We Shall Overcome
I was soberly mindful of the upcoming ten year anniversary of September 11th last week. When I studied in Chile during the fall of 2008, September 11th gained a double significance, as it also marks the date of the coup d’etat in 1973 that brought military dictator Augusto Pinochet to power in Chile for the next seventeen years.
On September 11, 2001 I was a student in Mrs. Townley’s 8th grade class at Holy Spirit Elementary. That morning I arrived early to homeroom and walked in to see a few of my classmates watching television. I saw the image of the first tower burning on the screen and asked my friend Mike, “what movie is this?” It is reported in the history books that the natives of the Canary Islands did not see Columbus’ ships approaching on the horizon because the idea of a ship did not yet exist within their realm of consciousness. I don’t know if that story is true, but I know that what I saw on the screen that morning did not yet fit into my perception of reality.
I knew I wanted to share that memory and what it has meant to me since with my classmates at JNU. I wanted to observe the tenth anniversary not with prayer or silence, but with conversation. I wanted to know what my classmates remember about that day, what they felt, and what the world has been like for them since. On Sunday the International Student Association (ISA) held a general body meeting to transition leadership from the current executive committee to the advisory committee leading up to the elections that will take place at the end of the month. I spoke with my friend Reza, ISA’s vice president, and he agreed that we could hold the discussion following the meeting.
When the meeting ended I moved to the front of the room and invited anyone who wanted to stay to join in a brief and informal conversation. It was already very late but most everyone stayed. I shared my memory of that day. I told my classmates that the feelings of that day – which were full of sorrow but also full of unity and compassion – had quickly turned into feelings of fear. I said it is it is hard for me to remember “what the world was like” before September 11, 2001 – before a time of Us and Them. Other students shared their experiences. For me the most poignant were the reflections of two students from Afghanistan. Reza was on a train when he received a call from his mother saying, “there is fire in America”. He shared that Afghans so keenly felt the pain of Americans on that day because they had been fighting the Taliban in their homeland for more than four years and they knew the horrors of terrorism. That day, the world woke up to a threat that so many people had already been living with for years. My Afghan classmates expressed their solidarity and prayers for us that day and on this anniversary.
I was very moved to hear my classmates share their memories of that day and feel their sentiments for the people of the United States. For my friends the attacks were not only on my country and our way of life, but that they were felt deeply around the world. The World Trade Centers were a symbol of many countries coming together. Not only the U.S. was attacked and shaken that day.
The conversation ended with the whole room singing “We Shall Overcome” in English and Hindi, a suggestion from President Tawheed. As I looked around the room at the bright and resolute faces of my classmates I felt so hopeful about the future of our world and the possibility of peace. This must be what my parents, aunts, uncles, etc. feel when they tell me “your generation will make this world a better place”. I know we can and I believe we will. Sunday marked the beginning of a conversation that will stay alive throughout this year and beyond. It is a conversation that reaches far behind and far beyond the events of that fateful day in September.
We shall overcome
We shall overcome
We shall overcome some day
Oh, deep in my heart
I do believe
We shall overcome