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Saved by Jewish man on 9/11, Pakistani Muslim reaches out

'Brother ... grab my hand, let's get the hell out of here'

Usman Farman
Farman: "I've been in some pretty bad situations in my life, but I don't think anything will ever top this. Nor would I expect it to."  


By Greg Botelho
CNN

NEW YORK (CNN) -- Usman Farman lay flat on his back, expecting the glass, steel and concrete to overtake him.

A Pakistani by birth and Muslim by faith, Farman was just a recent college graduate going to work when his PATH train pulled into the World Trade Center stop shortly before 9 a.m. September 11. The ensuing events landed him on the ground as the South Tower fell blocks away in a sudden, violent fury.

His story might have ended there. But a Hasidic Jewish man broke from the fleeing mob, approached him, read the Muslim prayer engraved in Arabic on a pendant around Farman's neck, then extended his hand.

"Brother, if you don't mind, there is a cloud of glass coming at us, grab my hand, let's get the hell out of here," the man said in a thick New York accent, according to Farman.

In the days after the terrorist attacks, Farman took it upon himself to reach out. He fired off an emotional e-mail missive to friends and Dr. Joseph Morone, president of his alma mater, Bentley College.

"As I found out, regardless of who we are, and where we come from, we only have each other," wrote Farman.

Farman, who has been unable to find his rescuer, says he hopes his experience will impel others to think of people first as humans before labeling them by race, ethnicity or creed, instead of acting out in anger based on stereotypes.

Michael Miller, head of an umbrella organization of Jewish groups in New York, concurs. Farman's tale, he says, is not just about a Jew saving a Muslim; it's about one man saving another in one of the most diverse, toughest cities in the world.

"That's a New York story: New Yorkers helping other New Yorkers in tragedy and distress," says Miller, executive vice president for the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York.

'I'm just petrified'

Pendant
Farman displays a pendant inscribed with a passage from the Koran in Arabic. He says the Jewish man who helped him on September 11 examined the pendant before helping him up.  

Farman, 22, has called many places home, including Hong Kong, Singapore and Indonesia, learning to take most any disturbance or noise in stride. So he thought little of the "boom" and material falling outside while he waited in the 7 World Trade Center lobby.

"I thought the scaffolding had fallen over," he said. "Then people started running around in the lobby and I'm thinking ... I love New York, but you have to learn to relax."

Undeterred, Farman hopped in the elevator, where he talked with a co-worker about the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. The hype in the lobby, he said, reminded him of the tension he felt flying directly from Pakistan to New York days after that attack.

Farman got off on the 27th floor and looked out the window at the flaming hole in the adjacent North Tower. It still didn't register, says Farman, until he picked up his phone and heard his mom sobbing. A blast then rattled the South Tower as Farman looked down on the plaza -- where he often ate lunch -- covered in ash, debris and bodies.

At an executive's prodding, Farman headed for the stairs and reached the street. Amidst a throng of people, he stood stupefied a block from the towers as the flames roared, sirens wailed and helicopters buzzed. Then, the ground began to rumble. Farman ran around the corner and saw a mammoth cloud of smoke. The South Tower was falling.

He ran north with hundreds of others. Several blocks from the World Trade Center, he tripped over his own feet and fell to the ground.

"I'm just petrified. I'm just like, I'm a goner," said Farman, recalling his thoughts at that moment. "I see the things come down. I think that I'm going to end up in the remains of the [South Tower]."

Then the Hasidic Jewish man helped Farman get up "and we just ran for dear life." Somewhere along the way, they got separated and they have not seen one another since.

Reaching out

Farman said it took him several days to realize the larger social and political ramifications of the attacks. But when he heard of Arabs and Muslims being harassed and assaulted in the United States, he felt compelled to act.

The e-mail was the first step. Morone, who knew Farman as "a great kid" and student leader from his four years at Bentley, promptly forwarded the note to 4,000 students, 1,000 faculty and staff members and scores of alumni.

Memorial
Like many college campuses around the United States, there were many September 11 memorials, like this one on the Bentley University campus, as well as reminders of the school's international community.  

"It was such a moving message -- I was astounded the extent to which it touched a lot of issues," said Morone. "Once we got past the obvious need to support the people who had been affected personally ... we knew we had to reach out to the Arab community."

Having left Bentley in May, and with many friends still on campus, Farman was well aware of the school's 559 students from 44 nations -- particularly the 114 from predominantly Muslim countries. On the Friday after the attacks, he drove to Massachusetts and addressed several hundred people at a September 11 service on campus of the suburban Boston school.

"It was really a plea for reaching out: He felt compelled to do everything he could having survived this," says Morone. "He was trembling -- partly because he was still in shock, partly because he felt so passionately. [His speech] had a big impact. It touched us all."

Morone said many Arab students' parents urged their children to head home fearing violence after September 11, and several asked Bentley President Joseph Morone to set up Middle East satellite campuses when he visited Bahrain and Kuwait in the subsequent months. But the situation improved, he says: Of the 14 Arab students who withdrew from Bentley after the attacks, 13 returned that spring.

A unique perspective

The horrific memories -- three people holding hands as they plummeted 100 stories, the ground shaking before the South Tower fell, the distinct hissing sound as glass and debris rained down on the streets below -- have grown increasingly distant for Farman. His concerns now are more immediate: getting a job, talking with friends, enjoying every day he can.

September 11 and the subsequent war on terror did not dilute his political views. Farman questions U.S. policy in the Middle East, mass detentions of immigrants and profiling by authorities. He does not doubt -- like some of his international friends -- the hijackers were Muslim extremists, the need for a security crackdown or the attacks' importance to him.

"Everyone had, for the most part, a sense that 'I can't believe this is happening, but it's not happening to me," said Farman of his Arab, European and other friends after the terror attacks.

And Farman says his post-September 11 struggle differs from that of the average American. He believes his ethnicity and religion may have hurt the efforts of him and his father to find new jobs. Farman was laid off from his job and his father was fired. And Farman says he still battles the perception that some Americans look at him and approach him differently because of his background.

But Farman says he also believes in human decency, in goodness. His brush with death the morning of September 11 -- and being helped the way he was -- reinforced this belief. The words he used to end the e-mail sent in the wake of the attacks still resonate:

"I am Pakistani, and I am Muslim, and I too have been victimized by this awful tragedy. The next time you feel angry about this, and perhaps want to retaliate in your own way, please remember these words:

"'Brother, if you don't mind, there is a cloud of glass coming at us, grab my hand, let's get the hell out of here.'"

NOTE: If you have any information on the Hasidic Jewish man who helped Farman on September 11, please e-mail CNN at 911heroes@cnn.com.



 
 
 
 


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