He Took a Bullet to Save His Son in Christchurch. Can They Ever Heal?

The attack that claimed 51 lives at two mosques in New Zealand made Zulfirman Syah a hero and a victim. Over the year that followed, he and his family were left to navigate the blind turns of trauma.

Comments: 70

  1. As someone from New Zealand, I can sympathise with this family. While New Zealand does have a good health system, government funding doesn't cover everyone unless you are a permanent resident or citizen - everyone else has to cover their own costs. As hard and as cruel as that may sound, this family weren't either - they were immigrants, probably in the system for residency when this tragedy happened. If they couldn't cover the costs of therapy etc, they would be bumped down the list for those who could. As with all countries, priority is given to citizens and permanents. It is the same everywhere - if I go to America and can't cover the costs, I can be denied. I moved to Australia, and fell sick, and had to return for surgery in New Zealand as I wasn't covered even though there is a reciprocal agreement between our two nations. We can't make exceptions for some and not others, where does it end? If we did, then the system won't be there for those who are entitled to it. I only write this as the article makes New Zealand sound cold and heartless, it is not.

  2. @Shane Lynch When a new resident or visitor is injured by a New Zealand citizen, then I think the country has some responsibility to help. If you had been injured by an Australian when you were there, I would have expected that government to help you. And some countries just do help visitors. When I became ill in England years ago my first treatment in the public health system was free. It was only when I chose to go to a private hospital for needed surgery we had a bill to pay, but it wasn't high. Same when my husband was very ill in Italy some years later.

  3. @Susan in NH - to be clear, the gunman isn't a New Zealand citizen; he is an Australian who is believed to have been radicalized in Europe. But yes, of course we have a responsibility to help. Obviously the health services were overwhelmed in the aftermath of this attack, but the family would not have been denied treatment and there is no suggestion in the article that they had to pay for their medical treatment or therapy.

  4. Actually, their physical injuries are totally covered by ACC in this case, and mental health issues as it relates to the physical injuries. Nonetheless, that doesn't ensure a lack of errors, access to care that is needed, or quality of care. It wasn't a money issue.

  5. As I read this story I became so moved by it. As I sit here self distancing, I was inspired by this family. I wanted to reach out and show that I care. I am a retired nurse and could have been a resource in this difficult year. Little Roes in his recovery. Please know that you are not alone. As we engage in another year on this earth, another event marking history is taking place. A pandemic which has cancelled parades and sporting events, schools, even the memorial for the Christchurch tragedy. But it did not cancel our shared humanity in what is right and good. Your story reminds me of the strength of the human spirit to carry on. I was sincerely moved by your story and my thoughts include you now. We all share in these struggles as we each could face the same perils. Be it extremists, gun violence, climate change. It took a pandemic to get the world's attention that we in fact are all human and vulnerable and one on this earth. We share a common goal to survive. My love and best wishes to you.

  6. @jeansch Very nicely articulated, same here best wishes to the family and jeansch to put it so elegantly.

  7. @jeansch Thank you for such a thoughtful response at such a challenging time.

  8. I feel for this family. New Zealand is a country with very little money and even fewer medical specialists. This is especially true in Christchurch, which is in the middle of nowhere. Even if they want to help, they just don't have the resources.

  9. @Kara That was the whole point of my comment below - the NYT made New Zealand out to be a tiny helpless island at the ends of the earth. We aren't - we actually have a great public health system where we don't have to pay anything as a citizen or permanent resident, and those that want insurance have that option to go private if they want - so I guess we have a two tier health system. In addition to that we have ACC which is a system to cover accidents or in this case, the shootings (I apologise to Alta Sacra who pointed out we have ACC as I had forgotten). Admittedly, we can probably do better in some areas, but all countries can.

  10. @Shane Lynch I went to grad school in US, and many of my very well educated colleagues immigrated to New Zealand with whom I talk occasionally. The country is doing much better than US. Even the differential between the wealthiest and the average middle class is moderate in comparison to US. Number of billionaires does not imply a well balanced society it only means few are allowed to exploit the masses.

  11. @Kara I've been to NZ and Christchurch (and all over the country). It is actually a much, much better place to live than the US and gives the appearance of considerable wealth. It actually has a very good public medical system (like most European and European settler states). This article certainly touched on the failures of that system but whatever failures there were did not happen because NZ has "very little money." It has a lot of money.

  12. Thank you for telling the story of the youngest victim. Like the first grade students who were killed in a mass shooting, our hearts are broken by the stories of the young victims. New Zealand's government took swift action after this horrible event and put in place gun policies which are restrictive and will work to keep citizens and visitors safe. There should be national funds to cover the costs of the victims of mass shootings whether they are citizens, residents, visitors or waiting for citizenship. These are not normal medical costs; no family can afford them in the USA. In the USA and other countries, the costs of special counseling and therapies should be covered outside of whatever health plan the victims have. If gun safety laws and regulations are not going to be adopted by legislatures owned by the NRA, it is even more necessary victim costs should be covered by the federal government which refuses to put in place the laws and regulations which make owning and using guns safe for all.

  13. These people are bound up in the deepest familial love. Such true love. Courage, strength, resilience. Beauty and honesty despite their terrifying experiences. Thank you for telling their story. And the photographs. My God, they are amazing. I wish them well. And many happy days to come.

  14. May this family heal from their grievous wounds. I think the love they feel for each other is clear in the photographs. There is gentleness, but also fierceness. Such love is essential, and each parent has a level of determination and selflessness that will serve them well as they continue to navigate through physical and psychological trials. God speed.

  15. I would like to know what the official NZ Government response would be to the complaints expressed in this piece. As someone has already said, their physical and mental health injuries are totally covered by ACC (NZ Government Accident Compensation Corporation) just as all those injured from the White Island volcanic explosion were. So what is this all article all about? We NZders pride ourselves in trying to do the right thing.

  16. @narena olliver I am not sure, but if this couple were on a temporary work visa I doubt whether they were entitled to compensation from the NZ Government. However, I think the government waved a lot of red tape given the magnitude of the tragedy. Also many millions of dollars were collected from the public and distributed to the victims.

  17. @narena olliver It's not really about compensation. (Hi, I wrote the story) They did receive financial help from the NZ government. The issue is that the health care system was often insensitive and lacking the resources or sensitivity needed for the situation. But really, Alta and Jul are not trying to condemn the whole system so much as share their experience in a way that might help some of these problems get solved over the longer term. Also I didn't write the story as a policy piece; I think it's also about the fact that even when the system works relatively well, trauma is something that takes a very long time to deal with, and which we all deal with in different ways -- sometimes together, sometimes alone. I've seen it in Christchurch but also in many other tragedies, from war to natural disasters, and every time, there are individual stories to tell that help us understand not just government, but also just humanity. This family, all three of them, each have their own personal narrative within a wider global tragedy.

  18. It’s confronting and difficult to believe that the take out from this horrendous story is that the New Zealand health care system failed the victims in this case. No system is perfect, especially under the extreme pressure of such an unprecedented event - but with a child under the care of our free public health care system, I have never ‘felt alone’. I don’t believe that this reporting is entirely fair or completely accurate.

  19. Thank you for following up on this family. So often there's so much news, and too many tragedies, that what happens afterwards is forgotten. Meanwhile survivors and their family continue to deal with the reverberations of the attack. I hope people read this and realize the amount of support survivors of need and deserve.

  20. This was a very moving story and so sad to hear how it has affected not only him, his family but how the trauma affects his son. Is Mr Syah at a place where he is painting and has some available for sale? I would love to help his family financially and purchase one when he gets to that point.

  21. I agree with Narena Olliver. The NZ health system did not leave Zulfirman, Alta and Roes "on their own". Of course this is a family tragedy that most of us find hard to comprehend, and niggling about a few words might seem small minded, but the care they received was the best that a very good health system could muster, provided by physicians and allied health people who worked themselves into the ground, and free, and supported by ACC. I have no idea how I would feel in their circumstances, but I'm pretty sure I'd be glad it happened in NZ, and not almost anywhere else.

  22. Agree with everything you said. But as in the US, it appears that in NZ, people are discharged without adequate follow-up whether it is with their doctors, social workers, case workers, or psychologists. Many of these appointments needed to be made prior to discharge along with plans for home nurse visits. Recovery is difficult as it is without having to navigate the aftermath of trauma.

  23. @Malcolm Macpherson While reading this article, I felt that at the beginning the writer was throwing a sop to this newspaper's visceral opposition to a single-payer health system... but the article became much more personal and real as I read further.

  24. Thanks for this great article providing such powerful insights into the ongoing trauma for this family, and no doubt for others who shared that horrendous experience. There is hope, recovery, and great strength, courage and resilience. The missteps by agencies along the way need to be heeded and learned from by others elsewhere. Empathy and kindness are such important qualities for staff in agencies to use; the capacity to step into the shoes of the person fronting at the counter or on the phone, dealing with the enormous complexities of returning to daily living after such devastation. Flexibility in policies also. It applies here too for victims of the bushfires.

  25. Given the obstacles to care in a country like NZ one can only imagine the thousands of suicide bomb and civilians caught in war cross fire victims and their families dealing with those injuries in countries destroyed by sectarian, ethnic and religious violence. There is a near infinite need for medical care and a very finite supply the world over.

  26. Since there are apparently a bunch of noxious conspiracies out there about this awful event, I'm glad to see this portrayal of the real news: humanity, courage, and perseverance in healing. And thank you Adam Dean for that final photo.

  27. This breaks my heart. Hate causes so much pain and sorrow in this world for no reason. I hope this family knows that no everyone hates. There is love to be found.

  28. Thanks to the NY Times for reporting this story. After these terrible terrorist attacks that mention the number of killed and an after thought the wounded we forget the ordeal the wounded suffer. Many of the wounded from the Bataclan attack in Paris have had terrible life changing experiences One I know has been confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life, lost his job and was divorced and claims to be in constant pain. He told me he wishes that he had been killed.

  29. @Lawrence I was shot in the chest, paralyzed from the waist down, and am now in constant pain. I wouldn't call these experiences terrible... Perhaps with time he will also find purpose in life again. I wish him the best.

  30. A tragedy, but he could most probably have saved himself and his son from being shot, along with saving many who were killed and wounded. The catch is, and this is a big catch for Dem liberals, he needed to be armed with a firearm and be somewhat proficient in its use. We've seen this happen multiple times recently in the US. The good guy with a gun vs. the bad guy with a gun. Some innocents are often harmed in such situations by the active shooter before he can be terminated but this is certainly preferable to a mass killing. No doubt this comment will bring howls of outrage from Dem liberals but frankly, ask me if I care.

  31. New Zealand opted for a different approach

  32. @Mike F. What absolute rubbish. As someone who grew up in NZ the very idea that more guns makes society safer borders on lunacy. And no, I don’t care if you don’t care to consider an alternative view. That’s your choice. And by the way, I’m a conservative.

  33. The stories like this* are always very difficult for me to read (I often have to read them in multiple sessions over the course of a day because I keep tearing up), but I always really appreciate them because they remind us all that there is a very human, personal element to the headlines that are on the front page, and also that these stories continue long after the headlines have been replaced by the newest headlines. Long form stories like this, reported over a long period of time, surely aren't easy or economical for the Times to make, but I wanted to say how thankful I am for them; I hope that the Times continues to publish such stories in the future. *Others that immediately come to mind are the black and white portraits / biographies of Syrian war refugees, the story of the Chinese sex worker in Flushing, NY, who fell to her death, and the recent story of two medical professionals in Wuhan who become ill.

  34. So New Zealand also has a bad socialist health system. I thought Bernie was in favor of their kind of medicine.

  35. @Rich Murphy I don't hear the family talking about the bills for hospitalization or doctors or physical or psychological therapy. The same problems with finding appropriate post care happens here in this country as people fight through a web of insurance network qualifications and added copays and deductibles which would also kick in again at the start of the new year.

  36. @Rich Murphy It really doesn't - the NZ healthcare system is excellent.

  37. A heartbreaking story, beautifully told and photographed. One can only hope New Zealanders wake up and take better care of the victims of that mass shooting.

  38. I'm so sorry for this family's trauma and hope they recover soon. EMDR is not a "storytelling therapy" - it's mainstream recommended treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder.

  39. Hi @Mary - Technically, you're right, but in the case of our son and the context of the reference in the article, it indeed was a storytelling therapy. EMDR for children (especially those as young as Roes, with limited verbal skills - but also children a bit older) generally utilises Dr. Joan Lovett's storytelling method, as detailed in her book "Small Wonders: Healing Childhood Trauma with EMDR." This technique is well-supported by Francine Shapiro (originator of EMDR), who wrote the foreward for Dr. Lovett's book. The storytelling method of EMDR is standard practise for young children. My husband and I are using the non-adapted method.

  40. There is a therapy called EMDR that is successful on those suffering PTSD. I would encourage this man and his child to look into doing it. It saves lives.

  41. An important story. That they have chosen to love and continue is absolutely heroic. Love in the face of hatred and loss is tremendous. Peace be upon you.

  42. What a resilient family. That little boy is growing up with the greatest role models a child can have. I hope the physical and emotional wounds heal for all of them. if only a single administration in America could respond to a single mass shooting with the same boldness as Jacinda Ardern's government in New Zealand.

  43. Blessings to your and your family. I can only imagine what it would be like to be in a war torn country where the trauma where these resources weren't even present. My heart breaks for your family and I am lost thinking of those families. We are all so fragile.

  44. So why aren't they assigned a community nurse who can visit them at home? This would be basic medical attention that the nz govt should provide.

  45. @Bis K I'm pretty sure a community nurse would have been available, or something similar.

  46. @narena olliver The community nurses were here, but they were gone the moment the gaping holes had closed. There was no bridge. I made a multitude of inquiries to every practitioner we had been working with for the first three months and no one had answers as to the next steps. Aside from what I arranged myself, there was absolutely zero programme or plan to transition a person who had spent the majority of three months in bed back to some semblance of a normal life through physio, mental health, and other treatment.

  47. Damien Cave wrote a searing story which goes on for this and other victims of hate across our planet. It's meant to inform and commemorate but I hope it gets good people to act to suppress the worst in our societies.

  48. Thank you to you and this family for sharing this story.

  49. It is a beautiful story showing the courage, struggle and perseverance of the victims. What is also slowly emerging is the picture of the NZ government being inefficient and unable to adapt to emergencies. This government run by newbies (Ms Ardern - a wife of a media wizard who superbly produced her campaign despite the fact that she had no experience whatsoever) in the country which has an extremely high level of anti-immigrant rhetoric focused on filling the airwaves with gestures of reconciliation instead of making sure that the system is ready to help the victims.

  50. @Paul Your comment is not accurate. Ms Ardern has been a front bench MP since 2008 and was an effective shadow minister as well as Leader of the Opposition before her election as Prime Minister. Neither are your comments about anti-immigrant rhetoric and empty gestures true. It seems that this poor family may have been let down, but we must remember the Christchurch tragedy placed a terrible strain on the small country’s resources. Not every response has been perfect. I am not a Kiwi but have been a regular visitor for decades. NZ’s society is friendly and inclusive and my experience has been that they have an efficient public sector.

  51. Thank you for showing us the real picture. The slow and agonising recovery process of trauma patients is real. This is not the end of Syah's and his family's journey but only the beginning. May they continue to be a resilient, positive and strong family. May Roes grow up to be bright and cheerful, playful but respectful.

  52. Thank you for a beautiful story of a family’s commitment and perseverance.

  53. Let us all lament our woeful day, and then read this triumphant essay how a remarkable family endeavors to overcome a personal,horrific,tragedy with nobleness, and strength of character. i can only appeal to the cosmos for their lives to be filled with peace and love.

  54. Lovely piece. It's amazing to read about how the family has struggled since the shooting incident but never given up.It's a story of ultimate human triumph.

  55. This is a very good piece of story that was so heart wrenching and eye opening to me. Beautifully written with good pictures. The article touches aspect of humanity and struggle of a family ridden with a devastating incidents. Eye opener of how people's coping with grief and pain. This piece is one of the reasons I keep my subscription with NYTimes. This piece is surely wouldn't be a click gatherer nor an article gather much readership on the hard copy version.

  56. Thank you for this follow-up article. Too often with tragedies I see the headline of, X numbers of people killed and Y number wounded. Those wounded people will forever be scarred by their mental and physical injuries, along with their healthcare concerns. Stories like this are reshaping my opinions on what a single payer system in America would look like.

  57. May this family find love, peace and comfort, again.

  58. This is well-written and respectful piece. This family deserved this clear picture of their struggles and triumphs after so much absolute horror. I will pray for their continued recovery. I hold you and your community in my deepest regards. On a separate note, I wanted to add a little comfort to this family that I too have a 3 year old son who has not experienced any form of violence in his life and he still hits me and anyone else that he may be frustrated with on a daily basis. Not to minimize the horrific event that this boy experienced, but his age too may be contributing to these outbursts. Peace and love to you

  59. Hi Liz, and thanks for your kind words. While I can appreciate the sentiment that our son's age may be contributing to his outbursts, I can assure you that we know the distincr differences between a developmentally normal outburst and a trauma triggered one, specifically as they present for our son. He has both. I usually know within a few seconds which one it is. We have been really conscious of recognising the difference between his normal outbursts and his trauma-triggered outbursts, as they are resolved using starkly contrasting methods. I can read his eyes in am instant, and know what panic looks like. The reality for us is that he shifted so quickly and drastically in his behaviors and demeanor after the 15th of March last year, that it was like I had an entirely different child for months. Nothing about it was developmentally normal. We take note of the details, even seemingly insignificant details. Where were we? Who was there? What was happening? Those, and other aspects hold the key to how his EMDR sessions unfold, and what the storytelling aspect of it (using Dr. Joan Lovett's method) will focus on. We work backwards from the triggers, and we've seen improvements after very single session.

  60. What can be done to combat persecution based on religion? By treating people on an individual basis.

  61. This is the result of madness taking the shape of hate. Hate for everything that may be different. Combating the hate needs to start very early in life. Children who are taught to hate grow up that way. Children who are taught tolerance, grow up to be adults who don't grab an automatic weapon and kill.

  62. Roes' behavior is normal. It's the way children heal. Sometimes they'll be engaged in activities as they always did and then they'll work on healing which means tantrums, tears, and all the other ways in which Roes is acting. He just needs someone to stay close as he works it out.

  63. His behaviour is certainly normal for a child that has experienced trauma. We know this, but the general public often doesn't. The three of us have basically been holed up at home ever since they got out of the hospital, until more recently. For the majority of the past year, our only outings were medical appointments. There is a reason I didn't start working until this month, after nearly an entire year off. Even now, it is only part-time work. Many families involved in significant tragedies don't have the luxury of time, space, and money to heal. Most parents can't just drop what they are doing and stay home. I actually didn't have a choice. Someone had to take care of them, and then I had to take care of myself. Thanks to the multitude of contributions from the general public, we were gifted the time to begin healing. This article gives a glimpse of some of the challenges and triumphs.

  64. I would like to buy one of his paintings. Please advise.

  65. Hi @Harriet Long - you can search for him online, using the name in the article. NYT generally doesn't approve comments with details for contact, etc.

  66. Heartbreaking.

  67. God bless this family

  68. Love and respect.

  69. Any way to contribute?

  70. Hi @Stan Kaplan - Thanks for your interest. My husband has a website he can be contacted through. Any comments here with links or contact details are generally not published. His website is just his first and last name, as it appears in the article. Thanks again.