A Sikh, a Muslim, a Christian, a Jew, they worshipped God in different ways and watched the towers fall from different places: Valarie Kaur, the daughter of Sikh farmers, was a student at Stanford University on Sept. 11, 2001. Alia Bilal watched the news that morning from her 7th grade classroom at an Islamic school in Chicago. John Inazu, a young Air Force attorney, was at his desk in the Pentagon when a plane crashed into the building. Robert Klitzman, a psychiatry professor in New York City, got on a subway to the World Trade Center to look for a sister he would never find.
In a moving conversation moderated by IFYC founder Eboo Patel in partnership with Sonal Shah, the founding president of The Asian American Foundation, the four shared a virtual stage yesterday to reflect on that morning two decades ago, mourn the 3,000 who died, and tell how they turned catastrophe into a catalyst for their life’s work: activism, research, teaching and writing that aims to protect, inspire and serve. “Four remarkable people,” Patel said, who took “profound suffering, loss and grief” and “somehow managed to not center enemies. What can we learn from that? How can that be a teaching to the culture?”
Valarie Kaur, Founder of Revolutionary Love Project, talks about being home for summer break as a college student when her father woke her up with the news of the attack. As they watched the footage of the attack: “If you weren’t in New York, if you’re just watching it, [the video] was on this endless loop. The towers falling over and over and over again, and then between these images, suddenly the image of Osama bin Laden showed up. A man with a turban and beard and in that moment, I said, ‘Oh, our nation’s new enemy looks like my family.’”
Kaur describes the fear her family felt as news of rising hate crimes against the Sikh community spiked up after 9/11. On Sept. 15, their family friend, Balbir Singh Sodhi, a gas station owner in Mesa, Arizona, was fatally shot – the first hate crime murder in retaliation of the 9/11 attacks. Kaur remembers hiding in her room and crying, and reading Harry Potter to escape the reality. She didn’t feel she could return to college, so she made a proposal to the university: “I asked my university if we could take this camera I had, my cousin and I, and travel across America to start capturing the stories – Balbir uncle’s story, the stories of hate crimes.”
On becoming an activist: “I was going to be an academic, even thought I was going to be a professor of religion, but I wasn’t going to be an activist. That decision came after Balbir uncle’s murder and all the murders that followed, all the hate that followed, but never ended. We call it the backlash, and yet it never ended. It’s still going on like our communities are five times more likely to be targeted to hate than we were before 9/11. And I’m not a college kid anymore — I am a mother. My children are growing up in a nation more dangerous for them than it was for me. That moment to respond to Balbir uncle’s murder by taking that camera and crossing the country was a moment that I think so many of us who were college kids or graduate students had it catalyze a little generation of advocates.”
A few years ago, Kaur joined Rana Singh Sodhi, Balbir’s brother, on a phone call to Frank Roque – Balbir’s killer. Roque said: ‘I am sorry for what I did to your brother. When I go to be judged by God, I will ask to see your brother, and I will ask for his forgiveness.’ Rana replied: ‘You’re already forgiven.’ Recalling the conversation, Kaur says: “The lived faith of Rana Sodhi and so many Sikhs who I’ve been able to witness have taught me that forgiveness is not forgetting. Forgiveness is freedom from hate.”