Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and NSW Premier Chris Minns will be among a host of dignitaries at the opening on Saturday 3 February of a Memorial Garden at Oatlands Golf Course. The venue is the site of the February 2020 crash that killed eight-year-old Sienna Abdallah, her sister Angelina (12), brother Antony (13) and cousin Veronique Sakr (11).
About 500 people are expected to attend the ceremony, hosted by the Abdallah and Sakr families, which will involve the laying of flowers on four plinths, each plinth bearing a description of the child and where they were killed.
The families fought the club for years for permission to build the hedged private garden and finally received approval last October.
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Speaking to Eternity ahead of the opening, Veronique’s mother Bridget Sakr described her daughter as “wise beyond her years … funny, witty, loving, caring, and stubborn. She has beautiful blue eyes that you could see her soul through.”
“She loved cooking. She loved feeding people. She loved setting a table,” said Bridget, adding that this was one reason she and her husband Craig Mackenzie opened Quatre Café last year in Strathfield, Sydney. It has become a way for them to cope with their loss and a safe space for others to meet and grieve.
“We’re not café people. We drink coffees, but I don’t work there. I go there to be able to connect with the community. It is a place where people come in and they bring a photo of their loved one and I can pin it on the wall because, just because someone dies, you don’t stop loving them.
“It’s giving back to the community who poured out their heart and their human spirit to us during the toughest time.”
“This cafe isn’t about making money”, Bridget continues, explaining that the proceeds will go towards the Veronique Sakr Scholarship, paying for a girl’s senior years of schooling at Santa Sabina College, Strathfield.
“We knew we’d have to open our hearts to the way the Lord lived his life and the way he forgave.” – Bridget Sakr
The Abdallah and Sakr families, all faithful Maronite Catholics, won the hearts of the nation when they publicly forgave the driver who ploughed down seven children, killing four and injuring three, when his ute mounted the footpath as they walked to buy ice cream in Oatlands, in Sydney’s northwest.
Truck driver Samuel Davidson had been drinking and taking drugs all day when he swerved across the road, went through a roundabout on the wrong side and lost control of his speeding vehicle. He is serving a 20-year jail sentence for four counts of manslaughter and three convictions relating to the injuries of the Abdallahs’ other daughter Liana (then 10) and their niece Mabelle and nephew Charbel, who has permanent brain damage.
In December 2020, the parents established the i4give Foundation, launching the first i4give Day and i4give Week in February 2021, encouraging the community to experience the healing power of forgiveness. This year, the i4give festival has been postponed to May or June due to Leila’s pregnancy.
“i4give day really started from the outset, spiritually started from the day the kids were killed,” Bridget explains. “We knew that that’s the way for us to be able not to hold any anger and bitterness and hatred. We’d have to open our hearts to the way the Lord lived his life and the way he forgave.”
“It’s something you have to remind yourself every day because it’s easy to go into a rut and live life judging and commenting. Forgiveness is for the person who is choosing to forgive, because it makes them be able to at least still get out of bed and hang on and carry their cross with dignity,” she says.
“When times are good, God’s good. And when times are bad, he’s still good.”
Suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and high anxiety since the accident, Bridget relies on both her faith and psychology. “All that comes into play, but being able to get up and just keep going is because of our faith and what we’ve been taught and I think that’s really where the journey begins.”
Bridget was raised to forgive.
“I challenged myself. Is it because I don’t know [the driver] that I was able to forgive? I thought about that, and I thought, ‘No, I’m not angry.’
“We invited his parents to our café because they lost their daughter to cystic fibrosis. I asked Kay, Samuel’s mum, to bring us a photo of her daughter to put up on the wall, which they did. They were worried about putting it up there and what are people going to say. But no one knows. ‘This is a photo of you and Alan with your daughter on the wall.’ They really appreciated that.”
Bridget credits her mother with teaching her that life isn’t perfect and that God gave his only son as a sacrifice for our sins.
“We’re of the Catholic faith, so my mother had a very strong relationship and devotion to Our Lady Mother Mary, who suffered as a mother, who stood at the bottom of that cross and watched her son die and be tortured. And she would always talk about her sufferings and when we went through any challenges in life, she’d always say, ‘Jesus suffered, his mother suffered, and we have to carry our cross.’”
When people ask her why God would allow such a terrible tragedy as the loss of four children, Bridget asks: “Who’s your God? My God is a loving God. I was raised to know that life is not just a perfect picture. When times are good, God’s good. And when times are bad, is God bad? No, he’s still good.”
“I cling to the fact that I will see her again.”
Bridget said she could only get through her suffering by strengthening her relationship with Jesus. Despite being raised in the faith, she hadn’t made time to understand Jesus’ life and his suffering until she understood his mother’s suffering.
This new appreciation of the shameful cross and the reward it brings in the resurrection gives Bridget hope that her daughter, along with Danny and Leila’s children, has risen.
“Really, this life is a prelude. This is a small part of a big, eternal world that God has promised us, and I could not cope if I did not know I would see Veronique again. But clinging on to the cross and the meaning of the resurrection, I cling to the fact that I will see her again.
“If I didn’t have forgiveness in my heart, and if I didn’t have the relationship I have with Jesus, I would be a very different person.”
“I’ve lost half of the family.”
Bridget doesn’t avoid acknowledging her sleepless nights, anxiety and sadness.
“I get invited to [Veronique’s] friends’ birthdays, and I’m so honoured to be invited. But I’m in pain when I’m there because it’s joy and suffering, happy and sad. It’s never one without the other. It comes as a package now, so I can choose to sit at home and feel sorry for myself, or I can choose to go face the pain and know that I will be carried through the mercy of God.”
A former finance executive who established a business to help people buy their own homes, Bridget is now using the passion and skill she built in her finance career to help others who are suffering, a mission she calls her “purpose and passion”.
“God’s given me the skills and the gifts and the talent to use the skills that I learned in the corporate world and transfer that to the human heart,” she says.
“I can’t do what I used to do in the corporate world as an executive – strategy, running teams, directing, presenting. But I can cling on to the talents that he’s given me, which is being a people person and touching the hearts of others because it’s helping with my grief and my living every day.”
Seeking to serve the community that had helped her and her family during difficult times, Bridget stood as a Liberal candidate for Strathfield in a 2022 by-election which was won by Labor. She also founded the Heartfelt Community, an online grief support platform, during the isolation of COVID.
Another blessing that has come from this tragedy is the conversion of the driver for whom Bridget prayed from the start.
“I really believe it’s the intercession of the children through prayers and the way we’ve carried ourselves, I think, that has allowed people not to hold that anger as well. If we’re not angry, how can someone else be angry, if that makes sense? So that’s allowed him to appreciate what faith can do. And definitely, there’s a real strong conversion.”
“It’s joy and suffering; happy and sad. It comes as a package now.”
Nevertheless, Bridget says it is a hard cross she has been asked to carry with her son, Michael. “I’ve lost half of the family. Now I have a son who doesn’t have a sibling.”
She says she is very proud of Michael, who is school captain of St Patrick’s College. She acknowledges that for many Michael is “the forgotten greiver”, but says he is well supported by church friends and role models.
“Because we know that there is an afterlife, we keep going,” she concludes.