The tragic events of September 11th have permanently changed the course of my life. I didn’t know anyone who perished that day. I had yet to meet the dozens of children who would come into my life as a result of that tragedy. My grief was nothing compared to people who lost their loved ones or were connected more directly to that disaster. But the loss I felt was profound. And the way I viewed the world changed forever.
Before 9/11, I thought I knew what peace was. To me, peace was a feeling, a place, a collection of sounds, safety, a sense of comfort and overall well-being. Our home was peace, our life was peace, my family was peace. Peace was…. hearing and feeling the rumble of the freight trains passing through our backyard…. seeing our cats laying in the late afternoon sun on the big, flat stones encircling our firepit…. watching the several-day process of haymaking in the fields next to our house as the farmer cuts the alfalfa, tosses it with the hay tedder and then rolls it into big, round bales…. sitting on the deck after a long day while Great Blue Herons fly over the treetops from the river, over our house and up into the mountains. To me, that was peace.
When we bought our pastoral home in 1994, I learned that the United Nations used the photograph of our valley at right to adorn the cover of their October 1946 bulletin and nicknamed it Peaceful Valley. I love that we live in the Peaceful Valley and the United Nations’ nickname confirmed my definition of peace. But on September 11th 2001, I realized that I could not truly know peace unless I knew war. And I did not know war. The four coordinated suicide attacks on September 11th became my closest experience to war. Nearly 3,000 people were killed by nineteen terrorists that morning and, suddenly, it seemed, the U.S. had become a battleground and thousands of innocent civilians had been targeted.
It was a wake-up call out of my complacency. I was blissfully unaware of things going on in the world. I felt like I had been living in an insulated bubble. This valley, surrounded by beautiful, tree-covered mountains, rivers, farms and fields is like a fur-lined cradle for a sleeping baby. I was startled from my restful slumber and could not comprehend the hatred and evil that could precipitate such violent attacks against humanity.
I became acutely aware of my mortality. I felt an urgency to make a difference and pursue my dreams. Over the next several years, I spent a week in Mississippi as a member of a Global Volunteer team; took a low-residency writing class at a nearby college; we continued to host children through the Fresh Air Fund; in 2005, we hosted our first exchange student (Dong Baek from South Korea); in 2006, I became a community coordinator for foreign exchange students and we hosted our first Muslim student (Imo from Indonesia); in 2007, we hosted our first student from Afghanistan (Asad); and in 2008, I sold my accounting practice to devote more time to working with exchange students which has led me to today. Steadily, my journey brought me closer to the people and events of 9/11 and a deepening understanding of the world.
During the year Imo was with us, we learned a lot about Islam. Prior to that year, we knew nothing. We also learned a lot about the Youth Exchange & Study (YES) scholarship that brought Imo to the U.S. The YES scholarship was created and funded by the U.S. government in response to the tragic events of September 11th. Its goal is to promote mutual understanding between the U.S. and countries with a significant Muslim population. In my role as a community coordinator, I supervised thirteen students during the year Imo was with us. On January 15th 2007, I took five of my students to an interfaith Martin Luther King Jr. celebration in North Adams, Massachusetts. It was a nice opportunity to teach them about volunteerism, diversity and interfaith initiatives. Specifically, I wanted them to see Sally and Don Goodrich, a local couple, who were being honored with the Peacemaker’s Award on that day.
The Goodriches lost their son, Peter, on September 11th. He was in one of the planes that hit the World Trade Center. Sally and Don created the Peter M. Goodrich Memorial Foundation following Peter’s death. You can read about Peter and learn more about the Foundation here. They were presented with the Peacemaker’s Award for all of the great work the foundation was doing in and for Afghanistan – building a girls’ school, supporting an orphanage, sponsoring several Afghan students for studies in the U.S. and more. After the formal presentations and prayers, I approached Sally and Don to see if they would be willing to talk to my students. They quickly agreed and as the students honored and thanked them, Sally was even quicker to deflect our attention and praise. She treated us like heroes and applauded the work that my students and I were doing. She thanked us and talked about the importance of “opening up the world to our children”. She then asked if I would be interested in working with Afghan exchange students. And that fateful meeting resulted in the beginning of my work with YES students from Afghanistan.
In August 2007, Asad became our Afghan son. Samad, Meena and Maryam (three more students from Afghanistan) joined other families in the local area. Mustafa and Ramez came in August 2008. Zia, Anosha, Nahid and Kabir came in August 2009. Sameer became another Afghan son to us when he, Mursal and Zaki came in August 2010. Aref and Ehsan came in January 2011. In these four years, I had the privilege to host, supervise and befriend these 15 Afghan teens who lived and studied in the tri-state area of Vermont, New York and Massachusetts. I helped to place many more Afghan teens with families in California, Nebraska, Iowa, Washington, Maine, northern Vermont and New Jersey and became acquainted with some of them from a distance or through their host families. I met several more amazing Afghan teens through the Goodrich Foundation and my contacts at American Councils – young men like Hussain and Fazil, who are also like sons to me.
During these four years, I became intimately aware of how the events of 9/11 connected the U.S. to these Afghan teenagers. I didn’t know that Afghans were being attacked and held hostage by the Taliban for many years before 2001. I was unaware of the pain, suffering and brutality that was being inflicted on the Afghan people while the Taliban was in power. Before 9/11, I feel like I didn’t know anything. I still don’t know war, but I know people who know war. I have enduring bonds with young people who experienced, firsthand, the effects of war. Most of these students were born into war. Some were born during the Soviet occupation, but most were born during the civil war that ensued after the Soviet withdrawal. Many of them were refugees in Pakistan and Iran. Others became internally displaced and struggled to survive and find refuge in remote mountain villages. Others stayed in their homes and, as young children, witnessed the Taliban’s atrocities in the streets, near their schools and within their own families. Loving these children helps me to know war. Their stories, their anguish, their triumphs and their strong faith have all become a part of me.
Asad is convinced that his family would have died if the U.S. and international troops did not force the Taliban from power in late 2001. His parents and five siblings were forced from their home in September, 1998 as Taliban forces approached their city of Bamyan. The Taliban had just massacred thousands of innocent Afghan people in Mazar-e-Sharif before their march toward Bamyan. There was no choice but to flee. During their three years as internally displaced people, hunger was a constant companion. Asad’s family was caught in a firefight between Taliban soldiers and Wahdat forces. The struggle to survive seemed without end and they were sure a fourth winter in such conditions would be their end. Asad knows war.
Samad lived with a host family in the idyllic Berkshires of Massachusetts. In 2008, a week after he returned to Kabul, the Indian Embassy was bombed. He was within earshot and the sounds filled him with panic. He ran to his family’s motorcycle shop – the windows were blown out, but everyone was okay. Fazil had a similar experience in July 2009, just days after returning from a school year in Colorado. He was close enough to the suicide attack that he witnessed the debris and body parts raining down around him. These kids know war. Ten years after 9/11, peace remains an elusive dream for many Afghans. They all experienced peace while in the U.S. And it’s possible they couldn’t truly know war until they knew peace. When war is all you know, how can you understand peace?
I cling to the hope that our world will become a better place. I am passionate about promoting mutual understanding. Our differences make us beautiful. Our similarities make us human. As we learn more about people from different faiths, cultures and countries, we also learn more about ourselves. We’ve had the blessing of seeing our lives through the eyes of children and young people from all over the world. We see things differently now. We appreciate things more. And these young people from many different countries are helping to educate their peers, families and neighbors about Americans.
There is no religion in the world that promotes hatred and violence. Certainly not Islam. Muslims are not our enemies. The young men responsible for the attacks on 9/11 did not represent Islam. I’ve seen the face of Islam and it’s the face of my Muslim children from around the world – the face of my hopeful, kind, gentle, peace-loving children. September 11th was a huge tragedy, but it brought so many people into my life who I absolutely treasure. Today I am a better person – more informed and aware and more tolerant. Today I stand, hand-in-hand, with a global network of friends and family who share my vision for a better world.