On a Tuesday during my second year of high school in midtown Manhattan, I sat in homeroom watching NY1 with 30 other Catholic school girls. Our teachers were on strike and were rallying in front of our school building, demanding higher salaries. Stunned and upset that our instructors walked out on us, we watched them on the news as they were interviewed by local journalists.
My classmates and I had no idea that what was about to happen would shock us even more and be etched much more deeply into our memories. Our teachers disappeared from the screen and were replaced by crumbling buildings, shrouded in smoke. I thought someone changed the channel and we were watching an action movie. Then, our teachers unexpectedly returned to our classrooms with panicked and solemn faces. We began congratulating them on their successful strike, but learned that the strike wasn’t over. They were compelled to be with us because we were in a state of national emergency.
My city was under attack. Two planes had crashed into the Twin Towers, near where my mom worked. The rest of the day was complete chaos. Classmates whose parents worked in the towers were frantically crying, phone networks were overwhelmed, and the adults were struggling to keep us calm and safe. At 6 p.m., my mom, who I hadn’t been able to reach all day, appeared in the lobby of my school. The roads were congested with people trying to flee the city, so she abandoned her car downtown and walked to me. Together with thousands of other New Yorkers, my mom and I walked hand in hand for hours to get back home to the Bronx. I listened to her tell me about the bodies she saw falling from the towers, what it was like to witness the second plane hit, and about how complete strangers were helping each other without the blink of an eye.
The human loss that occurred on 9/11 is heart-wrenching for me. More traumatic, however, was the aftermath of the tragedy and what it meant for people who looked like me.
On a structural level, a new xenophobia gave way to harsh immigration policies that devastated families in my community. Muslim men were forced to register themselves with the government, creating a fear that our fathers, brothers, and sons would be arrested and deported- and many of them were. Men were separated from their families, detained without cause, and often tortured. Women and children suffered as male breadwinners were no longer around for financial support. The stress of not knowing where men were, or whether they were dead or alive, wreaked emotional havoc in women’s hearts and minds.
September 11th made me an activist. It left a permanent residue that shaped my worldview and provoked me to action. Feeling personally attacked by xenophobic, racist sentiment and policies, I reacted in self-defense by joining the movement to organize my community against unjust immigration laws. Without this turning point in my life, I perhaps would not feel the solidarity I do with the South Asian community, with immigrants to this country, and with people around the world hurt by insensitive U.S. policies. This feeling of solidarity continues to be a guiding force for me. In fact, a large part of why I began working at the National Asian Pacific American Women's Forum (NAPAWF) was because it creates opportunities for immigrant women to empower themselves. We recognize that immigration status can impair a woman’s ability to provide for herself and her family, to keep her family together, and to determine how to raise her children with dignity. Without a doubt, that Tuesday morning and its aftermath politicized me and pushed me to where I am today.
Jahajee Sisters Advisory Committee