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9/11: Courage of the morning

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    9/11: Courage of the morning

    This is the first time I have read of a Muslim individual's efforts to help the victims of the WTC attacks. Kudos to Amnesty for bringing this out.

    Courage of the Morning, Ron Lajoie [This article is featured in the current (Winter 2001-2002) issue of Amnesty Now, AIUSA's quarterly magazine for members]

    Growing up in Tehran at the height of the Iran/Iraq war, Shahram Hashemi can recall terrifying childhood nightmares frequently interrupted by the rolling thunder of bombs and shelling.

    "The thing I remember most from my youth, was the nightmares every night and the bombing," the 27-year-old Iranian student recounts. "I remember going with my parents to my basement for cover and actually seeing the bombardment. I saw people die and in the later days of the war there was always the threat of chemical warfare. Those were very bad days. "But what I saw that day I cannot even compare with what I had seen in my life before. It was like living a nightmare."

    That day was September 11, 2001.

    Shahram Hashemi, a foreign student at New York Cityís LaGuardia Community College and the founder of the schoolís brand new Amnesty International student chapter, was on his way to the Bank of New York on Wall Street, where he works as an intern, when the second hijacked plane slammed into the south tower of the World Trade Center.

    "I couldnít believe what I was seeing," he says. "People were running for their lives, literally running over each other. I was watching people jumping from the windows. But what I noticed and what really motivated me to go back and help was actually seeing some people running in a different direction, towards the building, firefighters and police officers. They knew that it might be the end of their lives but they went."

    And so did Shahram Hashemi. Back into the inferno, back into the chaos, back into the terror to do whatever he could do to help. A few days later his picture would appear on the back page of Newsweek.

    Unidentified, he is wearing a firemanís coat and a respirator hangs around his neck. The street is an eerie lunar landscape of gray ash and paper. The sky behind him has been entirely blotted out by smoke.

    But unlike the other firefighters in the photo ó and by this time Shahram had been pressed into service as a firefighter ó he is wearing no helmet. If you examine the photo carefully, this fireman appears to be wearing common street shoes. Recalls Hashemi: "After the first building collapsed I went to the Bank of New York lobby. But after two or three minutes, I figured I could help now. So I went outside and I noticed there were a lot of women. They were covered in dust and were frozen in shock. So I took them, one by one, into the Bank of New York lobby."

    One his next trip out, still in shirt sleeves he was spotted by a firefighter near Liberty Park. The fireman, fearing the young man might be in danger from the raging flames, handed him a protective firemanís jacket. "Is there anything I can do?" Hashemi asked. "Yes, we lost a lot of people back there," was the reply.

    "It was a moment I will never forget," states Hashemi. "It was dark and fire was everywhere. You couldnít breathe. We knew that at any moment we could die. So I told the fireman, I donít have anyone here, my name is Shahram Hashemi and just in case anything happens to me, let my family know." The fireman said he would, embraced the unknown young man and then made the sign of the cross. "Christ protect you," he said. Shahram, a Muslim, wept. He struggles to remember the name of the fireman who gave him the jacket. It may have been Bernard or Bernie, he thinks. But he doesnít know if he survived. He never saw that fireman again.

    The Iranian college student and the other civilians were separated into teams, an instant volunteer fire brigade, and sent to Ground Zero where they were pressed into service extinguishing fires and searching for survivors. "We were looking for survivors but we couldnít find anybody," explains Hashemi. "After 10 or 15 minutes I heard a loud rumbling sound. I couldnít see anything because of the smoke but I knew that the other tower was going to come down, so I just began to run in the other direction."

    He found refuge in the American Express Building and waited a few minutes before emerging once more into the almost total darkness. Fires were burning everywhere now, a hellish inferno that would continue for weeks. Hashemi and the other volunteers re-joined the firemen in the near impossible task of putting them out. Burning cars were the first order of business because of the potential for further explosions.

    As more professional help arrived on the scene, Hashemiís job changed. He was assigned the task of taking water in buckets to slake the thirst of the firemen now fighting the blaze en masse. The heat was intense.

    It was early evening, about five p.m., when the Number Seven building tumbled in ruins, Normally the collapse of a 47-story building would lead the evening news, a disaster of the first magnitude. On this day it was a footnote.

    It was during the collapse of Number Seven that Hashemi, disoriented in the smoke, would get trapped.

    "I was stuck in the debris and the rubble and everybody around me was running," he remembers. "I knew it was coming down so I ducked into another building but there was so much smoke I couldnít see anything."

    Eventually spotted in the gloom by a mobile triage unit and administered first aid and oxygen, Hashemi was evacuated by ferry to a hospital on Staten Island where he spent the evening. He was finally released at about midnight and sent home where he called his frantic parents in Tehran to let them know he was all right.

    "Maybe my life was blessed," Hashemi reflects of that day in September. "I noticed that the triage unit were all Jewish doctors. I donít know whether they were from Beth Israel or wherever but the way I see it I was blessed by three religions that day. It was my Islamic faith that motivated me to go back and help, I was blessed in the name of Jesus at the most dangerous moment of my life and then I was helped by Jewish doctors."

    Then he adds something that, given the situation, may seem extraordinary. "It was really a moment of peace. Regardless of our race or religion, we all cared about each other." Shahram Hashemi is a sincere young man. His worldview seems almost endearingly optimistic, in the current circumstances. It is an idealism that was sorely tested by the roiling emotions of the days immediately following September 11.

    Although his own bravery inoculated him against any negative fallout, he couldnít help but notice the hostility towards other Muslims and he is deeply troubled by how Islam is perceived in this country.

    "There is an anti-Muslim environment right now,í he says. "But most Americans donít know about Islam. What these people did is not Islam. Islam is a religion of peace, justice and sacrifice. What they (the terrorists) did was to use Islam."

    He attributes the support that the terrorists have in parts of the Islamic world to the two ancient pillars of intolerance everywhere: ignorance and want. "You canít blame the people," he stresses, "because they are uneducated and they have nothing. So the terrorists take advantage of that."

    While he understands the depths of anger some Americans may feel towards Islam, and indeed to his native country because of earlier history, he holds fast to the belief that a more tolerant world is possible. The key is education.

    It is that commitment that inspired Shahram Hashemi to establish the first Amnesty International chapter at LaGuardia Community College, perhaps the most ethnically diverse post-secondary institution in the country. He got the idea for a LaGuardia chapter after attending a Human Rights Education seminar in AIUSAís national office last July, long before he, the city and indeed we all, went through the looking glass of September 11.

    Shahram Hashemi, probably would not have ever mentioned his own heroism that day if others hadnít sought him out first, if his picture hadnít run in Newsweek. But now he feels a special responsibility as a Muslim to speak out. As to what wellspring of courage caused him to turn back with a small group of other civilian volunteers that day while thousands fled in terror, he has no doubt.

    "That is what Islam taught me to do, to help others, to sacrifice my life in order to bring peace," he says simply. "I could not have forgiven myself if I had walked away."

    Thank you for posting Nadia.