Gathering under a canopy of lasting hope

A small but significant memorial garden opened last weekend to remember “four angels”, and to celebrate forgiveness and lasting hope.

On Feb 1, 2020, during a family birthday celebration, the Abdallah, Kassas and Sakr families were confronted by tragedy at an unbelievable scale. Betrayed by drugs, alcohol and neglect, a speeding driver, now serving his time, took the lives of four of their precious children.  The reaction from Leila and Danny, and Bridget surprised us all.  They chose to forgive.

On Saturday February 3, 2024, a large crowd of many hundreds gathered at the garden created on the site of the crash. It was a warm and breezy evening, filled with beautiful music with many life-giving words spoken by family members, religious leaders, and dignitaries. Four white doves were released by the family in a symbolic moment to remember.

As Leila described it, the garden is the place where heaven opened that day and the four children – Veronique Sakr and Antony, Angelina, and Sienna Abdallah – went to be with their Heavenly Father.

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Members from both sides of politics attended the memorial event and came from as far as the Northern Territory. They were there to show support for both families and for the message of forgiveness and hope the families have been living and sharing since the accident four years earlier. The event was an openly religious service and conducted outdoors on the closed off street. It combined modern songs and Maronite hymns and was overseen by the Maronite Bishop Antoine-Charbel Tarabay, who provided a reflection. Many family members contributed.

Those who spoke included Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, Premier of NSW, Chris Minns, and former prime minister Scott Morrison. All commended the courage and leadership shown by the Abdallah and Sakr families. They highlighted the impact of forgiveness and hope in helping the families move forward. And they praised the ongoing work of the i4give Foundation.

Morrison spoke of Jesus’ words about all possibilities with God. He referred to faith that can move mountains, as demonstrated by these families in this place. (Matt 17:20).

“The mountain that was moved from this place, the mountain of grief, the mountain of tragedy, the mountain of tears, the mount of doubt and questions and anxiety and the mountain of fear, through their faith they found the way to find forgiveness and cast that mountain into the sea and in its place comes joy,” Morrison said.

Here was a beautiful demonstration of support for public faith in our country. A message not lost on those of us seeking, in our various workplaces and communities, to uphold freedom of faith in Australia, for the good of all.

As the speeches went on, a little luminescent light appeared to dance in the garden. Selina Abdallah, now nearly two years old, frolicked happily under the giant gum tree, among her siblings’ stone plaques. The plaques were surrounded by bushes chosen for their flowers that bloom each February. Selina captured onlookers’ hearts with her gentle sweet antics, pointing us towards God’s plan for healing, hope and joy.

Selina Abdallah at the memorial garden Giovanni Portelli/The Catholic Weekly.

Leila spoke of her blessings in this precious “miracle cheeky baby girl”, and, with another baby on the way, she declared to the crowd, “God is good, isn’t he?”

The spontaneous applause that erupted reminded me of Psalm 32:11: Be glad in the Lord, and rejoice, O righteous, and shout for joy, all you upright in heart!

Leila also reflected on our journey with Christ.

“He turns your pain and agony, your darkness, your sadness, brokenness into holiness, strength, hope and forgiveness and turns it into his greater good,” she said.

Danny thanked the community for their support and for walking alongside the grieving families in so many ways over four years. He highlighted all the collaborators and the work put into the memorial garden after a difficult start.

As the leaves in the canopy above dappled the sun and shade, Bridget shared her hope.  “Darkness and light are mysteriously interwoven in the Christian mysteries. This place represents a transformation of tragedy and immense pain to a place of comfort, consolation, forgiveness, providing a beacon of hope to others who experience similar suffering,” she said.

Bridget recognised the three brave survivors, Liana, Charbel and Mabelle, and their courage to forgive and move forward. Bridget also acknowledged the siblings whose lives were changed forever on that night as the “forgotten grievers.”

Alex Abdallah, now ten, spoke publicly about his memory of that night, waiting in the car, seeing his sister on the ground, and not wanting anything bad to happen.

Each of these young family members prayed a prayer they had written. Then, with a surprise birthday cake, they led the celebration of Mabelle’s birthday, now 18.

This tragic but hope-filled story lived out before the eyes of Australia, and even the world, radiates the promise that “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5).

Finally, to close the event, the family, dignitaries and friends led a low-key procession to lay a white rose on the stone plaques in memory of the children. As the breeze blew gently, Leila, always spiritually alert, whispered quietly to me “I can feel the presence of the Holy Spirit, can you feel it?”

I had no doubt.

Jen George works as a volunteer with the i4give Foundation. Jen is Founding Director of Comcorp, a consultancy focused on community alignment for strategic purpose of Not For Profits (NFP). She has a PhD in community governance, has worked in several Australian universities as an academic and serves as a Director on two NFP Boards.

 

 

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