We lived not far from Manhattan—just fifteen miles north, on the other side of the river—when the tragedy struck on September 11, 2001. As my husband and I drove home from work that day, we could see the smoke rising above the place where the twin towers had stood just that morning. All we could talk about—all we could think about—were those lost in this horrific attack.
A few days later—after the initial shock and horror of the attacks turned into a numbing grief—I was suddenly confronted by a paralyzing fear. It was not just the fear of another attack occurring, I was struck by a desperate fear for my husband. We had started to hear stories of violence toward Muslims—even against those who just “looked” Muslim. My husband is from Turkey, and he is Muslim. These words are not the first two he would have used to describe himself. If asked, he would have said that he is a devoted father, a lover of history, and someone who enjoys anything alien-related. He is not religious—his being Muslim is the equivalent of someone who is born into a Christian family, but never attends Church. It was part of his culture, his background, and therefore part of his identity. But suddenly, this detail—out of the many that makes him who he is—was the only one people could see. The people at his office who were suddenly using the words “fucking Muslims” loud enough for him to hear, or the neighbors—who never before stopped to say hello—suddenly stopped and stared every time we were outside.
I was afraid for him to go anywhere by himself—afraid someone might hurt him. He was not a citizen. He didn’t even have his green-card—we’d had the interview, but we were still waiting for it to be official. It felt as if we were living on uncertain ground, and I didn’t know how to find a life that was safe once again—a life in which we could raise our daughter free from the fear and prejudice we now felt was all around us. As the weeks turned into months, this fear slowly began to ebb. It would take a long time, however, to once again feel a sense of equilibrium in our lives. During that time, when our daughter was still a baby, I would sometimes wonder about the world we were raising her in, about the identity she would take with her out into the world.
Years later, when she was starting kindergarten in a new school, we had to once again teach people how to pronounce her name. She has a Turkish name—it made her stand out, made her somehow different from the other kids in her class. The beauty of children is that they do not see these differences. As she got older, she would find that her friends would sometimes ask her questions about her life: What’s Turkey? Do you celebrate Christmas? Do you go to Church? Her answers were simple and straight-forward: It’s the country where my father is from. Of course I celebrate Christmas. I don’t go to Church because I’m Muslim. For my daughter, as it was for my husband, this is just a detail, not very significant, and not one to define her.
When she’d come home and tell me about some of these conversations—not because they upset her—she was just curious as to why they would be asking. I would do my best to explain that kids can sometimes be interested in details that are different from their everyday lives. I felt such a sense of pride in her strength. And when she would complain about the way people mispronounced her name—even going as far as wanting to change the spelling—I would tell her that her name makes her different and that someday she’d value that. In addition to wanting her to be someone who isn’t influenced by what others think, I also thought that maybe by declaring this detail about herself—this one small detail out of many—that she might get people to confront their own idea of what being Muslim means. In our own way, I thought our family might also do the same. We do not fit into a stereotype.
When my daughter was in 4th grade, she had to do a project for school about her heritage. She could have picked her Irish or Scottish side, but instead she wanted to teach her class about her father’s side—her Kurdish side. Being the competitive student that she is, she wanted to guarantee an A on the project. To do this, she decided to not only create the mandatory poster-board, she also created a Power Point to be used on the whiteboard, she brought in music to teach her classmates how to dance, and she dressed up in a traditional Kurdish girls’ clothing. Parents were allowed to watch the presentations, and I wish I had taken a picture of her father’s face as he saw his daughter gather her friends in a circle as they danced to the music of his childhood. The parents who stood near us were intrigued about the information she was sharing, and they asked us a long stream of questions. For both my husband and I, it was a moment we would never forget.
Looking back on these last ten years, I am amazed to see how far our family has come: my husband is a well-respected business owner, a man who is surrounded by incredible friends, and a citizen of the United States. We have settled into life in our small town, and we no longer feel that people see us as somehow different—or at least not in a negative way. I wanted to share this story with my daughter, in case she is ever faced with any type of prejudice in her life. My advice to her is to always be strong, and by being herself, she may inadvertently change people’s perceptions—and that is always a good thing.