Students from PHA talk about September 11
It has been nearly three months since September 11, yet
every time we turn on the television, check our e-mail, or open a newspaper,
we are bombarded by news of it. Despite the massive quantity of information
surrounding the events of September 11th and its aftermath, all the news
has begun to blend together. How many times have you seen the video of
the plane hitting the World Trade Center, the photos of Ground Zero, or
the images of American troops departing for Afghanistan?
In order to fully understand the effect of the terrorist
attacks on America, we must seek to hear all perspectives, not just the
views that have been duplicated over and over again on the news. To find
a unique perspective, I talked to students from the Kennedy Park Tutoring
Center in the Portland Housing Authority, where I volunteer weekly, about
the issues surrounding the 11th that effect them daily.
Every night of the week a group of Bowdoin students travels
to the tutoring center to help the students who live in the Portland Housing
Authority with their homework. The center at first looks just like another
branch of the surrounding residential apartments, but as you enter the
ground floor doorway and make your way up the stairs, you realize that
this is a place for students. With murals and posters scattered on the
walls, while the kids gather around tables to do their homework, talking
and laughing about what happened that day in school, the atmosphere of
the tutoring center is much like the students who frequent it: vibrant,
yet, laid-back and alive.
The majority of students that come to the tutoring center
are refugees from war-torn countries, such as Somalia and Ethiopia, which
often have pasts shaped by warfare, economic tumult, famine, and many
deaths. When working at the tutoring center we often help students who
are trying to write a personal essay describing where they come from.
In a calm voice, the students try to articulate the war, losing their
father, their friends, neighbors and homes, fleeing to Kenya and seeking
shelter in the United States.
Regardless of whether they are from Sudan, Somalia, Ethiopia, and, occasionally, Cambodia, these students have had traumatic childhoods. These students offer a unique perspective on issues surrounding the attacks of September 11, not only because of their background, but also because of the fact that many of them are Muslim.
When I broached the subject with the students, I found that
at first they were a bit reluctant to talk, but once they started talking,
they just kept going. I ended up having extensive discussions with three
students: Nadar Mohamud, Hamdi M. Ali, and Abdi. All the students were
Muslim and felt that because of their religion September 11 had greatly
changed their lives in America. The students reported that their Muslim
friends, neighbors, and family members had been taunted and sometimes
even assaulted in Portland. Nadar, a quiet, intelligent 10th grade girl
who smiles often, tells me: "At school, some kid came up to this
boy from Afghanistan and asked him if his Osana Bin Laden was his uncle.
The kid replied sarcastically 'Yeah, he's my uncle.' He got suspended
from school for two weeks. People got mad at the principal and he said
that it was for his own safety. Maybe that's true, but nothing happened
to the kid who asked him."
Nadar also tells me that an old man had been assaulted exiting
Portland's only mosque. Hamdi, a tall, thin 8th grade girl who seems old
for her age and is eager to talk, tells me "I cover sometimes (referring
to the Islamic tradition of women covering their heads), sometimes not.
One day my teacher asked me if I wasn't covering 'cause I was scared
Right after the attacks my sister, who covers, was walking and a fireman
started yelling at her." Abdi, a young man who is a freshman in college,
talks very seriously about the issue, and says that for him, everything
is different now than it was before September 11: "My whole life
is changed because I am Muslim. My family and friends, especially the
women, are scared to go out. They're afraid they'll get threatened, arrested,
even beat up."
The students conveyed serious messages that they felt America
needs to hear in order to understand the Muslim community's relationship
to September 11. "People just start pointing, even if they're not
100 percent sure," Nadar says. "I just hope people can understand
from us that it is not all Muslim people's fault." Abdi echoed Nadar's
sentiments: "We felt that what happened [the attack against America]
was wrong. This is a political thing, not a religious thing. First of
all I'm African, not Middle-Eastern. A lot of my friends who aren't even
Muslim, who are just colored, are being targeted." Hamdi pointed
to the actual precepts of Islamic religion: "Islam doesn't say anywhere
that killing is right."
Both Abdi and Nadar expressed doubts about the integrity
of the media's coverage of September 11th and the war in Afghanistan.
"I don't believe anything I hear on the news," Nadar says. "I
want to see it with my own eyes." Abdi agreed: "You're gonna
hear in the news what the government wants us to hear. They're hiding
how many people are dying, just like they did in Vietnam."
While all three students disagreed strongly with the attacks
on the United States, they had mixed feelings about the government's retaliatory
actions. Abdi talks about the terrorist attacks as a result of past United
States actions: "If you respect people, you get it back. If the United
States had given respect, they would have gotten it back." Of the
U.S. military's retaliation he says, "I think they did the wrong
thing but I can't say 100 percent. They've killed a lot of innocent people
Instead of fighting the whole country they should make efforts to talk
about it. George W. Bush knows his family is never gonna fight."
Hamdi tells me: "I think what happened was wrong, but
I don't think doing it all over is right
. Killing innocent people
is not right. I'm not saying they should do nothing, just something different."
Nadar pointed out the contradictory message American students are receiving:
"In school they say never react to violence with violence. But that
is what they're doing."
One thing is clear in these student's eyes: the attacks
of September 11th and the events following have changed their perspectives
forever. Most of these students originally came to America as a refuge
from the war torn countries that were their homes. Now, the United States
does not seem quite as protected anymore. "It shows that any country
can be attacked," Hamdi says at the end of our discussion. "Its
reality, you know. No country is completely safe."