After September 11th: Our Story

We lived not far from Manhattan—just fifteen miles north, on the other side of the river—when the tragedy struck on September 11, 2001. As my husband and I drove home from work that day, we could see the smoke rising above the place where the twin towers had stood just that morning. All we could talk about—all we could think about—were those lost in this horrific attack.

A few days later—after the initial shock and horror of the attacks turned into a numbing grief—I was suddenly confronted by a paralyzing fear. It was not just the fear of another attack occurring, I was struck by a desperate fear for my husband. We had started to hear stories of violence toward Muslims—even against those who just “looked” Muslim. My husband is from Turkey, and he is Muslim. These words are not the first two he would have used to describe himself. If asked, he would have said that he is a devoted father, a lover of history, and someone who enjoys anything alien-related. He is not religious—his being Muslim is the equivalent of someone who is born into a Christian family, but never attends Church. It was part of his culture, his background, and therefore part of his identity. But suddenly, this detail—out of the many that makes him who he is—was the only one people could see. The people at his office who were suddenly using the words “fucking Muslims” loud enough for him to hear, or the neighbors—who never before stopped to say hello—suddenly stopped and stared every time we were outside.

I was afraid for him to go anywhere by himself—afraid someone might hurt him. He was not a citizen. He didn’t even have his green-card—we’d had the interview, but we were still waiting for it to be official. It felt as if we were living on uncertain ground, and I didn’t know how to find a life that was safe once again—a life in which we could raise our daughter free from the fear and prejudice we now felt was all around us. As the weeks turned into months, this fear slowly began to ebb. It would take a long time, however, to once again feel a sense of equilibrium in our lives. During that time, when our daughter was still a baby, I would sometimes wonder about the world we were raising her in, about the identity she would take with her out into the world.

Years later, when she was starting kindergarten in a new school, we had to once again teach people how to pronounce her name. She has a Turkish name—it made her stand out, made her somehow different from the other kids in her class. The beauty of children is that they do not see these differences. As she got older, she would find that her friends would sometimes ask her questions about her life: What’s Turkey? Do you celebrate Christmas? Do you go to Church? Her answers were simple and straight-forward: It’s the country where my father is from. Of course I celebrate Christmas. I don’t go to Church because I’m Muslim. For my daughter, as it was for my husband, this is just a detail, not very significant, and not one to define her.

When she’d come home and tell me about some of these conversations—not because they upset her—she was just curious as to why they would be asking. I would do my best to explain that kids can sometimes be interested in details that are different from their everyday lives. I felt such a sense of pride in her strength. And when she would complain about the way people mispronounced her name—even going as far as wanting to change the spelling—I would tell her that her name makes her different and that someday she’d value that. In addition to wanting her to be someone who isn’t influenced by what others think, I also thought that maybe by declaring this detail about herself—this one small detail out of many—that she might get people to confront their own idea of what being Muslim means. In our own way, I thought our family might also do the same. We do not fit into a stereotype.

When my daughter was in 4th grade, she had to do a project for school about her heritage. She could have picked her Irish or Scottish side, but instead she wanted to teach her class about her father’s side—her Kurdish side. Being the competitive student that she is, she wanted to guarantee an A on the project. To do this, she decided to not only create the mandatory poster-board, she also created a Power Point to be used on the whiteboard, she brought in music to teach her classmates how to dance, and she dressed up in a traditional Kurdish girls’ clothing. Parents were allowed to watch the presentations, and I wish I had taken a picture of her father’s face as he saw his daughter gather her friends in a circle as they danced to the music of his childhood. The parents who stood near us were intrigued about the information she was sharing, and they asked us a long stream of questions. For both my husband and I, it was a moment we would never forget.

Looking back on these last ten years, I am amazed to see how far our family has come: my husband is a well-respected business owner, a man who is surrounded by incredible friends, and a citizen of the United States. We have settled into life in our small town, and we no longer feel that people see us as somehow different—or at least not in a negative way. I wanted to share this story with my daughter, in case she is ever faced with any type of prejudice in her life. My advice to her is to always be strong, and by being herself, she may inadvertently change people’s perceptions—and that is always a good thing.

Published by Erin Rehill

A few years ago, my then eight-year-old daughter told me that she wished I could write down all the things I told her so that she wouldn’t forget them when she got older. In that moment, my daughter gave me such a sense of validation, something I hadn’t really experienced in that way. As parents, we don’t often receive confirmation from our children that we are doing a good job, or that we even know what we are talking about. Since that time, I’ve started to pay more attention to the things I tell her, often thinking to myself “Will she remember this when she is older?” So, this is for her, my words of advice to be read, thought about, laughed at, and maybe even used, when she is older.

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  1. I’m so glad you now feel safe and assimilated (? I’m not sure that’s the word I’m looking for.) It must have been awful worrying about your husband’s safety because he happens to be Muslim. I would like to think our country is free from prejudice, but I know that would be naive. The are always those who fear and/or hate anyone who is different. I hope your daughter grows up into a gentler society and never has to face that type of experience. Hugs to you and your family.

  2. I can’t imagine what it must have felt like for your husband to feel those eyes of judgement on him after the attack – and in a place he was hoping to call home.
    Your daughter sounds remarkable, and I am so glad the end of this post is about the ability to change people’s perceptions.
    Thank you for sharing and linking up.

  3. Wow, I’ve never read a 9/11 post from this perspective. I can’t imagine how your husband must’ve felt, but I’d be terrified. I’m so glad for your kids’ sake that they were young or not born yet when it happened – for a young child to be discriminated against for something she can’t control would be even worse.

    My husband’s been deployed to one of the countries over there. It’s hard for us to remember sometimes, especially amid the firefights and ramp ceremonies for his friends, that the majority of people in those countries are just trying to hack out a decent living like the rest of us. The last thing we want to teach our kids though is that “all Muslims are this” or “all white people are that” or “all Jews are something else” – because it’s just not true.

    1. Thank you, Lindsay, for such a heart-felt response to my writing. Coming from you—with your perspective of being a military wife—it means a lot to me.

  4. The thing is, I want to say what an awesome kid. And she is. But it’s kind of…ridiculous that we need to say “way to be brave and highlight your Kurdish side” b/c that’s part of her life, right??!! It’s grotesque to me that it’s even an issue.

  5. Beautiful post! I am so glad you shared this story. It is important that we treat people as “people” and get to know them, not judge based on looks or religion belief. I have never understood that………

  6. Wow, Erin. It must have been scary for you and your husband after the 9/11 attacks. I’m so glad to read that your family doesn’t experience any anti-Muslim sentiments/prejudice today.
    You must have been so proud when your daughter did that heritage project in 4th grade!

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