Since the 9/11 tragedy, the Afghan community has often been seen as the enemy, yet they’re victims. And of course, the survivors and families of those who died are still dealing with demons of their own. Here, their paths cross for the start of collective healing.
Kevin Clyne, a 30-year-old urban planner, lives in Brooklyn. He was 9 when he lost his mother, Susan Marie Clyne, who worked in the World Trade Center’s North Tower the day it took a direct hit from American Airlines Flight 11 on September 11, 2001. Clyne carries fond memories of taking the train with his mom on weekends to visit her office on the 96th floor, where the stunning views made him feel as if he was on top of the world.
Clyne was in his fifth-grade class on that fateful day when his teacher received a phone call and quickly shuffled him to the main office. His father was waiting with a concerned look on his face. He escorted Kevin to their car, where he told his son there had been an accident where his mother worked. Kevin’s father led by staying calm and making sure the family did not draw conclusions. It wasn’t clear yet if Clyne’s mother had gotten to the office, been out to grab a coffee, or was in a breakfast meeting off-site—possibilities the Clyne family anchored their hope on.
When Susan was still missing after three days, they hoped she was in a hospital somewhere. His father sheltered Clyne and his three siblings, who were all losing sleep and missing school, by turning off the news. Once a week had passed, the family began to accept that Clyne’s mother had died in the attack.
Freshta Taeb, 40, is an Afghan New Yorker, mother of two, and mental health provider. Her father, an immigrant who came to the United States in the ’70s, and her mother, a political asylum seeker, raised their family in Staten Island. On the morning of the attacks, Taeb was a 19-year-old student at Hunter College in Manhattan. She was heading to the World Trade Center, where she planned to take a train to school.
“It began as such a beautiful day,” Taeb recalls. “A clear blue sky and unusually warm. I walked back home from my bus stop to drop off my hoodie, and that decision probably saved my life.”
As Taeb got off her bus at the ferry terminal in Staten Island, which faces Lower Manhattan and offers a view of the city’s entire skyline, she could see smoke. Her bus driver mentioned there was a fire in the trade center building. Taeb boarded her ferry and was midway into the journey when the second building—the one that Susan Clyne was in—was hit.
The ferry started to shake, and rumors spread among the passengers that the boat had been bombed. Terminals stopped ferries from docking, so suddenly Taeb was stuck in the middle of the Hudson River without a cell phone.
By the time she finally got back to Staten Island, a long line of people were already waiting for the pay phone—each screaming and crying about a family member in the towers. The wind was blowing west, so the smoke made it impossible to drive. When Taeb’s parents eventually picked her up, she distinctly remembers the fear in her father’s eyes as he said, “I hope this wasn’t a Muslim.”
During the weeks following Susan Clyne’s death, Kevin Clyne and his family felt incredibly supported by their community on Long Island, with daily food, care packages, flowers, and balloon drop-offs from neighbors. Yet the young Clyne didn’t quite know how to behave or respond. His incredibly personal tragedy was also an incredibly public tragedy, and he was concerned about returning to school. Everyone was being nice, but nice wasn’t what he needed—he needed normal. As a preteen already feeling moody and angsty, Clyne began leaning into isolation to cope.
“9/11 kind of broke us as a family,” Clyne remembers. “We turned away from each other. We didn’t want to perform for all the people who wanted to see grief and feel close to what happened, so we ended up grieving separately. People don’t really talk about the aftermath of what happens to a family emotionally and mentally after tragedy.”
Clyne still carries guilt about how supported he was compared to other victims and how he has benefited from a tragic event. Coming from a middle-class household, where many of his school friends work in service jobs and are unable to leave their hometown, Clyne knows that this reality could have been his had he not received a scholarship as a 9/11 victim family member.
In those same weeks on Staten Island, the Taebs mourned in silence for a month, as did their town. They had lost two neighbors, and many firefighters in the local firehouse had been killed in their efforts to help. Their predominantly white neighborhood rapidly became Islamophobic, and for the first time in her life, Taeb felt the isolation and heavy air of being different. Neighbors stopped engaging with the family except to harass them with taunts such as, “Go back to where you came from, Osama!” By January, the Taebs were forced to move out of the neighborhood they had spent 15 years calling home to a more secluded and ethnically diverse area on Staten Island.
It can be equally powerful for us to see how capable we each are of transforming our pain, changing our narratives, and working together for peace.
“I lived my life for 19 years without anyone knowing what an Afghan was, nor caring if I was Muslim,” she remembers. “And then it was a complete 180.” Taeb felt she had to work twice as hard to prove herself as an Afghan American.
Such Islamophobia was offensive to Clyne as well. Members of his community began to project racist messaging onto his family.
“I was scared of being typecast as a 9/11 kid and didn’t want to be part of what that meant,” Clyne explains, so he turned toward fighting against Islamophobia in our country. He became vocal about his support for the rebuilding of the mosque in Lower Manhattan that had been destroyed by the attacks, while some other 9/11 families who felt disrespected by the rebuilding protested it.
Meanwhile, one of the most difficult things for Clyne to reconcile was that his family never got a chance to say a proper goodbye. Since no body was recovered, they have no grave to visit. As children, Clyne and his siblings would write their mother letters and tie them to balloons, “as if they were going to heaven or something,” he says. It took years before he learned how to exercise muscles of trust and faith again. By the 11th grade, he had experienced his first bout of depression, and he began spending years in and out of therapy, where he didn’t feel heard or understood. In fact, he says, he felt that people were no longer “seeing me, they were seeing the events [that happened to me].”
Today Taeb says she looks back and thinks, I was a kid. My neighbors died; my homeland was attacked; my religion was attacked. No one asked if I was okay. No one reached out. Anxiety became a constant. She stopped taking the ferry, and every time the phone rang, she’d automatically think of the worst-case scenario.
Clyne and Taeb are both acquaintances of mine. I met each of them a few years ago—Clyne at a creatives’ community gathering and Taeb through advocacy work for Afghanistan. After hearing their stories, I felt inspired to see if they might want to meet. When I reached out to them about talking via Zoom, they were both intrigued. Clyne had not yet connected personally with an Afghan, and Taeb had never had the opportunity to speak with a 9/11 victim family member—yet both agreed that talking together had the potential to help them heal together.
I set up the meeting for early May of this year, a few months before the 21st anniversary of the attacks.
“Did you ever get angry at the 9/11 families?” Clyne asked Taeb early in the discussion.
“No, my anger was more practical,” Taeb replied. “I was thinking, Why are we bombing Afghanistan now? Why are my girlfriends having their headscarves ripped off? Why is my religion being taken hostage? I never had anger for the victims or their families.”
“I want to learn more about Afghanistan and the aftermath for your family,” Clyne told her, and Taeb eagerly obliged.
Clyne then shared his story about coming out as gay to his father. “It did not go well at all,” he told Taeb. “I have wondered how it might have been different had my mom been there,” adding that he and his father have recently reconciled.
“I’m so happy the reconciliation happened and that you were able to forgive him,” Taeb offered. “I often pray that I’m alive until my kids are at least 18, so it makes me emotional thinking about four children who lost their mother. People assume children are resilient, but are they? I don’t buy it.”
The conversation continued, each sharing the layers of healing they’ve experienced as time has allowed them a greater understanding of the effect of the terrorist attacks not only on themselves but also on their families.
“How can I continue to support you?” Taeb asked near the end of the call. “How can we continue to help each other heal moving forward? What would make that happen?”
Clyne told her he is eager to help elevate Afghan voices through the lens of 9/11 families who “have more access to the mic.” The two agreed to work on ideas to bring their communities together for sharing their collective pain and moving through it.
Taeb noted that this experience has given her hope that such united healing could be powerful for both communities. I agree, convinced it can be equally powerful for us to see how capable we each are of transforming our pain, changing our narratives, and working together for peace.
This article appeared in Unity Magazine and was a finalist in the 2023 Folio: Eddie Awards.