9/11 Resident's Testament

9/11 has been one of my best kept secrets that no one knows even to this day.

20 years later, it has left my life (and everyone in it) scarred- yet somewhere, a little hope remains.

Public assistance from the city moved us to a better life blocks away from the WTC, next to where my father worked. For him as an immigrant, his job meant the American Dream. As a shy child growing up by these symbolic buildings, I never felt like I fit in.

When the news that morning was announced quietly, a classmate offered to let a group of us stranded (subway service to outside boroughs was suspended for fear of another attack) stay the night. I borrowed a cell phone, and walked onto the roof. It was the first time I had heard the city this quiet, and also my first time using a mobile phone. No calls went through, even after 6 attempts. I can only imagine the amount of phone calls made that day.

Finally, I connected with my mother: We were to meet at the subway station after she picked up my brother (who had also taken up shelter at his friend's house). Little did I know that I wouldn't see him for 2 weeks. Little did I know I had become homeless overnight- and that my father was also now out of work.

For three weeks at school, I couldn't bring myself to tell anyone that I was sharing a few hundred square feet with another family in public housing. That the shirt I was wearing was too big because it was borrowed. That we were barely scraping by on income from FEMA.

My father said the memories of climbing out with a flashlight through the dust and seeing a man falling in the sky were hard to erase. Still, he decided he and my mother would use their spare time volunteering as translators for others displaced from their jobs in the area.

When we were allowed to return home, I will never forget seeing those thick layers of ash on our windows, compiled from lost buildings and souls. I will never forget needing to show military patrol proof we belonged there. Shortly after, my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer (we will never know if this was related), and my father's workplace permanently went out of business. We gave up our apartment, and we are still without one to this day. All of us remain separated, and none of us have been the same in different ways.

Every year, I still hold my own moments of silence at 8:46 and 9:03am. I hadn't realized how much of an impact 9/11 had - but time has healed little by little. I have turned down news interviews about my experiences because I didn't want anyone to see me emotional. For years, I couldn't watch movies like "Flight 93"- and I still don't think I am there yet. I have given a speech on 9/11, but didn't expect to break down in front of my school.

Looking back as a resident, I am grateful for the positives: Voting for the new WTC building designs, attending college, helping promote the Tribeca Film Festival, learning sailing, and finally, coming back full circle to work in the very neighborhood I thought I never belonged to as a child. Now, I can be vulnerable enough to tell this story publicly.

I lost my faith in religion that day. But, I realized what it meant to belong by standing for something. When I am challenged in dark moments of sadness, doubt, or fear- when I find myself disappointed by someone, an institution, or by a system that is broken - I am reminded by those heroes to never sacrifice my integrity, no matter how great the costs are or how powerless I feel. When I lose the courage to go on, I reflect.

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