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South Asian Americans reflect on 9/11 20 years later

By Louis Chan, AsAmNews National Correspondent

Sruti Suryanarayanan expected to leave for kindergarten when terrorists attacked the World Trade Center Towers in New York in 2001. The then four year old still has vivid memories likely shaped by mom and dad.

“It was clear in my parents reactions and their bodily presence that things were off,” Suryanarayanan said during an interview over Zoom.

Zahra Billoo remembers being in bed when her dad woke her with an urgent phone call.

“‘What are your plans today? Stay in door,'” her dad warned. “He was concerned about what would happen,” she said during a phone interview.

Two young people on opposite ends of the country talked about the impact of September 11th on themselves and their communities with AsAmNews days before the 20th anniversary of that horrendous invasion.

Suryanarayanan is a queer Indian American who uses the pronouns “they, them, their” and is now working for the advocacy group South Asian Americans Leading Together. Billoo is a Muslim American and executive director of the San Francisco Bay Area chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations.

Billoo took her dad’s advice and didn’t attend school at Long Beach State University in California that day. She did, however, decide to go the next unsure of whether she should change her regular attire.

“I was wearing a head scarf. What was I supposed to wear to communicate that I was American,” she wondered. She admits going to school fearing that somehow she would be faulted for what happened.

It was only six years earlier when a White domestic terrorists bombed the Oklahoma City federal building, but authorities focused their early suspicion on Muslims.

“As Americans we were attacked on 9/11. As Muslims we were attacked on 9-12.”

Just three days later, Balbir Singh Sodhi, a gas station owner in Mesa, Arizona died because he looked Muslim. He wore a turban and beard in accordance with his Sikh faith.

Frank Silva Roque, who had told a waiter that he would go out and shoot some “towel heads,” shot and killed Sodhi as he planted flowers in front of his gas station on September 15th.

It was the first in a long line of hate crimes targeting Arabs, Middle Easterners, Muslims and South Asian American after 9/11.

Suryanarayanan grew up in a town in New Jersey with a strong Desi and East Asian presence. It didn’t take they long to realize things would be different.

Someone saw Sruti’s mom with a bindi and called her a “dot head.”

“I think their were incidents as a kid, when my parents experienced racism, they would say well, we’re not Muslim. Now I understand the issue just wasn’t racism , that there was Islamphobia. That’s something we had to learn on our own,” they said.

For the larger AMEMSA community (Arab, Middle Eastern, Muslim and South Asian American), that hate has been wide ranging, according to Billoo. She believes it’s seen at airports when AMEMSA members undergo extra security. She felt it again when former President Trump proposed a Muslim registry. The added surveillance of community members under the Patriot Act and the global expansion of the war on terror are two more examples, she said.

Despite all that, both Billoo and Suryanarayanan see hope while remaining realistic that their communities have much to overcome.

“Yes, we recognize we survived and we are resilient. That doesn’t stop the fact that we loss so many community members. Tomorrow is meant to be about the community, which can be joy and mourning and solidarity and loss,” Suryanarayanan said.

Billoo plans to remember September 11 at a multi-faith picnic organized by American Muslim Voice in Palo Alto, CA.

Protest against Muslim ban in San Jose
Photo from New American Media

“I find hope in the strength of the Muslim community and allyship in so many others – to see the Japanese American community step up the way it did and immediately offer their support based on their own experiences” (in incarceration camps) gave her hope.

“There’s more intersectionality happening. There’s more Muslims running for office and using every tool at their disposal to have influence-whether its advocating for better outcomes for themselves or for others.”

Suryanarayanan will attend a number of commemorative events being held on September 10 being organized by SAALT. A mini-docuseries and interactive digital exhibition are being held in New York coupled with an event of South Asian American storytellers. The day will end with Friday prayer.

“There’s a lot of solidarity with AMEMSA and the larger Asian American communities because of what 9/11 forced our communities to go through, they said. “We should think about the fact the leaders, the siblings in our community that will be guiding us next 20 years don’t know a life pre-9/11. Its important to understand the way they see systems and biases and move accordingly and grant them change making capacity. Listen to our youth who grew up the blunt of growing up in 9/11. We owe it to the to center them in all of our changemaking.”

 AsAmNews has Asian America in its heart. We’re an all-volunteer effort of dedicated staff and interns. Check out our new Instagram account. Go to our Twitter feed and Facebook page for more content. Please consider interning, joining our staff, or submitting a story or making a contribution


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