x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

In wake of 9/11 loss, Baraheen Ashrafi rebuilt her family with faith

In the second of an exclusive two-part interview, a Muslim mother and 9/11 widow tells Tahira Yaqoob how she rebuilt her life in the heart of Middle America, affirmed her faith and contemplates returning to the city where her husband was killed 10 years ago.

In the second of an exclusive two-part interview, a Muslim mother and 9/11 widow tells how she rebuilt her life, affirmed her faith and contemplates returning to the city where her husband was killed 10 years ago. <b>With video</b>
In the second of an exclusive two-part interview, a Muslim mother and 9/11 widow tells how she rebuilt her life, affirmed her faith and contemplates returning to the city where her husband was killed 10 years ago. With video

At the back of Baraheen Ashrafi's wedding album, there are five blank pages.

There she is in a shimmering pink outfit with a handwritten inscription reading "engagement"; filled with trepidation in her bridal trousseau; laughing as her husband Mohammed Chowdhury carries her over the threshold; the banquets at their four-day ceremony in June 1992; a touching, intimate shot of the couple leaning close with their heads together marked "after marriage" and then - nothing.

"I planned to fill the empty spaces with pictures of us with our two children and the inscription 'happy ever after'," she says softly. "I will never get a chance now."

Baraheen's dream of happy ever after was shattered on September 11, 2001, when one of four hijacked planes ploughed into the north tower of the World Trade Center where her husband was working as a waiter.

He died two days before the birth of their son Farqad, the first of dozens of babies born to September 11 widows.

In one earth-shattering moment, Baraheen's world was turned upside down - and along with it, the world around her. America was shaken into wars in Afghanistan and then Iraq; new alliances were made, old ones crumbled. Muslims and non-Muslims found themselves in conflict in America, the Middle East, Europe, Africa and Asia.

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Part 1: Ten years after 9/11, Baraheen Ashrafi recalls 'the day my world ended

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But the tumultuous events of that bright September morning far from making Baraheen crumble, gave her a resolve of steel and a determination to give her children every opportunity. It is astonishing to see now but the woman who never knew how to pay a bill or drive a car has single-handedly turned around the lives of all three. Her 15-year-old daughter Fahina and son Farqad, now 9, are typical of other American children their age with a preference for jeans and hanging out at the mall with friends.

Fahina, a gregarious, beautiful teenager with an infectious laugh, studies at Classen School of Advanced Studies and dreams of attending an Ivy League university and becoming a doctor. Farqad, shy and extremely attached to his mother - he likes her spoonfeeding him and cuddles her often - attends the private Trinity School and wants to be a computer engineer. Significantly, they are both imbued with a sense of duty, faith and appreciation of the sacrifices their parents made to give them every opportunity in life.

"To this day, my mother has played the role of a mum and dad but has never shown us what a hard time she is having," says Fahina, with a wisdom beyond her years. She often tells Farqad stories about their father.

"Before I did not know how much he sacrificed but now I strive even harder. Every time I do well, I feel I am making it easier for him to think: 'I sacrificed so much but look how my kids turned out to be great people'."

Their home abounds with laughter and joy, tinged with an undercurrent of sadness. It prompts tears from Fahina and her mother every time they speak about the missing family member.

It is harder for Farqad to appreciate who his father was, but he has begun to ask questions. Baraheen, now 39, has been preparing for them since the moment she first cradled her peacefully sleeping newborn son in her arms.

At first convinced that her husband had amnesia and would eventually turn up, she says it took two weeks to realise that "some hopes never come true".

She returned two days after the birth to a house full of mourners, trying to make sense of the senseless: how could terrorists purporting to share the same faith have committed such an atrocity?After 10 days, Baraheen decided to break the news to Fahina, then 5. Overwhelmed, the little girl lay down on her bed and cried. She still struggles to talk about that day without being choked with emotion.

"My mum did not give me any false hopes. Grasping that your dad died in this huge building with a plane coming through it is so complex for a five-year-old; before that, America did not have anything like this."

Baraheen, then aged 29, realised she could either be subsumed by her grief or steel herself to be both father and mother. She chose the latter.

The full extent of her plight was still sinking in: after a sheltered childhood and a worry-free marriage, she had never had to fend for herself, pay a bill or learn to drive. "I was thinking: 'How am I going to raise two children by myself? Where will I get the strength?'" she says.

While in mourning, she was surrounded by well-wishers and was never alone. But she began to fret they would tire of doing her favours. "I realised I had to deal with everything, I did not want to depend on people," she says. Significantly, she adds: "Probably it was time for me to change myself."

That transformation took one very visible form when she began wearing a hijab immediately after 9/11. While some Muslims, fearing a violent backlash in the wake of the attacks, shook off obvious signs of their faith, shaving off beards or removing headscarves, Baraheen felt it was time to wear her beliefs on her sleeve.

"My faith simply got stronger. I felt the time had come. I never felt the importance before but they were saying Muslims all over the world were to blame," she says. "Our religion is one of peace and teaches us to have patience and tolerance. Those men were not Muslims."

It was not easy. A month after her husband's death, her resolve as a Muslim was tested when two men on the street taunted her by chanting "Let's go for a jihad" as she took Fahina to a doctor's appointment. "I was crying on the inside," Baraheen says. "I had already been through so much and hearing those things really upset me."

Yet each challenge seemed to make her stronger. She started learning to drive two months after Mohammed died and passed her test on the first attempt in April 2002.

She wrote her first cheque, paid the bills and nursed her baby with the help of her sister and sister-in-law, who moved in with her, and her mother, Dewan Raihana Zaman, who arrived from Bangladesh.

If she was over-protective with Farqad, it was with good reason. Left with his grandmother when he was 8 months old, he had to be taken to hospital when she fed him some egg and he began turning blue. Doctors who treated him discovered he had numerous allergies.

"I raised him extra-cautiously because I was afraid of losing my children," Baraheen says. "These two are the only hope in my life."

While Farqad was too young to understand the devastation wreaked on his world, Fahina shouldered some of the burden, perhaps picking up on her mother's determination to keep things normal for him.

Baraheen says: "She told me: 'I had my daddy for five years and have two years of memories of him but Farqad will not have any. We have to make sure we love Farqad so he does not realise he is missing someone in his life.' She understood those things at five."

But there was a bigger mountain to climb. Baraheen's heart ached at the constant reminders of her husband on every New York street corner.

"Everywhere there were memories," she says. "No matter how much I tried to be strong, it weakened me. And staying in New York was expensive, so I decided to move."

A year after Mohammed's death, the family of three packed their bags and left New York for good.

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The Bible belt of Oklahoma might not seem the obvious choice for a Muslim family wishing to live in obscurity. But even here in the American heartlands, where the majority of the population is Christian, the Muslim community has been growing steadily.

The state's 30,000 Muslims make up less than one per cent of the four million-strong population. Oklahoma's handful of mosques, tucked away in residential neighbourhoods, have no minarets, no call to prayer and only the most discreet of crescent moons on top of the biggest, where 300 worshippers gathered every night for iftar during this Ramadan.Yet this sleepy state was also the scene of the deadliest attack on US soil before 9/11 - the Oklahoma bombing that killed 168 in April 1995 and was initially blamed on Islamist extremists until the role of Timothy McVeigh came to light.

Much work has been done since by the Interfaith Alliance Foundation to mend broken bridges but even in recent times, Baraheen has faced abuse. Teenagers hurled drinks cans at her car and in two incidents in supermarkets, she was insulted for being a Muslim.

The Edmond mosque where Fahina and Farqad attend a Saturday Islamic school is a peaceful retreat though, a charming white and green painted bungalow opposite a university. In its tiny carpeted rooms, the two children learn Islamic history and memorise passages from the Quran.

It was not the strong ties between Muslim community members that drew Baraheen here, it was that she needed to escape and her younger sister Tanzim Qurashy, 36, was already living here.

At her invitation, Baraheen, her mother and the two children moved in with her, then moved to Fenwick nearby. In 2005, a year after she became a US citizen, she bought her current home in Edmond with her payout from the Victim Compensation Fund, established by Congress to provide money for the dependants of those killed. The average award was US$1.6 million (Dh5.8m), with recipients agreeing not to sue the government or airlines.

For Baraheen, that payout - together with two life insurance policies her husband had set up - bought security and a comfortable family life without having to work, so she could be on hand for the children. It also brought relief: "There are no memories here. Everything is brand new and no one knows us." That suits her because "telling stories and sharing my past is very painful and I try to avoid it."

Fahina has another theory - that Oklahomans are simply discreet. "I am so grateful to be in Oklahoma because in New York, people would want to come and talk to us about it and it would be so much more public," she says. But there was one person whose questions were unavoidable. Even in nursery school, Farqad was asking where his father was when other children were getting hugs from both parents.

"I was strong enough to answer and not to cry," Baraheen says. "If he sees me crying, he will stop asking things that hurt his mother. After he left the room, I cried and cried."

She avoided giving too detailed a response about the circumstances in which Mohammed died; in the event, she never had to. When he was seven years old, possibly tipped off by cousins, he asked: "Did my daddy die because a bad guy hijacked a plane and hit the building?"

Baraheen carefully explained how some people turn to evil but knew the concept was too abstract for his young mind, in the same way that having a male figure in his life was alien to him.

Fahina simply wanted to know why the terrorists were being called Muslims when their actions were so far removed from the Islam she embraced.

From an early age, religion has had a profound influence on her life. She began fasting during Ramadan at the age of nine, started keeping the full month of fasts three years ago and prays five times a day.

"I feel I am not only a modern girl of the Muslim faith but as someone affected by September 11, it is my responsibility to have knowledge of my religion because if people ask, I need to have answers," she says.

"My faith has helped me more than anything and has really shaped the way I am. September 11 made it even stronger. It is really hard to accept what happened but we are still really blessed."

Baraheen tries to keep life as normal as possible for her tight family unit. She says she has few friends, as time with other people is time away from her children. Her husband was the sociable creature who teased her out of her shell. Without him to coax her, she has retreated back inside.

There is shopping for groceries, occasional trips to the mall to see a film with the children, visits to her aunt and sister living nearby, and trips to drop Fahina off at debating club, where she has excelled, but otherwise she rarely leaves her four walls.

Baraheen's sickly mother, who lived with them for four years but moved to New York in 2006 to be closer to her doctor, urged her to do something for herself so she would not be isolated when the children left. But the thought of remarrying is anathema: "For me it is impossible. I will never be able to love another person and I do not know how to let another person in my life without love.

"Sometimes people say they wish I had someone in my life and I tell them that's a curse. I want people to pray that I do not find anyone. I want to die as his wife."

This year they will mark 9/11 as they always do, praying quietly at home, then forcibly changing their mood and holding back their tears to celebrate Farqad's birthday two days later.

Baraheen stays in touch with her husband's family in Bangladesh and last saw them on a trip three years ago, stopping en route to stay with a cousin in Abu Dhabi for a week. "Abu Dhabi felt like a piece of heaven. I wish I could live there," she sighs. "We wanted to stay for a whole month. The shopping and all the halal restaurants were amazing."

The coming months will pose a dilemma, however. The Edmond house has gone on the market and while Baraheen would be happy to stay the rest of her life in Oklahoma, she is contemplating returning to New York because of her mother's ill health. If Fahina is accepted at an east coast university, that will also give her a reason to move.

Baraheen says: "It is not painful going to New York any more, it gives me the sweetest feeling thinking of the places we used to go.

"I do not feel the memories are suffocating or torturing me. I am much stronger than before."

Fahina says she often thinks of the sacrifices her father made to give her and Farqad a better life: "He was a waiter but there was so much more to him than that.

"He knew in Bangladesh he would have a really good lifestyle but he moved here because this is the best place to have a family and raise children. It is my responsibility to deliver that emotion to Farqad and tell him what I knew about my dad otherwise he will never have an idea."

For Baraheen, a life she never predicted has meant re-appraising the American dream that brought her husband to the US in the first place. "This is my home now," she says. "I cannot imagine moving back to Bangladesh. America is my home and the dream is my children."

tyaqoob@thenational.ae