Behind the scenes at NZ Eid Day

From Voices, 3:30 pm on 9 October 2017

For New Zealand's Muslim communities, preparing for Eid Day starts months in advance.

Lynda Chanwai-Earle meets the team of volunteers behind the second largest Islamic festival of the year:

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Bawling his eyes out, a little boy pushes through a dense crowd, searching for his family. Nothing’s scarier than being a lost child.

NZ Eid Day volunteer Ouadhah stops in his tracks.

“You lost your sister?” he asks the boy, who nods.

“No you haven’t, we’ll find her! Come with me.” Almost immediately, a passing woman recognises the boy and just like that, he’s reunited with his family.

“Not many kids cry on Eid Day,” says Ouadhah, “it’s a happy time for everybody!”

The Islamic festival of Eid Al-Adha follows the pilgrimage of Haaj to Mecca and is one of the two bi-annual events Muslims celebrate.

This year it’s being held at Eden Park in Auckland with an expected crowd of up to 8,000 worshippers.

Sarkaw Mohammad is on duty as the sole volunteer paramedic at the festival and as she weaves through the crowd of thousands she tells me she has rarely had to deal with anything more serious than a bumped nose over the years.

So what’s the worst that’s happened? She laughs, “Nothing serious, touch wood. A young man had fallen and hurt his nose, so no casualties.”

Sarkaw is trying to make her way to the First Aid station where the core volunteer team work from.

More than 120 fulltime volunteers work tirelessly over several days to make these festivals run smoothly and safely. Everything from first aid and fire safety to lost children has to be covered, as well as some unique problems, like; what happens at prayer time for the thousands of guests?

Mohamed Jaballah Ali is NZ Eid’s Marketing Manager. “So back at home we pray at open stadiums, just like Eden Park – at an open area. Women on one side, men on the other side with kids running around.”

If it rains they pray inside. It’s recommended to bring your own prayer mat but if you’re caught short the organisers can provide them, all set up facing Mecca, of course.

So can non-Muslims celebrate Eid?

“Definitely,” says Mohamed, “This is definitely an open event. We encourage the wider community to come and interact with the Muslim community. I bring my friends from work.”

Non-Muslims volunteer too, sending out a strong message of inclusiveness.

“A lot of the marketing, all of the videos you see on our Facebook site was done by non-Muslims. The Muslim community in New Zealand is very small, we are less than one percent and it’s very natural for us, for our kids to interact and be very dependent on other cultures and other religions.”

They’re proud of the ethnic diversity within the team. “Within the management team itself we have over ten languages spoken. It’s very diverse.”

One big family, NZEid core volunteers Farhanah and Farah.

One big family, NZEid core volunteers Farhanah and Farah. Photo: RNZ Lynda Chanwai-Earle

The “big boss” of the volunteer team is Javed Dadabhai, Operations Manager of NZEid.

He takes a moment to chat to me over a cup of cardamom-spiced Kuwaiti coffee.

“The day before is my biggest part, trying to lay everything down, in terms of the games, the food-stalls, electrical requirements, sound, to pull off everything without a hitch. You’re working with volunteers, there’s going to be a lot of needs.”

The biggest challenge by far for Javed is setting up for the largest festival, Eid al-Fitr, which comes on the sighting of the new moon after the month of fasting during Ramadan.

Operations Manager Javed Dadabhai

Operations Manager Javed Dadabhai Photo: RNZ Lynda Chanwai-Earle

Timing is tight. Given the nature of religious festivals, on the day, Javed’s volunteer team need to bring huge events together in just a few short hours.

“The big difficulty is that it’s not announced until the night before. That’s where it’s difficult to have contractors, venues ready within two days. You have to pencil book everything for two days – or not even that – you’ll know at about 6 or 7 o’clock. Eid al-Fitr will be overnight prep.”

"But everyone comes out in full-force, everyone gets a shot of adrenalin and comes out to help."

Victoria University student Widad Ballo travelled up from Wellington especially for this Eid. She loves these gatherings as they remind her poignantly of celebrations back home in Syria.

“Yeah, it’s really nice to see people from your own country. This is a smaller version than what I imagine back home [in Syria] but it’s better than Wellington!”