public, crowded behind barriers, desperate to show their support.

Dr Derbashi called the scenes "an absolute pleasure".

But he was not surprised.

"I think life in New Zealand, in terms of understanding each other and getting to known each other, is much better than before," he said, echoing the sentiments of the victims.

"Yes, there was a very painful event and a very bad day in New Zealand history, but for the people who will move forward, that was a turning point."

Of Palestinian origin, Dr Derbashi spent 29 years in a refugee camp in Jordan.

It was there, he said, he adopted a mantra of selflessness.

"I believe that every day, when you wake up, you have to do something for people without looking for anything in return," he said.

Dr Derbashi came to New Zealand in 2001 with "no English, no money and no relatives".

Those were obstacles he overcame, before leaving for a stint in Saudi Arabia as a high-level cultural adviser.

While there he realised New Zealand was home.

In 2018, he moved to Dunedin — now with a wife, three children, and a PhD.

Despite returning to Auckland earlier this year, he missed the southern city and said the sadness of the mosque attacks would not change his outlook.

"I’m here to stay and serve New Zealand," he said.

"I’m a proud Kiwi."


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