7 years ago, I worked as a volunteer for an organization that worked to resettle refugees. On Wednesdays, I had a standing appointment as an ESL tutor, going to work with a refugee family in their home in a nearby city. I had been working with one family since June, who had arrived in the US in March of that year. There was a mother and a father and two kids (a four-year-old girl and a teenage boy).
On Wednesday, September 12, the world was still reeling from shock. The events of the previous day were mind-numbing. Though my own family and friends were safe, I grieved for the loss of life (then estimated at over 10,000), and for those who lost loved ones. I was shaken to my core by the images I’d seen on TV the previous day. Like millions around the country and around the world, I was in shock. Part of me wanted to hole up in my house, perhaps stay glued to the TV. At the same time, it was important to me to go to my appointment as usual.
I wanted the family to know that I was there for them, that I was their friend. I wanted to be there to explain things to them, to answer any questions I could. And if necessary, to speak up for them should they be confronted in any way.
Because, quite honestly, I didn’t know what to expect from the world. From my fellow Americans. Quite honestly, I was a bit fearful about the direction the reactions might go.
I don’t know whether they had any idea that the horrific events of the previous day could be associated with them, this quiet family of four. Why should they? They were as shocked as anyone by what they saw on the TV, horrified by the violence and the deaths.
But I knew that they were from a country in the Middle East, they were Muslim. They spoke little English. And for many ignorant people, for many people who lashed out in anger, these qualities were damning. I remembered the anti-Islamic sentiment that arose shortly after the Oklahoma City bombings, before they had been attributed to terrorists who were American nationals.
I don’t know what I expected that day. That the neighbors would come banging on their door? That an angry mob would come for them, screaming for blood? That some authorities would come by to haul them off? Or maybe that there might just be some garden variety ugly words and harrassment.
Thankfully, nothing so ugly happened. Well, there was one angry neighbor who came knocking on the door. But it was in response to the actions of the teenage boy. He had climbed out onto the roof outside his window, and was lighting matches while his mother and I sat inside talking. He seemed completely oblivious to the high tensions of the day, typical of a teenager.
But my fears were not totally unfounded. As the days passed, reports came in of hate crimes from around the country, and around the world. There were reports of attacks on Sikh men, attacks on mosques, even attacks on Hindu Indians. And there were plenty of ugly words directed against Muslims and people of Middle Eastern descent. I knew women, themselves refugees from Afghanistan, who stopped wearing headscarves out of fear of being harrassed or assaulted.
In these years of witch-hunting that this country has seen since that day, I have often felt I should be doing more to stand up for those whose rights have been violated. That I should speak out more against the xenophobia and bigotry that have colored the discourse in the media and the casual conversations of some people I know. But the truth is, I struggle with laziness. And I avoid confrontation.
I’m glad that I went to my appointment that day 7 years ago, in part because in my quiet way, I showed that I was willing to stand up. I was ready to speak up that day. At the very least, I demonstrated my continued friendship and support with my presence, offering a counterexample to the pervasive anti-Islamic bigotry that soon would rear its ugly head around the country.