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For Muslim family, faith complicates grief for loved one lost on 9/11

By Jessica Ravitz, CNN
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Mohammad Salahuddin Chowdhury was one of 32 Muslim victims on 9/11
  • Chowdhury left behind a daughter and a pregnant wife
  • Chowdhury's son was born two days after the attacks
  • Family's faith made them targets, but it also inspires them to be faces of true Islam

Edmond, Oklahoma (CNN) -- His smiling image has been cut out of a snapshot and carefully added to a photo of his father, so it looks as if the boy is standing beside the man. It smacks of a bad Photoshop job, but it gives the two a shared moment, even though they never met.

The boy's sister, Fahina, created the montage. She is 15 and clings to scant memories and aging photographs. But Farqad, almost 10, has nothing.

She remembers sitting beside their father on amusement park rides, his words -- "Look at my daughter; she's so brave" -- soothing her nerves; she still thinks of him whenever she's on a rollercoaster. She leaned on his legs when he watched basketball on TV and imagined him cheering her on when she played the sport after he was gone. She recalls being driven to see Harvard University, before she even started elementary school, and dreams of attending an Ivy League school to make him proud.

On the morning of September 11, 2001, she woke up extra early on her own. After her father and mother finished saying morning prayers, the young girl took his face in her small hands and enlisted the promise of a Chuck E. Cheese visit. Father and daughter then kissed and said goodbye.

Farqad was born two days later, after terrorists hijacked planes and killed nearly 3,000 -- including 38-year-old Mohammad Salahuddin Chowdhury, who worked atop the North Tower of the World Trade Center.

The Windows on the World banquet server was a degreed physicist in his native Bangladesh and a U.S. citizen who aspired to do so much more in his adopted country. He kept a pager at hand that fateful morning, just in case his wife went into labor.

"I can't imagine not having any memories," said his firstborn, Fahina, unable to hold back her sobs. "Someday, Farqad's going to search online and see everything. I have to help him understand."

This teen's uber-sense of responsibility extends beyond what she believes she owes her brother. As a young woman whose father was killed by men who dared to say they shared her Islamic faith, Fahina feels an obligation to speak up, to be the face of her often-misunderstood religion -- even if she'd prefer not to be known for what she lost and how she lost it.

"For a Muslim person to go through this, it's something no one can understand," she said, the tears still falling. "Extremists used the religion as an excuse to do terrible things. It's so much easier to be mad at people than to get to know them."

Following an unmarked path

Reminders of that terrible day reverberate 1,300 miles from New York, inside a large, modern brick home on a quiet cul-de-sac just north of Oklahoma City.

From framed photographs scattered everywhere, Chowdhury's dark, gentle eyes and thick lashes peer out at the family he left behind. These were the eyes that captured Baraheen Ashrafi when she first met him at their wedding in Bangladesh nearly two decades ago. She wondered whether she was marrying a movie star.

Theirs was an arranged marriage, and what she got in the match was more than a man with good looks. He had lost his parents and cared about hers as if they were his own. He taught her the value of forgiveness, the beauty of Islam and the gifts that come with love. He told her that she was brought to him through prayers.

She laughs when she remembers how clueless she was in the kitchen when she joined him in his beloved New York -- a city she jokingly called "his homeland" -- and how he marveled at her culinary progress. Though he didn't find it funny, she giggles at the memory of putting lipstick on him while he slept and scooping his thick hair up into small ponytails. She smiles when mentioning the staring contests she made him play so he would look deeply into her eyes.

But Ashrafi breaks down when she recalls what he feared.

"He was very afraid of fire, very scared of burning," she said, describing his complaints after mere steam from hot tea once left a mark on his hand. "He was like a baby."

In the weeks after September 11, firefighters promised her that Chowdhury died from smoke inhalation before ever feeling a flame.

If there were a roadmap when it comes to grieving, the journey taken by Ashrafi and her children was unmarked.

She watched Muslim men, afraid to stand out, shave off their beards. Women removed their religious head coverings, known as hijabs. But even as she reeled from grief, Ashrafi somehow found the strength to respond differently.

Though she hadn't worn a hijab in public before, her faith ran deep, thanks to her husband. Two weeks after she lost him, she decided it was time to put on her hijab.

That made her a widow who couldn't count on the kindness of strangers. Her sadness was compounded by hate. Just months after the attacks, boys screamed "jihad!" at Ashrafi and a confused Fahina on a Manhattan street.

While other surviving parents struggled to explain September 11 to their children, Ashrafi faced an additional challenge: Fahina wanted to know why the TV said Muslims killed her daddy.

Chowdhury was one of 32 Muslim victims on September 11, according to the Council on American-Islamic Relations. That distinction has put Ashrafi and her children in the spotlight. Adding to the attention, Ashrafi says, is that Farqad is believed to be the first baby born to a September 11 widow. (CNN could not confirm this, but the boy came into this world the morning of September 13, 2001.)

As the 10-year anniversary of the terrorist attacks approaches, Ashrafi has fielded calls from around the world. A documentary unit from the United Kingdom visited their home. A reporter from Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates sought a sit-down visit. An Australian TV crew is scheduled to fly to Oklahoma this week.

He was in my heart to do good things, and he watches me.
--Farqad Chowdhury, born two days after his father died on 9/11

All of the attention appears to leave Farqad a little numb. He tears himself away from video games, flops down in a plush sitting room chair and rattles off words he can say but doesn't seem to fully feel.

Up until a few years ago, he'd heard only that his father died in an accident. He's still trying to get his head around the truth.

"My dad was in work, and the plane was crashing, and there was a fire there," he said, staring across the room at his mother. "Then my father died. Then I was born. I was born in New York."

Does he know who was behind what happened to his dad?

"A bad guy did it," he said, his eyes still locked on his mother.

"Do you know how many people were with your dad?" she asked.

"Lots," he answered. "Maybe 20?"

Completing his life

Ashrafi was walking back from Fahina's school when American Airlines Flight 11 slammed into the North Tower. She wouldn't get this news until later. But looking back, she realizes that was the moment she felt a surge rush through her belly.

She wasn't yet in labor, but the sensation stopped her. She focused on getting home to rest.

The sex of their second child was a secret she'd kept to herself. She'd known for only a few weeks, but in case the sonogram reading was wrong, she stayed mum.

Her husband had told her that having a son would complete his life. She couldn't wait to see his face when he met their boy.

"He told me he'd be the happiest man in the world," she said, crying. "I was dreaming how his face would be. ... Why did I not tell him?"

She was resting in bed when one of her sisters called to ask Ashrafi where her husband was. "At work," she answered, matter-of-factly. Her sister screamed.

Family and friends soon filled the Queens home. They kept Ashrafi away from the television because the late stages of pregnancy already had pushed her blood pressure too high.

Someone picked up Fahina from school. Just 5 at the time, she remembers seeing all the shoes outside their home's front door and struggling to understand the standing-room-only crowd inside.

Two days later, in the hospital, Ashrafi still expected Chowdhury to walk into the room. She clung to the far-fetched plotlines of romance films. He simply had amnesia and was wandering, lost, she told herself. With time, they'd find each other.

Her sisters surrounded her during a C-section deemed necessary by doctors given the circumstances. When they brought Farqad to her, she looked into the big dark eyes of her husband.

"Daddy wants that, too"

Before he could even speak, Farqad admired himself in mirrors.

"He was such a cute baby, and he knew it, too," Fahina said, flipping through photos.

Their father wasn't so different. Fahina points out pictures of him posing, often alone. For a time, when Farqad saw images of his father holding children, he would scream, "That's me!"

Later, the boy discovered the few pieces of Chowdhury's clothing that his mother had saved. After school, Farqad would change into a dark red T-shirt that dwarfed his small frame. Nowadays, his mother sometimes catches him saying good night to his father's photograph.

"He was in my heart to do good things, and he watches me," the boy said.

"If someone's mean to you? What do you say?" his mother asked. "What does mommy tell you?"

He peers at her and shrugs.

"To be nice to people," she told him.

"I don't want to be nice to mean people," he said.

She smiles. "But that's the way they'll learn to be nice. And Daddy wants that, too."

This was a lesson she says her husband exemplified. She tries to live it herself.

When a man behind her in a Wal-Mart checkout line muttered something about Muslims, she didn't flinch. She felt sorry for the boys who pelted her car with soda cans while screaming "Hey, Muslim!" And she shook off the sting after a woman in a wheelchair, struggling to reach an item on a grocery store shelf, refused Ashrafi's offer of assistance.

"I don't want any help from a Muslim," the woman snapped.

The truth is, she can handle occasional insults in Oklahoma. She couldn't bear them in New York, where everywhere she turned, she was reminded of what was gone.

She and the children moved away in 2002, opting for a simpler, more affordable life near one of her sisters.

Ashrafi says she had to start anew, even if she still cleaves to the past.

Sacrifices and dreams

Ashrafi's focus narrowed after September 11.

"My whole world is this house and my kids," she says. "God chose me to be given these two kids and for me to raise them on my own. ... I want to enjoy every moment with them."

She has no plans to return to her job in a bank. She rarely socializes beyond her family. At 39, she vows to die Chowdhury's wife.

So when people, including family members, tell her they're praying she'll meet someone, she shoots back, "Please don't pray that for me; that would be a curse!"

She lost her own father in 1997. Her mother, who moved in with Ashrafi and her kids for five years after September 11, often tells Ashrafi to do something for herself. Her response is to say that when Farqad goes to college, maybe she will go to school, too.

Her husband always told her she should be an interior designer. Her home is full of floral arrangements she created, unique decorative pieces she seized on sale and furnishings fit for a showroom.

Chowdhury planned to complete a degree in computer information systems. But with another child on the way, he hadn't yet walked away from the good money he was making at Windows on the World.

I still feel blessed. I'm just trying to make my dad proud.
--Fahina Chowdhury, who was 5 when her father died in the terror attacks

He envisioned great success for his offspring, and Ashrafi does, too. She boasts about their grades, has hired a tutor to help Farqad with his homework -- so she and Fahina don't have to be "the bad guys" -- and encourages her children to aim high.

Fahina, who wants to be a doctor, says she doesn't need to be prodded.

She sees her mother's sacrifices and knows her father worked as a waiter for them and not because that was his dream.

"I know if he was here, he'd be pushing me. So I try to push myself," she said. Even with all her family has endured, "I still feel blessed. I'm just trying to make my dad proud."

Honoring without ceremony

On September 11, Ashrafi and her kids will not join other victims' families in New York. They aren't drawn to large public ceremonies. They remember the anniversary every day, they say, and would rather continue doing so privately.

Fahina says she prays extra hard for her father on these anniversaries.

She is a young woman with faith beyond her years. Before she was 5, she swore off McDonald's. While other kids clamored for Happy Meals, she insisted on eating only meats certified as halal, acceptable according to Islamic law. By the time she was 9, she wanted to fast during Ramadan. She began praying at 11 and brings her prayer mat with her when she stays with friends.

Ashrafi takes great pride in the diversity that surrounds her children and in their open-mindedness. She loves that one of Fahina's best friends is Jewish, that she's grown up attending sleepovers with girls of all religious backgrounds and that her high school honors Fahina's upbringing, too.

When a fringe Florida pastor first threatened to burn the Quran during last year's September 11 anniversary, Fahina came to school to find classmates wearing green to honor Islam. On a student's Converse sneakers, she spotted the scrawled words "I love the Quran."

On September 11, Ashrafi says, prayers will be said for her husband in his brother's home in Bangladesh, as they are every year on this date. And just as she's done on each anniversary, Ashrafi will send money to Bangladesh to uphold a family tradition of honoring the dead by bringing food to orphanages. Chowdhury's brother will make the delivery.

Ashrafi does not attend a mosque. She says she finds all she needs in the confines of her home and in her Quran. But every Saturday, she sends her children to a small mosque to learn about the Quran and Islamic history.

Fahina feels a strong commitment to her religious education. She says she needs answers for the questions about her faith that she suspects she will face for a lifetime.

"Who knew it would never be filled"

Farqad is splayed across a sofa, fighting ninjas on his handheld gaming system. His mother and sister leaf through an old pink scrapbook, the one Ashrafi started when she began her life with Chowdhury.

The first pages, slightly yellowed, are a celebration of their wedding. Floral stickers frame a large picture taken during the ceremony.

She was so young, just shy of 20, when she met him that day.

She flips ahead to a page marking six months after their marriage, when she joined him in New York. A snapshot captures their first date in the big city. Her husband, who loved cars, took her to an auto show.

"How romantic!" Fahina said with a laugh, rolling her dark eyes.

Other pages mark their first anniversary. Ashrafi poses with her newborn daughter, and Chowdhury proudly holds his little girl.

Ashrafi turns toward the back of the book. The pages are blank. This is where she would have illustrated their "happily ever after," she says, the days when she and her husband would have celebrated the completion of their family with their newborn son.

"Who knew it would never be filled," she said quietly.

Hearing her words, Fahina cries again -- for what her mother lost, what she lost and what her brother never knew.

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