x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

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

Two days after losing her husband in the 9/11 attack, Baraheen Ashrafi gave birth to his son. Tahira Yaqoob reports from Oklahoma with a widow's tale of a lifetime of happiness cut short, and what keeps her going.

Baraheen Ashrafi poses for a portrait with a family photo of her husband Mohammed Salahuddin Chowdhury and daughter Fahina at her home in Edmond, Oklahoma. Mohammed was killed on 9/11 while working at Windows on the World restaurant in the World Trade Center.
Baraheen Ashrafi poses for a portrait with a family photo of her husband Mohammed Salahuddin Chowdhury and daughter Fahina at her home in Edmond, Oklahoma. Mohammed was killed on 9/11 while working at Windows on the World restaurant in the World Trade Center.

A dizzying quarter mile high in the sky, the New Year staff party at Windows on the World was a night to remember. To a spectacular backdrop of Manhattan at night, the celebrations at the restaurant atop the World Trade Center went on into the early hours.

Five-year-old Fahina Chowdhury tugged on her parents' hands, begging them to dance with her. Her father, Mohammed Chowdhury, laughingly obliged and let himself be dragged onto the dance floor with 200 other revellers, swinging the excitable little girl as his wife Baraheen Ashrafi, newly pregnant, looked on indulgently.

Back home in bed, he put a protective hand on his wife's belly. "Hey my son, how are you doing?" he whispered to Ashrafi's stomach. "Are you ready to play soccer with your dad yet?"

"What if it's not a boy?" fretted his wife. "I'm worried you will be upset."

"It doesn't matter, I just want a healthy baby," her husband reassured her. "But as I already have a daughter, I would love a son - it would make me the happiest person in the world."

His prediction of a baby boy came true. But Mohammed never set his eyes on the boy he longed for. Eight months after that party, he made his way to Windows on the World for the very last time.

He should not even have been at work that day. His unborn child was due by caesarean section on September 3 and he had booked two weeks' leave from that date, then cancelled it after a doctor decided to delay the birth. So on September 11, 2001, the 38-year-old waiter headed to work as usual for a 6am start at the 106th floor restaurant.

He was nearly three hours into his shift and counting the hours until he could go home, anxious about the baby due at any moment, when American Airlines Flight 11 ripped into the floors below.

As the fires raged, Mohammed found himself one of the 1,344 people trapped above the point of impact, unable to escape after the lifts were destroyed and the stairways blocked. Not one survived when the building collapsed at 10.28am.

His wife, still reeling in shock when she gave birth two days later, found herself suddenly propelled into the international spotlight. For not only was her husband one of 59 Muslim victims killed in the attacks that day, but her son Farqad was the first of more than 100 babies born to September 11 widows.

The 8lb 11oz new arrival at Flushing Hospital in New York was oblivious to the significance of his birth, and to the way his long lashes, so reminiscent of his father, tore at his mother's heart every time she gazed down at him.

To many though, he was a symbol of the hope of those new mothers, bereft of the husbands who would never know their newborns.

For Baraheen Ashrafi, consumed with grief, it marked the end of a dream that had brought her and her husband to America in the first place.

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September 11 is remembered as the greatest atrocity on American soil in our lifetime, an event that shook America into wars in Afghanistan and later Iraq, and ultimately changed the world. It brought West and East, Muslims and non-Muslims on a collision course from which the world is still reeling today. But the story of Baraheen Ashrafi, a devout Muslim, offers a stark reminder of how the day of infamy affected everyone - Christians, Jews, and Muslims too.

Ten years on, Ashrafi has relived those tragic moments many, many times.

When I spent several days with her at the secluded gated compound where she now lives in Edmond, Oklahoma, surrounded by green fields, several TV crews had already traipsed through in the previous weeks, while the phone rang with requests for interviews. The mother, who values her privacy and moved to middle America for anonymity, acceded to them all.

Baraheen, now 39, has an almost childlike openness and generosity, mirrored in her two children, now 15 and nine. Even though I am a stranger, she insists I stay for iftar two nights in a row and prepares a banquet each night.

Her immaculate five-bedroomed sprawling house is beautifully decorated with rococo-style furniture, paintings, floral silk arrangements and tones of cream, gold and taupe.

It is an oasis of serenity. It has to be. As she says: "My whole world is this home and my two children."

She rarely leaves its four walls, other than to run errands or drive the children to school or outings. Instead, the world comes to her to hear her relive painful memories. But she never says no; it is not in her nature.

She talks without reserve, laughing aloud at recollections of her naivety and childishness when she got married at 19. Her accented English is halting as she struggles to find the right words to express herself. And she becomes choked, tears streaming down her face, when she describes losing her husband and all he has missed since his death.

"He wanted a son but he never got to see him," she sobs.

What resonates is the enormous respect and love she still holds for the husband she lost at 29 and whose aspirations for his children to be "good, honest, humble and academically successful" are the mantra she lives her life by.

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In many ways, Mohammed Salahuddin Chowdhury was the epitome of the American dream. Aspirational, hardworking and ambitious, he believed that America was the land of opportunities and New York the city of endless possibilities. "Coming to America had been his dream since he was a child. He loved the country," says his widow.

As much as life has evolved for her and the two children, a part of her still clings to the past. Pictures of her husband, which Farqad often kisses before he goes to bed, fill every shelf and open space and Ashrafi says she wants to "die as his wife".

The couple, both Bangladeshi, met for the first time on their wedding day, a four-day extravaganza at the High Court in the capital, Dhaka, in June 1992.

Mohammed, the son of a tea garden manager and one of nine siblings, had earned a master's in physics from Jahangirnagar University in Dhaka and moved to the US in 1987 after the death of his parents.

Despite his qualifications, he worked in a string of restaurants to save enough money for his future family.

Baraheen had never imagined a life outside Bangladesh. She came from a privileged background - her father Dewan Abu Mansoor Sairuzzaman was one of six deputy attorneys general governing the country while her grandfather, Dewan Mohammad Azraf, was a renowned philosopher and advocate of women's rights. As the eldest of four sisters, she led a cosseted life, attending the prestigious Viqarunnisa Noon private girls' school, and had a cook and maid on hand at the family mansion.

It was made clear to Baraheen that she would be expected to marry young, as her father was suffering from the lung disease emphysema and did not have long to live.

"I grew up in a very conservative family. My parents were very strict but I just wanted whatever made them happy," she says. "I told my mother: 'Just make sure you find someone handsome'."

Of her suitors, it was Mohammed - introduced through her cousin, his brother-in-law - who impressed her parents with his promise of a good life in America.

Baraheen was not allowed to see or speak to him before the wedding, although she was shown a photograph by his sisters. She took her first peek at the 29-year-old chiselled, handsome stranger when, with head bowed and trembling with nerves, she was brought to sit alongside him wearing the red and green sari he had bought her, quickly averting her eyes when he met her gaze.

"People were looking at me so I was too shy to stare at him - but he looked amazing," she says. "At the time I was thinking looks did not matter, I was more worried about his character."

With her only knowledge of the United States based on Hollywood films that she had seen, she was terrified he would have bad traits like drinking or gambling: "I just prayed to God for an honest person in my life."

She was relieved to find that he was traditional and wanted a bride from the same background.

He returned to New York two months after the wedding and she finally got a visa to join him in April 1993, the first time she had ever been abroad. "I was excited to be with my husband again," she recalls.

They had their first official date four days later - when he took her to the New York International Auto Show. There is a photograph in one of the family albums of a beaming Mohammed standing in front of a sports car as Baraheen scowls next to him.

"It was so boring - like torture," she exclaims at the memory 18 years on. "He had an obsession with cars but I was not interested at all."

In those early days though, the couple were still discovering each other's likes and dislikes. Baraheen admits she struggled at first. Barely more than a teenager, she had never cooked in her life and suddenly found herself caring for a husband she did not know and two of his nephews in their three-bedroomed apartment in Astoria, Queens.

She says: "After I moved to New York, everything was frustrating. I had to learn to do everything by myself - cooking, cleaning, caring for my husband, learning about him - it was very overwhelming for me."

Aside from household chores, though, life was happy and carefree. Her husband took her on trips to theme parks, tours of the city and for meals in Jackson Heights where "with all the Indian, Bengali and Pakistani people, it felt like home".

Love, she says, came quickly on the heels of marriage.

"When I moved to New York, I found out that my husband was a very simple, honest, sincere man. I was lucky to have someone like him in my life."

Mohammed was keen to start a family immediately but Baraheen asked him to wait, so that they could get to know each other better.

When she fell pregnant two years later, the couple moved to Baltimore - Mohammed investing in a new Toyota Corolla because he could not bear the thought of his child riding in an old car. Fahina was born in October 1995.

He took on the role of devoted father, even changing her nappies when Baraheen baulked at the task. She, though, worried that he was spoiling their daughter but he pleaded: 'Don't be too strict with her, it hurts me.'"

At three years old, he took the toddler to Boston and pointed out Harvard University, urging her to aim high. "She was too young to know about all those things but he had a big dream for her to be successful in life," Baraheen remembers. A devout Muslim, he gently encouraged his wife to pray five times a day like him, particularly after her father's death in May 1997.

"I did not wear a hijab back then and he never told me to, but I was crying all the time and was worried about my mother," she says. "He said I would never find peace if I did not pray five times a day. After that, I started and it gave me mental peace."

Mohammed, too, was craving his own security blanket. "His heart was crying out for New York," she says. "He said it was the city that never sleeps. It was where he felt at home, always full of excitement."

So in 1998 they moved again, this time to Woodside, Queens, and Chowdhury landed his job at the prestigious Windows on the World restaurant in the World Trade Center, where he earned US$80,000-plus a year with tips. With Fahina in school, Baraheen got a job as a bank cashier.

She gave up work shortly before the couple enjoyed their last holiday together in October 2000 visiting their families in Bangladesh, stopping en route in Dubai for five days.

Baraheen recalls: "Dubai was amazing. It was a mixture of being westernised and feeling like home. I said next time we would come back to visit the places we missed - but we never got to."

The pair agreed to try for another baby on their return to the US in December and Baraheen fell pregnant immediately, to the joy of her husband. A fervent basketball and football fan, he was convinced the baby would be a boy. Every time Farqad kicked, he would say triumphantly: "See, my son is ready to play soccer with me."

Meanwhile, the couple made plans to buy a bigger family home on Long Island and for Mohammed to complete a computing course he had begun at Long Island University. "The money he was earning was really good but he was not happy about being a waiter because he wanted a more satisfying job," Baraheen says.

•••

Farqad was due on September 3 but doctors felt his head was not in the right position and sent Baraheen home. Unable to resist, she secretly asked the baby's sex but decided not to tell her husband: "I thought I would wait to see the face of the happiest person in the world. Who knew he would never get a chance to know him?"

On the night of September 10, Mohammed showered and prayed after returning from work, then tucked into his favourite fish and lima beans curry. "The way you cook now reminds me of my mother's cooking," he praised his beaming wife.

They went to bed early and, setting his alarm, he promised that the daily grind of early nights and mornings would soon be over.

When his alarm went off at 4.30am, they prayed together. Chowdhury went to kiss Fahina before leaving for work and she woke instantly, snuggling into his chest and making him promise to take her to Chuck E Cheese when he got back. He kissed his wife as he walked out, urging her to call his mobile and pager with any medical emergency. She never spoke to him again.

Later that morning as she walked Fahina to school, Baraheen experienced the strangest sensation in her stomach: "I felt like something was going up and down in my belly."

She lay down to recover on her return but was woken by her sister calling, asking where her husband was. "At work," she replied, baffled. Her sister screamed and told her to turn on the television. "Every channel was showing the Twin Towers collapsing," she says. "I was seeing it but could not accept it was real. I thought it must be a movie."

Even now, when she describes the excruciating hours and days that followed, they take on the surreal quality of someone looking in from the outside. The details are not precise; there is only a growing sense of horror.

"There was hope - I thought if he got a chance, he would try to escape from there," she sobs. "I was in denial and thought no matter what, I cannot lose hope that he will come."

With her blood pressure soaring, she was admitted to Flushing Hospital early on September 13. Even as she was being wheeled into the operating theatre, she was calling his number.

"It never entered my mind that he would never come home again," she says.

She remembers little about the Caesarean as "my mental pain was so loaded, I could not feel the physical".

But she does recall the moment she first held Farqad - whose name, meaning star, was chosen by his father - in her arms. "He looked exactly like his father - his eyes, everything," she says, tears streaming.

"I held him in my arms and said: 'We planned to see you together and now I have to see you all by myself. I hope he comes home safe so we can enjoy looking at you together.'"

This article continues tomorrow with part 2: Moving to Oklahoma.

tyaqoob@thenational.ae