For Youth, Sept. 11 Changed Lives


Sept. 11, 2011

by Jess Bidgood

Edward Chao stands in front of Ballou Hall at Tufts University. In December, he'll commission after four years in the ROTC program. He expects to go to Afghanistan. (Jess Bidgood/WGBH)

BOSTON — Ten years ago, children and young teenagers around the country had never experienced their nation attacked or even seriously threatened, and they struggled to understand what was happening on Sept. 11, 2001.
For his eleventh birthday in August 2001, Chris Golden and his family traveled from their home in Connecticut to New York, so Chris could see the Statue of Liberty and have lunch at the World Trade Center. Less than a month later, he learned it was gone.
“I think for my generation, millennials, Sept. 11 really was a defining moment. And it changed the course of our generation like no other event has,” Golden said.

Chris Golden is seen in Washington, D.C. (Courtesy)

On that day, nobody told Edward Chao what was happening. He’s at Tufts University now, but back then he lived in California.
“I remember that it was a little bit weird because our teacher was specifically told not to turn on the TV and not to talk about what had been going on,” Chao said. “So it was just kind of like, a lot of weird chatter. We didn’t really know what was going on at the time.”
Sarmad Maarij was on the other side of the world, playing soccer in a garage in Baghdad. Today, he lives in Worcester, Mass.
”From what I’ve seen that day, I see the burning of the building. I even saw people jumping. So I felt sad and shocked. And I thought, that shouldn’t happen. Why was it happening?” Maarij wondered.
Millennials are roughly defined as those between ages 18 and 29. September 11 jolted many American millennials to an awareness national vulnerability. They would come of age in a country trying to shore itself up against it. And that was felt by youth around the world. Chris, Ed and Sarmad are just three of the many young adults whose lives changed course because of that day -- three stories from a generation still writing its Sept. 11 narrative.
Chris Golden is 22 and lives in Washington, D.C. today.
In 2008, on the seventh anniversary of 9/11, he saw then-presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain speak about the importance of national service. Along with a friend, he decided to found a website,
“We’ve created an online platform for volunteers, ordinary people, to record, track and share what they’re doing to make a difference in their communities on a daily basis,” Golden said.
Golden was inspired by the service the country saw on Sept. 11.
“The heroes of 9/11 were really ordinary people. They were just going to work, they were just doing their jobs, they were just passengers on a plane. Yet they responded in ways that made them heroes, that made them leaders,” Golden said. “And I think that is something that is one of my biggest takeaways from the 10 years of 9/11.  The power that we have, that each one of us have as citizens.”
The sun is setting over the campus at Tufts University, and senior Edward Chao sits overlooking the President’s Lawn. When school is in session and it's warm, the lawn is covered with students studying and socializing. As a member of ROTC, Chao has experienced school a little differently from most of his peers.
“I will be receiving my commission in December. Right now, I’m kind of undergoing a process trying to see what specialization I’ll get,” Chao said.
So his life will be inexorably connected to Sept. 11.
“It will certainly affect my life because we’re in Afghanistan right now. I expect to go to Afghanistan and that’ll be probably one of the more defining moments of my post-college career and possibly something that’ll probably stick with me for the rest of my life,” Chao said.
Chao always thought he might join the military. Many of his family members served in the Taiwanese army. But in high school, something happened that helped Chao confirm his decision to join the military.
“I remember reading about the abuses at Abu Ghraib. I remember thinking that if we had better, more intelligent, more ethical leaders, it probably wouldn’t have happened,” Chao said.
He felt like he could do a better job. “That’s something that definitely kind of stirred something within me. If you’re there and you can be there to instill more discipline and ethics, you would have made a difference,” Chao said.
Chao will know by the end of this year where he’ll be stationed. He knows he’ll probably lead a 32-man platoon.

Sarmad Maarij is seen after his high-school graduation with his younger brother, Adam. (Courtesy)

The impact of the military response to Sept. 11 on another young life is evident  in a small apartment in Worcester, Massachusetts, where Sarmad Maarij is getting ready to go to college. He lived in Baghdad on Sept. 11, where his father owned a jewelry workshop and his mother was a teacher.
“Sept 11 triggered the wars, the war on terrorism. One was the war in Iraq. 2003. So after that, the whole country was chaos,” Maarij said.
Maarij and his family are Mandaeans – a small, Gnostic religion that originated thousands of years ago in the Levant. When Americans invaded, Maarij says local extremists turned on the members of a religion that had long been viewed as outsiders.
”My whole community, Mandaeans, was threatened and discriminated against. We didn’t get involved in any of the war that is going on inside or out,” Maarij explained.
“So they saw us as outsiders and they said, the terrorists and the extremists, either help us fight with us, or leave. So since we didn’t do any, they tried to kidnap me for a ransom. I luckily got away, but I got shot,” Maarij said.
Maarij fled Iraq with his two brothers and his parents, shortly before a truck bomb exploded in their neighborhood, killing one of Maarij’s childhood friends. They settled temporarily in Jordan, where he says they lived as refugees, without the right to study in public schools or the right to work. Still a young teenager, he looked for an underground job.
“I just didn’t know what I was going to do from now on. There was a period where I was lost, I didn’t know what was going to happen. Because the situation back in Iraq wasn’t going to get any better. And it didn’t it was just total chaos," Maarij said. "For a time, I studied on my own. I had to stay home so I watched TV and learned English.
After four and a half years, one of which Maarij was able to spend in a private school, an Iraqi veterinarian who left Iraq in the 1990s helped the family apply to come live in the United States. Dr. Wisam Breegi, who lived in Boston, wanted to re-establish a community of Mandaeans in Worcester. Today, there are about 500 Iraqi Mandaeans living there.
”It’s always a new community that is just starting. It’s new people that coming in, they’re still learning. For some, adapting is not easy as it is for others. So it’s an ongoing process,” Maarij said.
Maarij and his family often wonder what their lives would have been like if they hadn’t had to leave their country. He been a top student in Iraq, but struggled to get his English up to speed in the United States. It’s been hard for his parents to find employment – his father works at Fed Ex today.
But as Sarmad settles into his new dorm at UMass Amherst, getting ready to major in physics and perhaps someday earn a Ph. D, he’s relieved.
“After the war I just did not think I’d be able to get back on track and get back into higher education. So getting into college here is a goal that I struggled a lot to accomplish,” Maarij said.
His whole family will be eligible for citizenship in a few years. They don’t know if they’ll ever be able to go back to Iraq.
“But I am here. And that’s, things brought me here, and I’m happy that I’m here. I’m not regretting anything. I don’t wish for things to be changed. Things are already happened. Whether good or bad. It’s what happens,” Maarij said.

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