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New Zealand shooting: Parkland students heartbroken for their friends in Christchurch

“My first thought was our kids and how it would impact our kids, and my second thought was our friends in New Zealand,” a Stoneman Douglas teacher said.

When Isaac Christian saw the news Friday that a gunman had entered two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, he frantically began sending text messages.

In July 2018, Christian was among the 28 students and four chaperones who traveled from Parkland, Florida, to the University of Canterbury in Christchurch — a visit that was intended to help the students cope with the aftermath of the mass shooting at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

“It’s kind of like the same feelings as when our school shooting happened. It felt so surreal,” Christian, 17, a junior at Stoneman Douglas, said of the latest massacre.

One friend wrote to Christian that she had been locked down in a library. Christian said that message brought him back to his own memory of hiding in a classroom to survive the Stoneman Douglas shootings that killed 17 people.

“It’s the same way I felt because I was stuck in a room and didn’t know what was going on … it messes with my mind because it’s so hard to process that something that happened in my home and my city happened there,” Christian said.

Florida students Isaac Christian, left, and Einav Cohen at the Weta Workshop movie effects studio in Wellington, New Zealand, on on July 27, 2018. Nick Perry / AP file

In Christchurch, one suspect was in custody after allegedly opening fire inside one mosque before driving to another, approximately three miles away, and opening fire inside the second mosque. Officials said 50 people were killed.

More than 8,200 miles away, in Parkland, students were recalling their own trauma, as well as the time they visited Christchurch, a city many described as peaceful and idyllic.

Sandi Davis, a sociology teacher at Stoneman Douglas, helped to organize the trip to New Zealand last year. Davis said the trip was planned as both a way to help the students cope with the tragedy they experienced and also as a way for them to learn how to sustain the anti-gun violence movement they had begun in the Parkland shooting’s aftermath.

In particular, the Florida students met with members of New Zealand’s Student Volunteer Army, which was formed in 2011 after earthquakes devastated Christchurch, killing 185 people. The organization’s work continues to this day.

“It was enlightening to be with a community who could understand what it's like to go thorough something of such a large scale that affects the community, instead of a handful of people,” Davis said.

As the death toll from the mosque shootings continued to rise overnight, the Parkland students watched helplessly.

“It's heartbreaking, because you know how they're feeling. It brings up a lot of feelings from the day,” Davis said. “My first thought was our kids and how it would impact our kids, and my second thought was our friends in New Zealand.”

Students from the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, gather after planting trees at Halswell Quarry Park Conservation Area on the outskirts of Christchurch, New Zealand, on July 24, 2018.Mark Baker / AP file

Like Christian, Rachel Taylor, 16, a junior, said she immediately texted her friends in Christchurch when she got the news. She said Friday afternoon that she still hadn’t heard back.

“I was in disbelief that it was even happening. It’s so ironic that the whole reason we went on that trip was to cope with our tragedy, and they helped us find positive ways to deal with this,” Taylor said. “… and now they’re in the exact same situation.”

When junior Emily Wolfman, 17, visited Christchurch on the trip from Parkland, she was assigned a “buddy” who she said quickly became a friend. Wolfman said it was hard to gauge how her friend was feeling Friday as they had only exchanged texts, but added that her typically “bubbly” buddy wasn’t herself.

“It’s so hard because when we went there, the students said it was hard for them to empathize with us because as sad as they were for us, it’s not something that happens there. And less than a year later, they're experiencing it,” Wolfman said.

The Parkland students said that New Zealand felt like a sanctuary — there was a peacefulness there that felt impermeable. That's now been shattered.

Many said they are currently working to figure out how to best support the community there.

“We've thrown around couple ideas … they don’t know what they need at this point,” Davis said. “Nobody does. We let them know we're here for them, and we support them.”

Jonathan Allen contributed.