The babies born in the year of the September 11 terrorist attacks are turning 18.
They entered the world during one of America’s darkest chapters, bringing what their parents call “much-needed light.”
Of course the children born on or near September 11, 2001 don’t remember that fateful, tragic event when terrorists hijacked planes and crashed them into the Twin Towers in New York, part of the Pentagon in Washington, DC and a field in Pennsylvania.
Yet they live the consequences.
The only world they’ve known is a post-9/11 landscape, often laden with fear, mistrust and tight security.
Because of this, many of their parents say they’ve worked overtime helping children cope and maybe compensate for the cruelty of their predecessors.
Their mothers say their children’s arrival brought hope and the reminder that even in the toughest of times, love can prevail. They say the fearful and angry nature of the time underscored their parental responsibility to nurture optimism and hope for a better world.
Fostering hope part of a parent’s job
Like her peers who also were born in the shadow of September 11, 2001, Michaela Dillon is entering adulthood.
Some, including the 17-year-old Oak Lawn, Illinois, resident, are graduating high school. Others are seniors who will graduate next year.
“None of us remember that day, but there are so many, almost too many, recent (shootings and terrorist events),” said Michaela, who graduated from Mother McAuley High School in May. “Me and my friends talk about shootings a lot actually. Our world is continually getting worse with those kinds of terrorist attacks.”
As fear grows, so do security measures, she said. She can’t imagine a world without checkpoints and metal detectors at concerts, sporting events, even schools.
“I’ve never known a world without the TSA (Transportation Security Administration) and extreme security. I’ve heard a lot of stories about how super easy it used to be to get to the airport and get on planes,” she said. “That’s weird to me.”
Michaela was due on September 11, 2001, her mother, Hannah Hayes, said. She arrived three days later.
“It was a scary time. It was a sad time,” Hayes said. “All week all we saw and all anyone talked about were the attacks. It was very hard. And then Friday morning we had this beautiful baby come into our lives and it changed us forever.”
Hayes said the birth brought balance.
“One of the things I’ll never forget that my mom said was, ‘It was such a sad time and Michaela just brought happiness and light back into our lives that week,’” Hayes recalled.
She reminds her daughter of that “all the time because she still does bring happiness and light into our lives.”
Nevertheless, Hayes said, “It’s a challenge to raise kids in this world of shootings and terrorism.”
Increasingly, she added, it is the job of parents to strive for balance by fostering optimism and kindness in their children.
“Parents need to create an atmosphere of hope,” she said. “We have to see that hope every day in our lives. And we have to really understand that these kids can change the world. They are smart and energetic. They know what’s going on. They understand what’s happening.”
And they have the ability to “make life better in their own communities and on a larger scale,” she said.
This fall Michaela will head off to the University of Arizona to study design technology for costuming. She wants to tell stories through her work with fabric, perhaps in movies or on Broadway.
“If I ever have kids I want to bring them up on optimism,” she said. “I’m lucky enough to have a mom whose No. 1 thing has been being nice to other people, no matter what else I did.
“I think kindness is just something every person needs to somehow learn in their life. It is so easy. And it can take some of the negativity away from another person’s life or your own,” she said.
Hayes said, “There is hope in this world and she’s a big part of that for us.”
Proud to be an American
Amyrose de los Santos went into labour on September 10, 2001 and was admitted to Grant Hospital in Chicago that evening.
At one point the next day she awoke and saw her ex-husband watching what appeared to be a horror movie on TV.
“He said, ‘It’s not a movie, it’s actually news, happening in New York right now,’ ” she said.
“I was trying to keep positive because I was about to deliver a baby and at the same time in New York, there was all this chaos,” she said. “I was very distraught watching the buildings burn.”
At 4:11 that afternoon, her daughter Alexis was born.
“It was a really sad day but at the same time I was blessed to have this baby girl who was healthy. I was trying to keep positive,” she said.
Even after she was home from the hospital, the news was still sombre, she said.
“I remember it being on the TV 24/7. I remember stories about all the volunteers who travelled to New York. And I remember President Bush going there,” she said.
“But I was a new mother, which was scary in itself,” the Crestwood, Illinois, resident said. “To have all this in the background made it even more so.”
Years later, after her daughter, now a senior at Shepard High School in Palos Heights, started asking about that fateful day, de los Santos said she told her what happened.
“It was totally heartbreaking,” she said. “But I also told her, at the same time, that day was a blessing for us because you were born and you were healthy and God gave us joy on the saddest day to remind us that there are still positive things in life.”
Alexis is a member of the JROTC.
“I was in JROTC in high school,” her mother said. “I tell her, ‘Just remember, when you wear that uniform, wear it with pride. Because you represent the United States and freedom. Always remember that privilege you have.’”
Breaking Stereotypes About Muslims
Rahaf Othman’s first born child, Ahmad Elsholi, turned 18 in May.
“September 11th completely changed the way we live,” said Othman, who is Muslim.
Othman is currently a teacher at Richards High School in Oak Lawn, Illinois, but back in 2001, she was teaching at the private Universal School in Bridgeview.
“I remember listening to the radio as I drove to work. They said a plane crashed into one of the Twin Towers. They thought it was a fluke,” she said.
She was in the principal’s office, where the TV was on, when the second plane hit.
“I looked at him and said ‘That’s not a fluke,’” she said.
At that point, she said, parents started calling, wanting to pull their kids out of school.
“They were worried,” she said. “We were also worried that the fourth plane was going to hit the Sears Tower and we had students whose parents worked there. And my husband had a meeting in the Sears Tower that day.” Her husband didn’t want her driving for fear of backlash against Muslims, she said. So he sent her brother to drive her to the babysitter’s house around the corner to pick up her son and then over to her parents’ house.
“Once my husband came home, I went home,” she said. “I didn’t leave my house for two weeks.”
The school also stayed closed for weeks because teachers were afraid to leave their homes, she said.
“There was so much fear because people were angry, they were upset,” she said. Some had gathered at night to throw rocks at the Bridgeview mosque, she said.
September 11, she said, “completely changed the way we lived. Before the attacks, everybody minded their own business. Afterward, in stores, everywhere you went, people looked at you funny, sometimes they screamed at you.”
Othman recalled wondering what the future might hold for her newborn son.
“I remember saying to my husband, ‘What are we going to do? This is the environment he is going to be raised in.’”
In many ways, she said, “we’re still dealing with backlash from 9/11. I don’t think it’s going away any time soon. With things currently happening in our government, it’s not getting any better.”
She said she and her husband decided to raise all of their children to be cognizant of current events but at the same time encourage them to live life to the fullest.
Growing up in the Orland Hills/Tinley Park, Illinois area, her kids have been involved in just about every sport, with her son playing football for the Andrew High School team, she said.
“We’re very active and involved in school,” she said. “Because he’s our firstborn and because of 9/11, we always told our son, ‘You have to be cognizant of who you are, your background, where you are and how you act.’ We’ve told all our kids there are stereotypes out there right now, about all of us and our religion. We tell them, ‘Break those stereotypes through your actions. Change people’s perceptions of you. Show them what Islam truly is about. Show them what the culture of being an Arab American is all about.’ “It’s a lot of pressure but we tell them you want to remember ‘You’re not just representing yourself, you’re representing Islam and Arab American culture,’” she said.
Even now, when Ahmad leaves to hang out with friends, he says to his mom, “I know, I know, I’m representing everybody.”
Ahmad graduated from Andrew High School last month.
He said, while there may be good reason to live in fear as many Arab Americans do, “I feel not fear but rather more aware of the people I’m surrounded by.”
He said he’s cognizant of the way his background is viewed and how other people may choose to interpret that. That compels him to always “be aware of how others see me” and to “try to carry myself in a manner that would change their perceptions.”
Othman said, “At the end of the day, you want to raise your kids in a way that, despite their struggles, they persevere and are successful. We tell them, ‘Keep putting your best foot forward. What’s going to happen is going to happen but you’ll know you did your best.’”
The world can be a scary place, she said, but “being a history teacher, I know that over time, things change.”
— The Daily Southtown is a Chicago Tribune publication.
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