By Syed Muazzem Ali
22 years have passed since the deadly terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. I vividly remember the horrific scenes of two hijacked planes hitting the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. I watched it on my television screen thousands of miles away in the family room of my residence in Dhaka. That evening, as I had watched the plane hitting the second tower, I had not believed what I was watching. For a second, I had thought that maybe CNN was showing the trailer of an upcoming high-tech action movie. But alas, the unthinkable had happened, and the mighty Twin Towers had collapsed in less than an hour.
Having lived in New York for five years at the prime of my career, I love that truly cosmopolitan city, especially its majestic skyline. The Twin Towers were the uncrowned queens of that skyline. My wife and I once had dinner at the “Windows on the World” restaurant on the 106th floor, and had watched the clouds gliding below us and small planes flying by us.
The 9/11 attack on the Twin Towers resulted in the death of about 3,000 innocent people — people of approximately sixty nationalities. No one knows for sure how many of them were Bangladeshi-Americans. Initially, we had heard that about fifty of our compatriots were missing. Subsequently, I gathered that only about a dozen Bangladeshi-Americans were confirmed dead. What is the reason for this discrepancy? I was told that some Bangladeshi victims were “undocumented” workers, and that their friends (who were possibly also “undocumented” workers) did not want to report and get involved in any immigration row with the law enforcement authorities. How far this assertion is correct, I am not certain.
Sadly, in the aftermath of 9/11 attacks, Muslim immigrants became targets of hate crimes and some lost their lives in the frenzy. It is ironic that Sikhs, with their turbans and beards, looked like Osama Bin Laden to rioters, and Sikh cab drivers were attacked and some lost their lives.
Famed Indian-American film director Mira Nair made an excellent short film on a Pakistani-American family in New York whose only son Mohammad Salman Hamdani, 23, a civil defense volunteer and medical student, had disappeared on that fateful day. Initially, he was thought to be somehow involved in the terrorist attacks, and members of his family were under surveillance. After six months, his mortal remains were found near the North Tower with his emergency medical kit beside him, indicating that he had gone there to save the trapped victims. Overnight, Salman became a national hero and his body was buried with national colours.
Consider another tragic case: a Sri Lankan Muslim lady Rahma Salie was traveling with her husband Michael (a convert to Islam) on the American Airlines flight that crashed into the North Tower, and was initially thought to be involved in the hijacking plot. Subsequently, her name was cleared. Her mother Halima, after months of ordeal, poignantly said: “I would like everyone to know that she was a Muslim, she is a Muslim and we are victims too, of this tragic incident.”
That is my thought as well: we all suffered on 9/11, irrespective of our colour, creed, race, or religion.
The stories of some of the Bangladeshi-American victims at the Twin Towers on that fateful day are heartbreaking. These victims were from different professions; some were holding white collar jobs, and some were waiters. One of the victims was my school friend Sharif’s daughter Shakila, who died with her husband Nurul Huq Miah. The couple got married just a year ago and they used to work at Marsh & McLennan Company. Shakila, a computer tech support, was on the 93rd floor while Nurul, a director in the audio-visual department, was attending a meeting on the 96th floor. These floors were the first to be destroyed.
Sharif and his wife Mimi migrated to the United States in the 1980s with daughter Shakila and son Fahim. Shakila, nicknamed Tumpa, went to college in Virginia and completed a course in management information system (MIS). She met Nurul through family connections. Nurul was the eldest child of his parents who had also migrated to US sometime in 80s.
Shakila and Nurul resided in Brooklyn, and were very popular in the neighbourhood. After the tragedy, their neighbour Diane Hunt, absolutely on her own initiative, petitioned the local community board to rename the street corner near their apartment after them. Hunt’s proposal was forwarded to the city council which, on completion of all formalities, officially approved the proposal. The mayor formally named the corner of Evington Avenue and Third Avenue in Brooklyn after Shakila and Nurul on June 24, 2006. Diane Hunt deserves our most sincere gratitude for this great personal initiative.
Another Bangladeshi to die that day was Mohammad Salahuddin Chowdhury, 38, an M.Sc in Applied Physics from Dhaka University. Salahuddin had migrated to the US in 1987. He obtained a diploma in computer science in New York, but unfortunately could not find any job in his field. He worked as a waiter in the prestigious Windows on the World restaurant. Normally, he used to work the evenings but, on that day, he had switched to the morning shift so that he could take his pregnant wife Baraheen Ashrafi to the hospital in the evening. Their second baby was due that day. Little did he know that his restaurant would be engulfed in fire due to terrorist attack. Salahuddin never returned home, and his wife gave birth to a son Farqad 48 hours later. Farqad is perhaps one of the first 9/11 orphans to be born. I gather that recently HBO made a touching documentary film on that family.
Shabbir Ahmed, 47, also worked as a waiter in that restaurant and he too died on that fateful morning. As a senior waiter, he earned enough to send his three children to college. Shabbir used to live in Brooklyn along with his wife Zeba and their three children.
Abul Kashem Chowdhury, 30, a Bangladeshi senior assistant analyst at Cantor Fitzgerald Securities was another victim at Twin Towers. After the building was hit, Kashem was running down from his office on the 103rd floor. He called his brother on his cell phone but was soon disconnected. That was the last time the family heard his voice. His father is a retired Foreign Ministry official, and his brothers and sisters reside in New York. Abul Kashem was scheduled to marry the next month.
Also to die was Mohammad Shahjahan, 41, a computer administrator, who also worked at Marsh & McLennan Company. Shahjahan used to live with his wife Mansura in Spring Valley in New York. Mohammad Sadeque Ali, 62, a newspaper vendor, also died at Twin Towers on that day. Sadeque and his wife Momtaz used to live in Jackson Heights in New York. The families of these victims still find it difficult to come to terms with their loss.
The initial confirmed list of the victims, prepared by our Embassy in Washington DC, also included names of Ashfaq Ahmed, Navid Hossain and Osman Ghani. However, I have not been able to collect any information about them.
Among all this tragedy that so many Bangladeshi families endured, there is one happy personal story. My first cousin Taufiq, a lawyer by profession, had his office on the upper floors of one of the Towers. The moment I saw the scene unfold on CNN, my thoughts were with him. I immediately called my wife and son in Los Angeles and asked them to enquire about his whereabouts. Within hours, they informed me that he was safe and well. In fact September 11 was a Tuesday, the day he met his clients after 9:00 am. However Taufiq used to reach his office by 8:30 am to prepare his papers and get ready for the day. Since his wife and children were scheduled to leave for Bangladesh the next week, he had stayed back home that morning to spend some time with them. He left home at 9 am. If he had left at his usual time, there was a distinct possibility that he would have been in his office when the building was hit.
I write this piece to join all my Bangladeshi-American friends as they mourn the loss of their near and dear ones on 9/11, and also to underscore the point that the tragedy has affected us all, rich or poor, Muslim or non-Muslim. The members of the Bangladesh American community whom we lost that day were some of our brightest, hardworking, and most promising members.
As we mourn them, let us be united again to fight the scourge of terrorism. It is not a time for racial profiling and segregation; it is a time for understanding and reconciliation. Military force alone can not eradicate terrorism; we have to remove the very cause which pushes misguided youths to take recourse to this heinous act against humanity. We must give them hope, and not hate to bring them back from their dangerous path. Four years ago I said the same thing at a seminar at Stanford University in California, and I still maintain it. In conclusion, I would like to propose that we have a small plaque or a monument erected in Dhaka in memory of the Bangladeshi-American victims of 9/11.
Author: former Foreign Secretary