September 11, 2001
Jackson Heights Queens
I went downstairs to look at the smoke rising from what had been the towers just a few hours before. Five miles and a river separated us from the chaos and thousands of personal tragedies that were occurring downtown.
A Pakistani lawyer who has a private practice next door rushed by. He stopped when he saw me to ask if our office was still open. I explained that we were going to stay until all of our students had gone home. He said that he was worried about getting home to his family before the curfew.
The curfew? I was confused. What curfew? Well, there’s going to be a curfew, right? There’s always a curfew. Always a curfew? I didn’t know. I didn’t have any point of reference. I had never been in a city under attack before. Was there going to be a curfew?
A little while later a Peruvian student asked if there was going to be a curfew, and I said I didn’t know. A Colombian student responded that the curfew probably wouldn’t start until sundown. Of course there would be a curfew. There is always a curfew. I started looking at the people around me, our students, the immigrants who run businesses in our building and on our block. So many of them had lived through war. They suddenly seemed so much more prepared than I was for what was happening.
We work with immigrants from all over the world. We teach them English, but, probably more importantly, we also help them adjust to their new lives in New York. We address the practical things, such as how to read a subway map and how to enroll your kids in school. We also talk about the more intangible things, such as the fast pace of the city, the way you have to focus your eyes on nothing or pretend to read the advertisements when you’re riding a crowded train.
But on that day I found myself looking to our students for guidance about what to expect from our city. We didn’t have a curfew, as it turns out. But the next day Manhattan was “closed.” Then the city was shut down south of 14th Street, and later south of Canal. It was not a curfew, but it was just as inconceivable to those of us who had lived here all our lives.
In April 2002, a Peruvian woman and her fourteen-year-old daughter sat in my office. They had arrived in New York three weeks before on a tourist visa and had no intention of returning to Peru.
The mother explained to me in Spanish that the fourteen-year-old had been kidnapped, held hostage, and ultimately released. The girl’s eyes dropped as her mother told the story. I did not ask for details.
To this family, our city where planes crash into buildings was not nearly as threatening as the home they had decided to abandon. In spite of September 11, I thought, New York continues to be a magnet for the desperate—and for the hopeful.
These stories are part of a larger article I wrote for Literacy Harvest about working with adult immigrants during and after the 9/11 attacks. For more stories about the impact of the 9/11 attacks on NYC’s immigrant community, please read:
Photo by Bruce Armstrong