May 25, 2002

Editor's note: Many Americans' spirituality was strengthened after Sept. 11, but the mettle of faith has been tested particularly in the American Muslim community.

It's been eight months since the terrorist attacks. And now, the White House reports that new attacks are almost a certainty.

For three Muslims who were at ground zero --- interviewed by AJC online columnist Nadirah Sabir --- this new reality is constantly challenging them emotionally and spiritually.

Portia Siddiq-Bilal teaches economics and entrepreneurship at a Manhattan high school. Diane Aleem is a registered nurse with more than a decade of emergency room experience. Kevin James is a supervising fire marshal for the New York City Fire Department.


Portia Siddiq-Bilal, a teacher in her 40s, refuses to look at ground zero, even though the attacks happened right outside the windows of her school, one block away at 100 Trinity Place. That morning she followed her routine. She drove in from her home in Yonkers. Parked her car at an East Harlem elementary school. She then caught the No. 1 train to her usual World Trade Center stop, arriving there at 7:45 a.m. An hour later, the first plane hit.

At the High School of Economics and Finance on Trinity, they felt the tremor. When word got back, they went into "shelter drill alert," moving the 750 students into the hallway, away from windows.

"When the second plane hit, we knew we were in a very serious situation. We knew it was deliberate. And we knew we had to get out of there," she said.

Students who were late getting to school, Siddiq-Bilal recounted, came in saying they had seen bodies falling.

They evacuated out the back exit and ran to Battery Park. "I instructed the students to run" the six blocks to the park. "When we got there, we turned around and saw the building crumble . . . toward the park. We told the students to run toward the water."

Some climbed up the embankment of Franklin Delano Roosevelt Drive; others scrambled onto ferries that took as many as they could hold and headed out of the harbor to safety. The rest walked up the FDR to the Brooklyn Bridge or north to Chinatown, covered in ash, sneezing, talking.

The staff herded all 750 of their students to safety --- including about a dozen Muslim students. Siddiq-Bilal is the only faculty member who is Muslim.

"When I got to Chinatown, I could breathe," she recalled.

By the time she got to Greenwich Village, "I was praying, thankful we were still alive. So many people were dead --- in the buildings and 'suits' standing on the streets watching the buildings burn while we were running away."

She said she was thankful she stayed focused, "got those children out."

"Once you get home you can fall apart," she remembered telling herself.

A new study, commissioned by the New York City Board of Education, found that as many as 200,000 area public school students may still suffer mental health challenges as a result of the terrorist attacks and their aftermath.

At home, Siddiq-Bilal, her husband and children, ages 17 and 21, did a lot of praying together. "My children are basically OK. They're pretty balanced," she said.

"It just makes you appreciate the value of family even more: getting up in the morning and making prayer together. . . . There are people who don't see each other in the morning." She said they try to make the early morning (fajr, pre-dawn) and evening prayers (maghrib and isha) together as a family.

She and her son have breakfast before driving into the city together. Her husband goes into work later. "Had that been my last day," she said, "I would have been happy that my last encounter with my family was a good one. Prayer, a kiss and 'As salaamu alaikum' " (the standard greeting in Arabic, meaning "Peace be unto you").

In late February, about five months after the attacks, the school reopened after an extensive cleanup of broken windows and disaster dust. Before the reopening, 93 percent of the student body had put up with the inconvenience of sharing time and space at another area high school. That was the only way they all could be together, which was important to both students and faculty. AOL donated laptops.

Counselors were available for staff and students. Siddiq-Bilal wrote articles for a Chicago-based Islamic publication that were picked up by New York area educational journals. She and the other teachers talked a lot. She spoke with Imam John Nashid at Masjid Yusuf Shah, the Mount Vernon masjid, or mosque, that she attends. It provided counseling and workshops. There were several Muslims from that community who had been personally affected.

Still, "Did I want to go back to ground zero? I knew I wasn't ready to go back downtown. People who hadn't been there were running to go. I had no desire. It was the most devastating thing that had ever happened to me."