Those Who Disappeared After 9/11


Marjan was the last surviving male in his family. His brothers and father had been killed by the Taliban, but he had escaped. He arrived in New York alone on September 9, 2001.  


I often find myself wondering what September 11 was like for Marjan. Was it a pivotal day in his life? Was it significantly stranger than September 9, his first day in New York? Or stranger than the days and weeks before, in which he journeyed by foot, by camel, then later hidden in the cargo hold of boats and still later on foot, running through the desert after crossing the Mexican border? Stranger than living his whole life through a series of wars? What did this young man from a farming family in rural Afghanistan understand of what was going on around him?


His teacher later told me that Marjan had never seen a map before. He was confused because China was on both sides. The teacher folded the map, trying to show the continuation, but it did not click until the teacher ran to get a globe. All of a sudden it made sense. With his teacher’s help, Marjan found New York and then Afghanistan; he excitedly turned the globe around and around in his hands, reveling in the vastness of what he had just learned. As an intelligent adult who had recently traveled half the globe, he was absorbing a concept most of us are exposed to as children, when we are too young to appreciate its wonder.


Marjan had appeared at our program in the late fall, referred by a social service agency that was working to help him get political asylum in the United States. He was sleeping in a gas station where a family acquaintance worked the night shift.


His first day in class, Marjan just looked angry. I had never seen a student who looked so angry. On November 5 we started a new cycle of classes. As I did on September 10, I went into each class to do an orientation. My mood was quite different from the optimism I had felt during the previous orientation. But the routine was the same.


Orientation in a Level 1 ESOL class is always a little light on content. The students, by definition, don’t speak English. We try to provide support services and information in the students’ native languages whenever possible, but in the classroom, even in Level 1, we speak English only. I go into the class and start my mime/monologue on “English Only in class,” before moving on to more complex topics such as recycling and where to find the key to the bathroom. I write on the board, “English Only.” I say the words, English, and point to the floor to indicate the room. “In class, English Only.” I prompt the students to repeat the phrase, “English Only.” “Good,” I smile. “In class, [pointing to the floor again], English Only. At home, [pointing out the window], with your families [miming an embrace], with your children [miming talking to an imaginary child], speak [moving finger from mouth towards room] Spanish [point to Spanish speakers], speak Urdu [point to Urdu speakers], speak Russian [point to Russian speakers], speak Chinese [point to Chinese speakers] . . . ” and when I said “speak Pashtun,” Marjan looked up at me and smiled. I don’t know what made him smile. Perhaps simply naming his language, acknowledging his culture, giving validity to his presence.


After that, he always smiled warmly when he saw me. But from an angle, when he didn’t see me looking, he always looked . . . well, angry. Maybe frustrated, maybe just young and scared and defensive. None of us can understand what he has been through.


I think of Marjan often.


He just disappeared one day in December—disappeared off the face of the earth. His lawyers, his caseworker, his distant relatives who lived in New York (but who got scared and ran off to Canada after the U.S. started bombing Afghanistan) are all looking for him.


Anything could have happened to him. Most likely, he is in a detention center (or jail), like so many young Muslim men from his region of the world. His unfortunate arrival date just two days before the attacks, coupled with his country of origin, would make him a terror suspect, I suppose. The lists of the names of the more than one thousand Muslim men who have been detained since September 11 are incomplete, and the ACLU is fighting.  Marjan’s name never appeared on any of the lists.


He entered the country illegally, so if they had detained him, interrogated him, and decided he was not a terrorist, then he would have been deported back to Afghanistan. Maybe he is there now. Or maybe he is dead somewhere. I will probably never know. Sometimes I find myself looking for him on the evening news, pasting his face onto the faces of the young Afghanis we see buying televisions and flying kites and whatnot now that the Taliban are no longer in power. I would so like to believe that there was a happy ending. But I don’t believe it.



Marjan’s story is 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:


Marjan’s fate remains unknown.  


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