My name is Haleemah Aqel. I am a graduate of the class of 2018. I am a Palestinian Muslim American woman. I serve as the current program coordinator at the Program on Intergroup Relations. I am one of the founders of the Islamophobia Working Group. I was the head organizer of the New Zealand Mosque Vigil on Saturday, March 16. I’ve spent the last few days processing the events of Saturday.
I tend not to publicly share my thoughts with people. However, I have seen many individuals on campus joke, ignore, or fail to acknowledge both the attacks in New Zealand and the Saturday incident and their traumatic effects on individuals in the community — specifically the Muslim community present at the vigil. For that reason, I have decided to share my thoughts starting on Saturday afternoon.
Saturday, March 16th. 12:38 p.m.
I wake up. I slept in, which is unusual for me. Something felt off. I open my phone to texts and emails about the vigil at 4 PM. I call my mom telling her I already felt off about the day. I knew I was still mourning the victims of the New Zealand mosque terrorist attack, but I tried my best to pull myself together to finalize the vigil schedule and gather the list of innocent lives lost.
I text one of the other organizers of the vigil asking her what she thought about the possibility of cancelling the vigil. Something didn’t seem right, or safe, about having the vigil when numerous students would be participating in St. Patrick’s Day festivities. I was scared. I kept imagining someone running into the crowd and attacking students — like I said before, something definitely did not feel right at all.
I email the other organizers, but they convince me that everything would be okay. I believe them.
I walk out of my apartment. I make my way to Espresso Royale on State Street to buy a coffee to ease my nerves. I make my purchase and begin my walk to the Diag. I pass by familiar faces and smile as I walk towards the steps of Hatcher. The sunny sky soon turns grey.
Volunteer speakers walk up to greet me. I give them their speaking order. Another organizer arrives with the box of candles. Professor Samer Ali calls for the large crowd of 200 individuals to gather around. We pass out the candles.
The vigil begins. Samer gives opening marks, commemorating the lives of those taken from hate crimes and acts of terror since 2011. I look around. I see members of all different identities in the crowd. I recognize more familiar faces as they nod their heads towards me. I begin to tear up. I pull myself together knowing I am standing in front of hundreds of people.
Members of the Muslim Student Association begin with their words. A verse of the Quran is recited. The beautiful and peaceful words soothe the crowd and my nerves. The sounds of the Quran bring me back to a safe haven. Another individual proceeds to recite the English translation.
It is now my turn to speak. I walk up to the microphone. I take a deep breath. I introduce myself. I usually have a loud voice, but my voice is soft. My hands begin to shake as I hold one candle in one hand and my phone in the other. I pause before I begin to call out the names of the victims so far counted as dead by New Zealand officials. Not all of the names of the 51 victims (at the time) were announced. I encourage the crowd to remember these victims, not just as victims, but as individuals with stories and experiences. That we will remember their beautiful lives and never forget them. I conclude my words. The next few speakers follow me.
State Representative Yousef Rabhi speaks. I’m nervous once again. Elected officials could serve as targets to the public. He concludes his speech and steps off of the steps.
Another volunteer begins to speak. Yet, this time her poem is about Palestine. The nature of anyone discussing Palestine, especially in such a public space, has always put me on edge. Speaking about the injustices in Palestine on the University of Michigan campus has always brought some controversy. I immediately remember the time students had yelled at me and other Palestinian students for a peaceful display a few years back in the Diag. My mind begins to race. The speaker discusses the nature of violence against Palestinians in Palestine and how it is similar to acts of white supremacy in the world. I begin to remember my times in Palestine and my beautiful memories with family. I start tearing up again. I put my head down for a second and when I looked up, my life flashes before me.
I will never forget this moment.
I see two cops running into the crowd from East side of the Diag. I see them run before I hear them. I instantly freeze, my legs tense up. I hear the cops scream “MOVE, MOVE, MOVE” as they run into the crowd.
This image continues to replay in my head.
My immediate thoughts were: someone in the crowd has a gun. Someone in the crowd has a bomb.
My adrenaline spikes as I sprint up the rest of the steps into Hatcher to take cover. Maybe I would be a target, I thought. Maybe they were aiming for me. I didn’t look back. I had no idea what was happening. Why was this happening?
I instantly run into the side rooms. I see students studying and yell we need to hide. We need to take cover. I run with them into the North Stacks. I begin to cry.
We find a space hidden in the stacks. I immediately open up my Facebook and Twitter on my phone, updating everyone that I’m safe.
My phone soon blows up with text messages, twitter notifications and numerous calls.
My sister messages me. She asks me if I’m okay. She asks me where I’m hiding. I tell her I’m safe and that I love her. I told her to update my mom and let her know I’m safe.
Friends begin to call and text me. I’m surrounded by 15 students. Each student sends similar texts to family. Many of us crying. We do a calming exercise.
These could be my last moments. I send ‘I love you’ texts to close friends. I check my pockets and grasp the fluorescent candle in my hand.
Everything from this point on is a blur to me.
I’m still hiding in Hatcher. I continue to receive updates. We are told that a gunman is in the UGLi now. My whole body feels numb.
Again, everything is a blur to me.
We immediately evacuate to the basement of Hatcher.
The PA system in Hatcher finally goes off. We are given the OK to leave from the south doors. I evacuate with 20 students. We are escorted to South University.
I am not well. I felt sick. My hands were shaking. I wanted to throw up. I begin crying again. Many random individuals begin to hug me. I walk away.
I walk off campus alone to the apartment where other attendees of the vigil were.
I feel faint. I sit down on the ground and open my phone once again. I call my mom. I told her everything was okay. I was angry. I really was not okay. I recall the moments of 4:35PM again and again. The image of the police officers running into the crowd haunts me.
I am driven home where two friends stop by later to comfort me. I continue to receive more texts. I receive a call from the Michigan Daily asking for a quote. I provide them with my statement. My friends leave and I am alone. I am hesitant to ask other friends to come over. I don’t want to burden anyone.
I contemplate leaving my apartment. I feel closed in. I feel lonely. I call some friends to pass the time. I am still shaking. People continue to text me asking about the vigil. My mind is racing.
My best friend texts me telling me not to leave my apartment alone since I was the head organizer. I am on edge because she warns me of being a target. I shower and begin to cry as the water races down on my body. My tears are washed away. I silence my phone, ignoring any calls.
12:00 a.m., Sunday, March 17th
I spend the rest of the night locked in my bedroom. Any noise immediately startles me. I can’t sleep.
I end up falling asleep around 2:00 a.m. or so.
I wake up from a nightmare screaming, “Help!” I immediately start crying. I call my brother, he calms me down. I’m shaking and I immediately run into my bathroom almost throwing up. I stay awake. I’m too scared to go back to sleep.
I decide to open my phone at this time. I check my email. My inbox is flooded. Hate mail, news inquires, old professors reaching out asking if I’m okay. I text a friend to meet up.
I end up going to the gym later that morning with that friend. I feel off at the gym but surprised I completed our workout. I head home, I shower, stop at a local coffee shop, see a friend and go on with my day.
I call my mom and immediately feel angry. Every conversation, every interaction filled me with anger. I then decided to attend the therapy session CAPS opened up for the community. After sharing my experience briefly with the group and connecting with a few Muslim students, I leave.
I proceeded with my day pretending like things were normal. I meet up with another friend who was also at the vigil to watch the basketball game. We both debrief the vigil and pretend things are normal. We walk outside of the restaurant and hear two men joke about the incident. I don’t say anything, but we both are brought back to the reality of the situation. A few hours later, we both parted ways.
I told my friend I would be walking home. I didn’t want to go home, though, after reaching the halfway point to my apartment. I ended up texting another friend to ask her if she was on campus. I meet with her until 10, delaying my time at home as much as possible.
I make it home, but I didn’t want to be alone. I didn’t want to experience what I had experienced the night before. I call a few friends. I hold back on asking anyone to come over. I don’t want to act like a burden again. I stay awake until 2 a.m. thinking. I answer a few messages but know I have to attempt to mentally prepare myself for work the next morning.
6 a.m., Monday, March 18th
I wake up; I did not sleep well. I woke up numerous times and woke up to my alarm in a panic. I immediately turn my phone off and lose track of time.
I turn my phone on and it is 8:40 a.m.. My first meeting is at 9 with a student. I am late. The student understands.
My work day all together seems off. I attended morning meetings and many coworkers reached out to me. I have no words. Everyone tells me it’s okay to not be okay.
I want to be okay. I regret the vigil happening. I regret being one of the organizers.
My office space overwhelms me. I feel alone. I walk outside to take a break. I usually take walk breaks during lunch. I walk to the Diag, hesitantly. I sit on one of the side benches reflecting on the campus day tours and students walking by. Their excitement fills me with happiness, yet emptiness. I hope that these students never have to experience what I experienced Saturday. I know that they will never experience what I have experienced during my time here.
I stare at the steps where I stood on Saturday. I move my eyes towards the entrance to Hatcher. My hands begin to shake. The Diag seemed so large on Saturday but so small during this moment. I felt closed in. I immediately get up and walk towards State Street. I eventually walk back through the Diag to get back to work.
I proceed with my day waiting until I leave.
I leave work, stop by the UGLI to pick up a book, pretending to forget that students barricaded themselves here only two days prior. I walk out to the Clements Library, sitting on the steps waiting for a friend to pick me up. I begin to feel lonely again while reflecting about the day. My friend picks me up and we drive off campus.
I’m home now. I decide to recap the moments and feelings by writing this piece starting with Saturday morning. I stop writing when I begin to think of my lack of sleep and nightmare on Saturday night. I call a friend. I hang up. I immediately rush out of my apartment. I have a panic attack, I call her back and immediately break down crying while on the phone.
I call a few friends on campus until one answered and went straight to her apartment. She begins to comfort me, consoling me through my pain, anxiety and stress. I eventually stop crying. I feel empty. I feel broken. Though in the presence of her and another friend, I still feel lonely. I am startled by any random noise in her apartment.
I am home and I am now finishing this piece. I don’t know if I’ll be able to sleep. I’m scared to sleep knowing that I continue to relive 4:35 p.m. on Saturday in my mind.
“MOVE, MOVE, MOVE”
The three words I will never forget. The three words that have scarred me.