A small U.S. flag on a 9/11 memorial engraved with names of those lost in the terrorist attack. A blurred yellow rose is in the background.

OPINION: A September 11 Survivor’s Call for Us All

by Jessica Carso Bhuiyan

I will never forget having been in Manhattan that fateful day twenty years ago. The billowing smoke. The disappearing traffic. Thousands running for their lives. Instinctively, I fell into the crowd and ran, too. Remembering, my heart swells, recalling my own fear and the best of humanity I saw that day. 

Upon this 20th Anniversary of September 11, 2001, these memories are triggered again. And they are reminding me to also reflect on my hope for unity and peace. 

Though I’m now many years — and thousands of miles — from the attacks, I recently found my breath hitching and heart racing at the rumble of low flying jets. It has been twenty years since the trauma of that day, but the deep impacts remain.

After 9/11, hate in the U.S. took a dramatic turn. Multiple groups such as Muslims, Sikhs, and persons of Arab and South-Asian descent — or those perceived to be members of these groups — were suddenly seen as threats, as terrorists living among us. Hate crimes became increasingly targeted, defensive, and retaliatory. And that trend continues today.

The FBI’s 2020 annual hate crime report recorded 7,759 hate crimes, the highest in a dozen years (the true number is likely higher, as most hate crimes go unreported). Of the 838 hate groups tracked by the Southern Poverty Law Center, twenty-two reside in Washington State. 

My family has personal experience with this. Ten days after 9/11 my now-husband, Rais Bhuiyan, was shot by a white supremacist in Dallas, Texas. His attacker asked, “Where are you from?” before pulling the trigger and shooting him at point blank range. 

A Pilot Officer for the Bangladesh Air Force, Rais’ American dream kept calling him. In 1999, he moved to New York City and then in Spring 2001, moved to Dallas. There he began working in a friend’s convenience store by day, studying computer science by night. On the bright, sunny Friday afternoon of September 21 a man wearing a bandana, baseball cap, and sunglasses and holding a sawed off, double-barrel shotgun burst in. Having been robbed before, Rais placed the money from the register on the counter. But the man was not looking at the money. He was looking directly at Rais. 

Rais says he felt it first, like a million bees stinging his face. Then he heard it, the explosion. Rais fell to the floor. On the way to the hospital, quietly reciting verses from the Quran, Rais began to see images of his family, and then a graveyard. He eventually lost consciousness. 

As a result of the attack Rais lost his house, his job, his sense of security, and vision in one eye. However, he gained more than $60,000 in medical bills. Though he hit rock bottom, Rais’ Islamic faith held steady, and with the help of kind and generous Americans, he was able to slowly rebuild his life.

Rais forgave his attacker, and after returning from a religious pilgrimage, he was inspired to lead an international campaign to try and save the man from death row. As he came to know what Rais was trying to do for him, his attacker said Rais “forgave the unforgivable.” 

Fifteen years after 9/11, I was introduced to Rais and the non-profit he started: World Without Hate. I began volunteering before we even met in person. Then we began traveling together for work and were married in December of 2015. Together, we have dedicated our lives to helping prevent and disrupt hate and violence. 

I’ve come to believe that if people, like Rais, are capable of extending such empathy and mercy amidst such extraordinary circumstances, we are truly capable of anything. It must start within each one of us. As my husband often says, “Once you get to know the other, it is hard for you to hate them.” In the end Rais’ attacker was executed. During their last phone conversation, just before going to the execution chamber, he told Rais, “I love you, Bro.”  

In reference to 9/11 we often say “never forget.” Never forget the lives lost and all who suffered on that tragic day. Never forget those victims and survivors of hate crimes, like my husband, who have never been recognized or acknowledged as victims of 9/11. Above all, join me in never forgetting to center compassion, forgiveness, empathy, understanding, and acceptance for everyone we cross paths with. For then we can all realize a world without victims, a world without violence, and a world without hate. 

Jessica Carso Bhuiyan is Executive Director of World Without Hate, a grassroots nonprofit dedicated to preventing and disrupting hate and violence through storytelling and empathy. She’s a proud Leadership Tomorrow alum, working each day to be an authentic antiracist community member. She lives in Seattle with her husband and their beagle, Brewster.

📸 Featured image is attributed to Kyle Brown and used under a Creative Commons 2.0 license.

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