In the days and weeks after The September 11th attacks, while the country was coming together to mourn, recover and rebounded from the tragedy that shook us to our core, my family was coming to terms with its own circumstances.
It was a strange sensation. The Sunday after the attacks my family and I decided to join the Sunday crowd at a local diner. The outing was a welcome break after the countless hours and days of sitting glued to the television set, watching, waiting and crying with the loss and death, reeling and heartbroken for the families of the missing. The images before us on the screen were unfathomable, the pain manipulating all our senses. As The President announced we would catch Osama Bin Laden “dead or alive”, I felt a sense of renewed pride in being an American. Proud and heartbroken for my new country as it bled.
That Sunday morning, as we walked into the local diner, a perceptible hush fell upon the crowd. You see, we were accompanies by my brother. Two years older than me, with black hair, and having recently grown his goatee, he looked eerily similar to the pictures of the terrorist that had flashed before our very eyes for nearly a week. Almost all eyes on us, we made our way to a table on the corner of the diner… a coincidence or strategic plan by the waitress, I’ll never know.
As we settled into our seats, and the hum of the diners and the clinking of the silverware slowly resumed from our neighboring tables, my family exchanged a meaningful glance. What was happening was subtle and yet sent a chill down my spine. My brother suddenly seemed a bit smaller, his demeaners quieter. The waitress brought our meals in surprising speed, given the Sunday morning crowd, and we dutifully consumed our eggs and hashbrown without pause. Her cold and quiet demeaner send the message that she, too, was not happy to be in our presence. At that moment, I wished terribly to had been wearing my Star of David, or that my father and brother were wearing yarmulke.
Out in the parking lot, as we made our way back to our car, I kept glancing back at the two men following us. I wondered if they were about to attack my brother or father, my pulse quicken and the palms of my hands were damp. As the men walked towards their car, I overheard them say, loud enough that he knew we would hear, “Kill all those damn Arabs”.
Back at home, my brother shaved his face, changing his cloths to lighter shirts, and dug up his t-shirts with Hebrew writing that he had purchased a shuk in Jerusalem the prior year.
Coming from a country that treated us as second-class citizen, living as pseudo crypto Jews, this unexpected outing left me shaken for weeks to come. My mother urged my brother to limit his outings, lest he become the target of an angry mob. Keeping a low profile is what we had been used to growing up in Iran, but this time, the feelings left us raw and shaken. Being ostracized and singled out was not an alien feeling for us. But they were not ones we were not expecting in our new home. In Iran we were judged because of our religion, beliefs and ideology. But now, we were judged by how we looked. It was truly distressing to think that the pain caused by few zealots was affecting the way our fellow countrymen were looking at us.
As I watched the news of the horrific shooting in Atlanta, my heart breaks for the victims and their families. The unspeakable tragedy struck simply because of the way the victims look and their place of origin is simply tragic. My family was lucky. We kept a low profile for some time and eventually resumed our daily activities in peace. My brother was more cautious for some months – he did not go out in public at night, especially alone, and was sure to trim his facial hair and wear light colored clothing.
Hearing of the hate that has risen for the Asian community in these past months reminds me of the feelings of prejudice I grew up with in Iran and those weeks after September 11th. But the experience remains fresh in my mind all these years later. By some reports, Asian American hate has increased 150% over the past year, innocent civilians being blamed for the pandemic that all but dragged the entire world to its knees.
History has proved that when the world we live in is filled with so much unknown, the economy hurting and people dying, the worst of human nature finds a scapegoat, someone to blame for our troubles. Jews are very familiar with that throughout history. It’s what happened to our ancestors’ time and again, and what lead to the most unfathomable of human tragedies, namely The Holocaust.
We are at a cross roads. Will be known as the people who stand by silently allowing injustice to happen to a group of us, or will we stand up against hate and prejudice. Never before has the words of Pastor Martin Niemoller rung true as it does today: “First they came for the unionist and socialist and I did not speak out, because I was not a socialist…
…And finally they came for me, and there was no one left to speak out for me.”
Let us speak up. And let us live in peace.