Perched on the balcony, like the Black and White Doel¹ that serenaded me from the windowsill in the spring, I watched over my little corner of the world. In the most densely populated city on earth, that one little intersection of Road Six and Safwan Road felt like a microcosm of humanity itself.
I would sit there with a steaming cup of coffee in my hand though the tropical morning humidity already made streams of sweat trickle down my back. The city had been awake for hours already—really it never slept at all. Through the night my family would be serenaded by the barking street dogs and dinging bicycle rickshaw bells. The construction trucks arrived in the early morning hours to dump more rebar and brick in the lot next to us for the ever-growing high rises.
Bangladesh, built on the delta that contains over 700 rivers, is a stunning display of God’s workmanship. Even in the concrete and brick mega-city, our flat was surrounded by green. Palms lined the streets, heavy jackfruit pulled branches down around us, and the bright red Krishnachura blooms fell to the ground like the snow the city will never experience. Humanity has complicated that beauty as more people pour into the city, away from the rising floodwaters, the ebb of jobs, and increasing poverty in the villages. When most people talk to me about the city I love, this is what they focus on.
The pollution that blankets the city in the winter and causes pounding headaches, the trash that lines the streets, and the steady protests that clog traffic makes Dhaka a less than desirable location for most. When we moved back to the U.S. I heard it everywhere: “Aren’t you so glad to be out of that place? It must have been so hard. I would never want to go there.” Every time someone says something like this, I can feel tears of defensiveness sting my eyes. In my mind, I still go back there often to that intersection. My heart swells with love for the beauty I found there, amidst the mess. Because of the mess. Because of the people.
That coffee in hand, for a few quiet moments I would watch the people, so many of them. The chatter of Bangla rising from the street never stopped as people called for rickshaws, yelled at friends heading to the University, or kids ran off to the English primary school down the street—its walls painted brightly with cartoon characters.
From where I stood I could peer directly into the nursery below, as early morning shoppers chose from orange marigolds and buckets of pink bougainvilleas to take home and grow on their balconies. Depending on the season I could see the children inside the small slum-house across from the nursery chasing chickens or running past the cow tied outside the gate. The day workers cleared their throats as they ascended the pile of red dust made from smashed bricks that they would add to the concrete mixer.
I would smile and wave at the nuns, their white shoes shuffling down the cracked street as they walked to the Christian counseling center next to the school. I wanted to smile at the men on their way home from morning prayers at the mosque but their white Topi-clad² heads never looked up at me, hurrying on into the day. The Ayah³ in the villa next to us would meet my gaze, though, as she pulled tight sheets over the rooftop clotheslines. I wondered what she saw when she looked at me. We were some of the only white faces visible in this part of town, far from the richer, diplomatic area in which a lot of foreigners chose to live. She would nod as she returned to her work.
As the heat closed in around me, I would leave the sounds of the city behind and return to the work awaiting me. Soon I would head down to the non-profit office just a couple floors below to write out stories about these people I loved. I would weed through reports from our village schools and news from our teams in the Rohingya refugee camps in the south of the country. I would stumble through accounts of other people’s lives, trying to figure out how to communicate to donors just how important their support was to the education and economic development of people they would never meet. I would pray that I could somehow honor the stories of people, let their own voices come through my words.
Today, I sit here two years after our return to the U.S. and twenty years to the day from the moment I felt God telling me to turn to love when so many around me were learning to hate. The day after the attacks of September 11, 2001 as I sat in an Arabic college class among my Middle Eastern classmates weeping that their religion had been turned into a weapon of terror, my heart shattered. It has been breaking ever since for the divisions we invent out of fear—the blinders we erect that keep us from seeing the glorious richness of what others have to offer us....
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Most people in our generation will always remember where they were and what they were doing on September 11, 2001. It is actually September 12 that sticks in my mind as a pivotal day in my life and faith.
On 9/11, like thousands of others, I sat glued to the television, amazed and horrified at the events unfolding on my screen. A group of us huddled into the living room of a small off-campus apartment to watch updates and call loved ones. We wept tears of relief when one friend finally was able to contact her father who had been unreachable all day, on a plane to New York. We ventured out to give blood at the Red Cross, to feel like we could actually do something to help.
September 12 was the day after what was undoubtedly one of the worst days in American history. But the tragedy that day was the fear and pain in the eyes of another group of friends.
It felt wrong to sit in class and pretend that life was just the same as the day before. We sat in stunned silence for there were no words that would do justice to what we were feeling.
That day most people talked about the fear they felt at the thought of further attacks, the shock that terrorism had reached America’s shores, or the anger at those that took so many lives.
But many people in my class spoke about a different kind of fear and horror.
It was an Arabic class in which I sat, unable to find the words as I listened to my Middle Eastern friends. Tears flowed as they talked about the fear they felt walking around campus - fear of judgment and retaliation. The look of horror in their eyes spoke of disbelief that men could do something so terrible in the name of their faith.
They had already been met with hateful stares. Accusation and fear collided as some even resorted to hurling words of anger and blame at my Muslim classmates.
The girls who wore headscarves were especially vulnerable and they cried when they admitted they had thought about removing them to avoid the harsh reactions they had been receiving.
My heart was broken for all those hurting across the country as the smoke began to clear, for those who had lost loved ones and whose lives would never be the same.
But I also realized there were other victims of 9/11 that I hadn’t even considered until that moment. Muslims in American and around the world came to be perceived as the enemy that day and life would never be the same for them either.