Once again the memories stir. We all have them – those of us who were aware of our world on September 11, 2001. These are mine.
It wasn’t exactly a normal day. The state Office of Refugee Resettlement was coming to visit the agency where I worked. “Be at your best. They’ll come see your class before break.”
I spent the morning as I usually did, teaching entry-level English skills to refugees from a variety of lands – people who had fled to the U.S. for safety. According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, a refugee is a person who has left their country of nationality and is not able to return due to “a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.” Each of my students came to us with their own story – one that they rarely chose to share – of danger or persecution. They came from many countries – Russia, Ukraine, Bosnia & Hercegovina, Iraq, Sudan, Somalia. They came from widely diverse socioeconomic and religious backgrounds, leaving their homes and families for the dream of safety and peace. In my class, this microcosm of the world worked together to learn enough English to get jobs and rebuild their lives.
Break time neared and the agency director poked her head in the door. Our visitors were here … but no, not yet. There was something else. “A plane has crashed into one of the Twin Towers in New York City. Let the students go on break and come upstairs.”
Because my students understood so little English, I drew a picture on the board to let them know what was happening – a tall building, an airplane colliding. It was all I could draw – it was all I knew.
How they must have wondered what was going on! Break always ended on time, but that day it stretched on. Upstairs in the office, the staff and visitors were glued to the television – watching as another plane crashed into the Pentagon, watching as yet another flew into the other Twin Tower. I turned away as the cameras showed people jumping from the upper stories. We gasped in horror as the towers began to crumble.
It was late. We called all of the classes into my large room. In hushed voices, we began to explain, “Another plane… terrorist attack… thousands dead…”
Then one man stood. Quietly he said, “We are so sorry this tragedy has come to your country.” Of course! They all understood! We Americans were the only ones in the room who had never known the sudden attack, the stranglehold of grief, the evaporation of security and safety. My heart ached for my students even more than for my unborn child, none of whose worlds would ever be the place of safety that mine had seemed for so long.
In coming months and years, much would be made of the fact that the attackers were Muslim, believing that they fought a holy war. But I shall never forget that the man who most profoundly expressed empathy for my raw grief that day was also Muslim. The empathy and compassion of my students are forever part of my memories of this day.