x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

UAE-based Americans recall New York's darkest day

New Yorkers who were in the Big Apple during the September 11 terrorist attacks say they want to fight prejudice here and in the US.

James Ruiz saw the aftermath of the 9/11 attack.
James Ruiz saw the aftermath of the 9/11 attack.

DUBAI // The rowdy trading floor in New York City fell silent as Alison Burrows and hundreds of her colleagues stared at footage of the September 11 terrorist attacks.

"Nobody really knew what to do. Everybody was just really quiet, kind of just staring at the TV," said Ms Burrows, who is now a teacher in Dubai.

For New Yorkers like her, reacting to the momentous terrorist attacks may feel just as difficult today as it did a decade ago.

Many of them described a stunned silence, an eerie quiet that came over the normally bustling city. Soon afterwards came what they called another unusual phenomenon for New York - an outpouring of solidarity, as people expressed their need to help by donating blood and goods. That spirit of unity then diffused in many directions - fear, anger, intolerance, anger at the intolerance and drastic life changes.

The fear that pervaded that day still lingers, said Jae Hwang, a marketing professional who moved to Dubai in 2007. The idea that America could come under attack had not seemed real before.

"It leaves a lasting impression," he said.

When his office closed the day after the planes crashed into the World Trade Center, Mr Hwang made his way up to the hotel his father managed. He spent most of the day waiting around as his father oversaw the many guests, while he chatted with passersby.

Though pedestrians tried to help one another and share information, many of them simply wore expressions of disbelief and horror, he said.

"The whole energy of New York was punched in its gut. You had this eerie calmness."

Mr Hwang worried that more buildings might be attacked, including the Empire State Building nearby.

In the evening, as he headed for the ferry back to his home in New Jersey, he saw men from the National Guard carrying automatic weapons, and New York police in full gear - another unusual sight.

"Everyone was armed," he said.

Still, people were calm, he said, waiting almost an hour for a bus when normally they might have lost patience.

James Ruiz, a banker who came to the UAE in 2008, shared in that silent solidarity when he returned to New York a few days after the attack. He had come from a business trip on the west coast, after taking a car nearly 300 kilometres to the nearest airport that was offering flights. As the plane prepared to land, it passed the spot where the World Trade Center towers had stood. Smoke was still billowing upwards.

"As soon as we could see it, you could hear the gasp," he said. "The plane was so deathly quiet."

Even as that quiet lifted, the sense of solidarity remained.

Yet intolerance and Islamophobia started to take root, and both persist, he said. "It's sad to me that time has gone by but prejudices have remained."

He became the target in a mild incident once, on a flight a few weeks after the attacks. Passengers seemed to view him with suspicion, apparently because of his dark skin.

Afterward, they apologised to him for staring, he said.

Ms Burrows, a stock trader at the time, saw the us-against-them attitudes grow as well. People would jokingly call others "Taliban". Others channelled their anger into calls for war.

"That was always the topic of conversation - when are we going to invade?" she said.

The attacks prompted her to quit her job and pursue her passion - teaching children - and in particular to teach tolerance and multiculturalism. She pursued a master's degree in education and in 2009 moved to the UAE. Her new school year will begin on September 11, the 10-year anniversary of the terrorist attacks. People back home questioned her decision.

"So you're going to teach terrorist children," the cynics said to her.

But that is the attitude she hopes to counter through her students.

"I'd like to teach American children that not all Muslims are terrorists ... and I'd like to teach my children here about the good values that westerners have, and teach respect," she said. "I am an idealist."

chuang@thenational.ae