September 11 Digital Archive

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How has your life changed because of what happened on September 11, 2001?

On 9/11, I was living at a Tokyo university as an American exchange student. It was night there when the planes hit, and when dormmates screamed for me to come look at the TV because the World Trade Center was burning, I came and spent the next few hours watching the destruction with growing horror and grief. For me, the attacks were especially close to home because my home university was in Washington DC and my hometown is Pittsburgh.

I grieved for those killed and those who lost loved ones. My heart broke at the hatred directed at my country and my fellow Americans, as though we were considered somehow less than human. I felt fear, helplessness and guilt that I couldn’t protect the country I loved. I felt confused: I considered no one my enemy and didn’t understand why someone considered me theirs, or why they felt violence was the only way problems could be solved.

I felt very frustrated and helpless because I was so far away when it happened. I wanted so badly to be back in America, to be there to try to comfort people and to try to help in whatever way I could. I wondered what I could possibly do to help from so far away, and the feeling of uselessness made me incredibly sad. Still, I prayed and asked God to use me to do whatever good I could do from there, however small.

And then, I got the idea to hold what came to be called the “Peace Vigil” at my Japanese university. It was designed as an opportunity for people to come together to remember the victims, to be in solidarity with them and each other and to comfort each other, to pray, and to discuss what we could do to build a more peaceful world. I had never organized something like this before, I had arrived at the university as a foreign student only ten days earlier and my Japanese skills were still limited, and I had no idea what kind of response I would get. Would people understand or even care?

And yet, the response was overwhelmingly positive and touching. People, many of whom I had never met, American, Japanese, and others, volunteered to help plan and participate in the vigil. On the night of the vigil, about 60 people came, from at least 12 different countries, students, teachers, administrators, and others. It was a response beyond what I had ever imagined. We sang songs, shared prayers, poems, and letters, and had open time to share our feelings and discuss what we could do for peace. In this, and in the people who told me afterwards that they had felt comforted by the vigil, I felt comforted too.

And the vigil inspired further action for peace. A group of us started a peace “club”, collected signatures for a letter to Pres. Bush asking for a peaceful response to the tragedy, held a fundraiser for the victims in America and later Afghanistan, sent messages of encouragement to the New York City firefighters, and made origami cranes as a traditional Japanese symbol of peace. The paper cranes of all different colors and sizes joined together to form a work of beauty and a message of hope and peace seemed to be a symbol that people of all different backgrounds and walks of life can join together to build a world of peace and love.

9/11 changed the direction of my life. I had always been interested in international affairs and service but unsure how to channel this. After 9/11 I felt a strong calling to devote my life to working for greater peace in the world, and in particular to work for relations of greater friendship and peace between America and the Muslim world, so that we could collaboratively and constructively address issues that cause tensions in relations, harm all of us, and are exploited or used as justification by terrorists for violence and hatred.

When I returned to America, I began to study Middle Eastern studies and Arabic, and decided to enter the field of conflict resolution. I am now a conflict resolution specialist and trainer, and have worked for the past five years at an NGO in Washington DC that does conflict resolution work focused on the role of religion in peacebuilding. My main work has focused on working with Islamic teachers in Pakistan. I also joined the Soliya Connect Program as a facilitator of American-Muslim world and have been involved in cultural exchange, interfaith, educational, and peacebuilding initiatives in countries such as Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Libya, the Palestinian territories, Israel, Indonesia, and the United States. In addition, I founded the American-Islamic Friendship Project (http://american-islamicfriendshipproject.blogspot.com/), which collects messages of peace and friendship from Americans to people in the Muslim world and from people in the Muslim world to Americans, to eventually be published in a book aimed building greater understanding and friendship between our countries by allowing the voices of “ordinary” people to be heard, dispelling the perception that Americans and people in the Muslim world are hostile to each other, and connecting Americans and people from diverse Muslim countries in promoting our common desire for a more peaceful world.

Reflecting on 9/11 ten years later, while the pain and trauma of that day have never gone away, and terror attacks and violence continue to be an unfortunate reality in many parts of the world, I am also inspired by how many people, both in America and around the world, used that tragedy as an inspiration to make the world a better place in some way. In America there was an outpouring of solidarity with one's community, compassion toward one's neighbor, and service to one's society. While there were some Americans who responded by blaming or attacking Muslims, there were even more who stood guard outside Islamic centers to protect them from backlash, accompanied Muslims to school or prayers to ensure they wouldn't be harassed, or got involved in interfaith initiatives. Despite all of the conflict we’ve seen in the last decade, in the aftermath of 9/11, people in Muslim-majority countries gathered outside US embassies to express their solidarity with the victims. In America, families of those killed in the attacks formed groups like September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows to promote alternatives to violence and aid victims of war in Afghanistan and Iraq. There has been a flourishing of dialogue and initiatives like the UN Alliance of Civilizations, the Saudi interfaith summit, the outreach of peace through the "Common Word" letter from Muslim world leaders to Christian world leaders, and their enthusiastic response, "Loving God and Neighbor Together". The annual 9/11 Unity Walk in America commemorates the anniversary of 9/11 with a gathering of people from different faiths who pray together at various houses of worship to demonstrate solidarity against violence and unity as one human family. President Obama designated 11 September as the National Day of Service and Remembrance, so that the memory of that day might inspire people to recommit themselves to service to their communities.

It’s things like that that remind me that no matter how horrible a tragedy, with faith, love, and the will to try, something good can be brought out of it, and that love will in the end triumph over hatred. The desire of people around the world to live together in peace will, I believe, someday overcome the hatred and violence of those who wish to drive us apart. And as Americans, I believe the greatest protection we can offer our country is to strive to do our best to live up to the values it was founded to embody—such as faith, service, God-given human rights, embrace of diversity, and respect and protection for each person no matter their ethnicity, religion, or history. If we live these values, the terrorists will never be able to destroy our country. And as citizens of the world, we can work together and each do our part to make the world a better place. We are never too far away to do something to make a difference.

How will you remember the 10th anniversary of the September 11 attacks?

I will participate in the Day of Service by volunteering at a school in DC, and in the national interfaith service and Unity Walk in DC.

Citation

Rebecca Cataldi, “[Untitled],” September 11 Digital Archive, accessed December 14, 2017, http://911digitalarchive.org/items/show/96774.