SA expat community reeling after Florida shooting
“Never in a million years would I have imagined this would have happened there,” she said, after hearing that a gunman killed 17 people at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in a mass shooting on Valentine’s Day.
“The school is like a family – that place is ingrained in my heart,” says Hassan, who now lives in Cape Town, although her family is still in Florida.
Her brother, Richard, taught at the school for 14 years, and friends from around the world feared the worst for him when they heard about the massacre. Thankfully, he had resigned from his teaching post a year to the day, and was safe.
But his close friend and colleague, Aaron Feis, was not as lucky – he was killed while shielding others from the bullets. Paying tribute to him on Facebook, Hasson’s brother wrote: “Aaron was a hero long before his actions on Valentine’s Day. He changed lives way back when we were kids and he protected those who weren’t able to protect themselves. At that time, most of us were trying to figure out what life was about, but Aaron already knew his purpose. He was a protector.”
Hasson describes a school where classmates stay close long after graduation and teachers who are heavily invested in their pupils’ wellbeing – a close-knit community similar to what she has experienced in South Africa.
Of the 17 people killed last Wednesday, five were Jewish: Jaime Guttenberg, Alyssa Alhadeff, Alex Schachter, Meadow Pollack and teacher Scott Beigel, heralded for putting himself in the line of fire to save others. There is a huge Jewish community in the area, as well as a large South African Jewish expat community. The latter lives mainly in nearby Boca Raton.
“There is a massive community of ex-South African Jews living here,” says Carol Bard, who emigrated to South Florida more than 20 years ago, and who lives just 20 minutes away from the school.
“Immigrants are mainly from Johannesburg and have been here for a few decades,” explains Bard. “It’s such a significant section of the Jewish community here that Chabad hosts a ‘South African Shabbat’ every few months.”
While Bard’s children do not attend Marjory Stoneman Douglas, it is the main public school in the area, and is about 40% Jewish.
“Many children at my kids’ school know those who were killed,” says Bard. When her children’s school reopened on Friday, students were invited to share their grief, and when Bard took her daughter to the doctor last week, a girl who sprained her ankle while fleeing the shooting was being seen to. “She was so pale and couldn’t stop crying.”
Nikki Levy, who settled in the area with her family seven years ago after winning the Green Card lottery, describes an affluent community with great weather, lots of South Africans and a close-knit Jewish community similar to what she left back home in Johannesburg.
She also lives close to where the shooting occurred, and says it has affected everyone around her. “It’s been horrific and really hit close to home. I know someone whose cousin died in the shooting, and reading the texts exchanged between two Jewish brothers really got to me, as my boys are the same age.”
She is referring to Sam and Matthew Zeif, who made public their exchange of WhatsApp messages as they hid from the shooter, saying they loved each other and Matthew writing that his teacher had died.
“It really put it in perspective. Life is short, it turns on a dime, and you had better be appreciative of your loved ones,” she adds.
Describing the tense atmosphere, Levy knows that a school near to where the shooting occurred was put on lockdown for two hours the next day, as it dealt with a possible copycat attack. At the school attended by Bard’s children, a pupil who recently brought a BB gun to the school was expelled.
Both women are shocked at the easy access people have to acquiring guns in American society. For example, Levy’s colleague says she knows how to use a gun. While they are both happy with the move they have made, they acknowledge that this is a reality of life in the US. “The world is a small place and what happens here affects us all,” says Levy. “We need a mass resolution. We need a change in society in general.”
Describing the school where the shooting occurred, Bard says: “These are good kids; they’re the ones who are going to change the world. We’ve heard of pupils who held doors open for each other, putting themselves in the line of fire during the shooting.”
While the attack is not seen as specifically anti-Semitic, CNN reported that the gunman, 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz, had frequently made hate-filled comments that were anti-Semitic, homophobic and racist on a social media chat group, and called for other races to be killed. He was a member of a private Instagram group steeped in racist content, and reportedly wrote that he hates “jews, ni**ers, and immigrants”, and that Jews want to destroy the world.
“The shooting affected families from all backgrounds, and shuls have become a place of refuge for all. Most of the Jewish funerals have already taken place, and parents of the three Jewish girls spoke publicly of their shock and loss, calling for revised gun laws,” says Hasson.
In an appearance on CNN, a grief-stricken Lori Alhadeff, whose daughter Alyssa was killed, pleaded for President Donald Trump to do something to stop mass shootings: “I just spent the last two hours putting [together] the funeral arrangements for my daughter’s funeral, who’s 14! President Trump, please do something. Do something! Action! We need it now! These kids need safety now!” she cried.
“They don’t want to just be another school shooting statistic,” says Hasson. “They are standing up and saying they will make it happen themselves. If anyone is going to make a change, it is going to be this community.”