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."

Now that she's conquered that reservation, there are other concerns. "We had to evacuate" recently. "Air quality. You couldn't open the windows and the air conditioner wasn't working." The school is literally at ground zero, a part of the construction site. The search for bodies is still going on, although it is scheduled to end next week. "Many of us are not comfortable. It's not a good situation."

Plenty of New Yorkers share the concerns of Siddiq-Bilal, but officials of the Environmental Protection Agency say the dust poses little health risk. A May 10 article in Occupational Hazards magazine, however, said the disaster and its fires "released thousands of tons of matter --- much of it hazardous --- into the atmosphere."

Since the return to the building, about 100 students have transferred to other schools. For some of them, air quality was an issue. Siddiq-Bilal said both faculty and students have suffered an elevated number of respiratory ailments since the reopening.

"The principal and two teachers have been out with pneumonia. Asthma attacks are up. Kids who didn't have a history of asthma now do," she said. "People say we are a 30-year experiment. They don't know what the effects are going to be on us."

Siddiq-Bilal said, however, that in some ways her daily life has become a gentler journey.

The morning subway commute, for example, has eased as more people try to be kinder.

"People bumping into you, standing over you. Before [Sept. 11], you'd get a little disgusted."

But now, she said, "people are more considerate. I think I'm more tolerant of people. Little things don't seem to matter much anymore."

After all, Siddiq-Bilal said, "when people were escaping, when someone stumbled, you grabbed them and kept running. It didn't matter who they were. It just didn't matter."

DIANE ALEEM In the early hours of Sept. 12, nurse Diane Aleem found herself in a high school about 10 blocks from ground zero, providing first aid, beds, food, clothing and counseling along with six or seven Red Cross workers. However, 2,800 victims were beyond triage. "Nobody knew that everybody was dead. People came looking for their loved ones," she said. Aleem did a lot of counseling. One man was meeting his sister in the lobby at the time the tower came down. Another woman had argued with her husband the night before and didn't say goodbye. "People were in a state of shock," said Aleem, a native New Yorker. "It was about helping people cope with the reality of it." The difficulty of her mission was compounded by there being "no communication between hospitals. People were walking around from place to place looking for people. Whole families would come in." Working in that high school from 9 in the morning until about 10 at night made her re-evaluate her life.

"As a Muslim, you're supposed to live," with a level of regard for God, "as if you were going to die tomorrow," she said. A veteran emergency room nurse, Aleem has seen death, has come to terms with its ruthlessness. But the magnitude of Sept. 11 made the lesson more personal. And in an odd way, reaffirming. Tomorrow is not promised: "You do what you want to do with your life" now, she said. Still, Sept. 11 --- and America's response --- has made her cautious. "My usual behavior and dress have always been modest," not necessarily distinctively "Muslim," she said. Even so, she's more leery about where she goes. "It was interesting to see a whole group of people become a hated target --- overnight. It makes you realize things can change in this country just that quickly," Aleem said. Aleem went to one of the many diversity programs after the attacks. One was at the American Museum of Natural History, where people of East Indian descent talked about racial profiling. "They said: 'We never understood. We couldn't relate. Now we know.' " As part of her new reality --- professionally and personally --- she carries a cellphone. This winter she moved from Brooklyn to Manhattan. "If anything happens, you can't go back and forth [from Brooklyn]. The trains, tunnels and bridges are closed." She won't go to ground zero. "Knowing all those people died there, the way they died . . . it's very sad. I dealt with their family members. I don't want to go any further than that. I don't want to see it."
And in the wake of possible new terrorist attacks, Aleem admits that if the worst happens, she will move. "Nothing's happened yet," said Aleem. But, she said, clearly it's coming. In the shadow of more attacks against her country, she believes, lurk impending violence and discrimination by her countrymen. "If they go crazy here in New York again, I'm out." KEVIN JAMES By the time New York City Fire Department Marshal Kevin James arrived on the scene as backup from his Brooklyn base, the twin towers had collapsed. An arson investigator, he and his crew could do little more than tally the missing. Body parts littered the area like a war zone, mostly from those who had jumped. Grief over his colleagues battled with a cringing realization of who had done this and what that meant. "It was like a one-two punch," James said. A career firefighter who has seen his share of the gruesome, James, 47, said, "9/11 raised it to a whole other level. I remember looking out over the ruins and thinking, 'This is what happens when people don't communicate, shut people out.' " Since those tumultuous days, his first-person accounts of his experience at ground zero helped take Americans and people overseas into the chaos, despair and heroism of on-site response personnel. His accounts appeared in Newsday and the Arab News, and he was invited to speak about Islam at Merrill Lynch, an investment banking institution. The Islamic Society of Fire Department Personnel --- James is its president --- held news conferences. The State Department contacted it about providing Arabic speakers for a pilot program, Common Ground. James voices skepticism about the public service announcements some in the group made, assuring Muslims overseas that the coming war was on terrorism, not Islam. Today, he isn't so sure.
James' mother, who is Jewish of Eastern European descent, protests what she and some human rights groups see as the mass detention without due process of Muslims and people from the Middle East. His father is Catholic of African-American descent. James said he was taught early on to recognize the dynamics of intolerance, hatred, terrorism and oppression. His therapy is speaking out, speaking up --- within and outside the ummah (the Muslim community). He attends any number of mosques in Long Island and Brooklyn, where he lives with his wife. They have an adult son. "We need to start connecting with each other --- Muslim and non-Muslim." Since September, he's had to dig deep. Someone asked him soon after the attacks: Is there anything in the Quran that justifies this? "I said no. But I started more reading. I questioned and challenged myself." He said he reaffirmed for himself through more intensive study of the Quran and Hadith (a collection of stories about the life of Muhammad) that "it was totally incompatible with the example of the prophet Muhammad. . . . It's very important to maintain critical thinking. Islam has a rich tradition of that --- though it seems covered now." That covering, James has said, is encompassing many traditions. "You can't let other people do your thinking for you," he said. "That's a form of idolatry." He is equally concerned about another attack on America and attacks on the Muslim community. "We're asking for the Muslim community to report any suspicious people. They're not martyrs, they're murderers, whatever their religion. "In this country, you gain political power through the ballot, not the bullet." Meanwhile, in workplaces and on the street, he said, he can feel the animosity rising. The bad thing, he said, is that anyone can commit a terrorist act right now and know that the finger will be pointed at the Muslim community. "People are not going to wait to find out who did it." Still, there's only so much one can worry. Observant, "fair-minded people know fanatics come in all shapes." Copyright 2002 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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