Inside the group’s sacred circle, a young Muslim visitor adjusts her salmon pink hijab, clears her throat and asks the question that could shatter trust:
“Do you think all Muslims are terrorists?”
It is a prevailing belief in her native Indonesia, she says, that Americans despise Islam.
The question is directed at 19-year-old Robbie Hayes, whose father was killed in the September 11 attacks on America.
“Not at all,” Hayes answers. “I have many friends who are Muslims. The people who were involved in killing my father were extreme radicals. Any group can have radicals who believe they are the only ones who are right. That’s when it becomes dangerous.”
9/11 Town Hall
Hayes tells the group he was too young to process everything that happened when he lost his father. He and his younger brother, Ryan, grew up in Amesbury, Massachusetts, and were the only two children in their community who were directly affected by the 2001 attacks.
“I was sort of like the oddity,” he says. “But when I came here, I felt like this was a place I belong.”
This is a camp for young people touched by terror, their lives interrupted and altered by a sudden and brutal force. Participants are the now-grown children of men and women who perished on September 11 and the loved ones of people across the globe whose lives were cut short by acts of violence.
There are 55 of them this year. They’ve come to the campus of Bryn Mawr College from more than a dozen countries separated by oceans and continents.
They come here because, like Robbie Hayes, they belong.
‘Don’t give up’
They are strong and fragile at once. They don’t want anyone’s pity.
They recoil every time there is news of another bombing, another massacre; in recent months, there have been so many. They weather each attack with empathy and wisdom. And a visceral desire to build a more peaceful world.
The camp is part of Project Common Bond, a program begun in 2008 to bring together young adults the world over who’ve lost a family member to terrorism, war and extreme acts of violence. The gathering unfolds over seven days in late July at this idyllic campus of majestic oaks and collegiate gothic. It’s a safe harbor, a place to escape the tensions of the world.
The participants admit plunging to a soul-shattering place of darkness before they clawed their way back to light, emerging as the teenagers and young adults they are today. Maybe it took many months. Maybe it took every single year of childhood. They learned it was OK to shed tears, to ask for help. They grew up much too fast, made wiser by the void in their lives.
Coming of Age in the Age of Terror
What can the 9/11 children teach us?
More than 3,000 children lost a parent on that awful day. Fifteen years later, in a world rocked by terror, this group has hard-won wisdom to share. Here, in their own words, is a glimpse into their journeys.The Palombo 10
First they lost their dad on 9/11. They were ages 11 months to 15. Then they lost their mom. Meet the Palombos: Anthony, Frank Jr., Joe, Maria, Tommy, John, Patrick, Daniel, Stephen and Maggie – a family that’s the epitome of true grit.Bound by terror: ‘I’ve got you’
She faced al Qaeda militants in a courtroom. He put Osama bin Laden’s image on a punching bag and let loose. She’s from France; he’s a “child” of 9/11. They’re two strangers who share a tragic bond: Each lost a father to terrorism.
They can never undo their loss, but at this camp, they find comfort among others who grew up like they did. The friendships forged here helped save them.
There is music, dance and art. Basketball, capture the flag and Outward Bound. But when they are asked to name their favorite activity, many choose the daily morning event that immediately follows food hall breakfasts of blueberry pancakes, bagels, eggs and bacon.
It’s called a dignity session for good reason.
In it, the campers disperse into small groups, sit facing one another in a circle and bare their hearts. They speak of the memories and moments that can trigger pain. They unearth their deepest fears and aspire to their highest hopes. They find it transcending.
An Israeli faces a Palestinian in the circle and says: “You killed my father.”
“I didn’t kill your father,” comes the response. “I’m so sorry that that happened to you. And we have to both figure out a way to stop this from going forward.”
In another session, a war-weary participant from the Middle East says: “I want to work for peace, but I don’t ever see it coming.”
“Don’t give up,” says a peer from Northern Ireland. “You know, we’ve gotten there. It’s not perfect; we didn’t think it was going happen but it did.”
Therapist Monica Meehan McNamara has led the dignity sessions for the last eight years and pushes participants to better understand one another by simply sharing their stories and seeing across cultural divides.
“How do we live our lives in a way that sets a different example?” she presses them.
“Getting to know the other begins to break down that cycle of anger and violence. It’s like, ‘Wow, if I understand you better, then I have to think differently about you. And, oh, you are also going to understand me.’ Those are powerful antidotes.”
These campers see themselves as normal young people, albeit with an extraordinary exception. They speak with a maturity beyond their age. Many were forced to take on adult responsibilities before they could even fully understand their loss.
Maggie Smith, 18, consoled her mother after Maggie’s father, Jeffrey, died in the south tower of the World Trade Center. “I would be the one to tell my mom to calm down and stop crying and count down from 10 so that by the time I got to zero, she would take some deep breaths and calm down.”
And she helped raise her younger sister Charlotte, who was only 10 months old in September 2001.
“To me, that forced me to step up in my household and forced me to kind of become the man of the house, I guess, just because I’m looking out for my sister and my mom.”
In this camp, the pain is still there, but there is no need to explain. Everyone feels the emptiness.
They long for Dad at graduation or at the baseball diamond or the after-dinner living room conversations during tough teenage years. They yearn for Mom on prom night. They wish they could feel her touch, hear her voice. What did it sound like? They try hard not to forget.
Javier Aparicio, 18, lost his mother, Nuria Aparicio, in the 2004 commuter train bombings in Madrid that killed 191 people.
“I always have that question: How would my life have changed by having a mother around? When I go to my friends’ houses, it’s so normal.”
About this series
Not a day goes by when they don’t feel a pit in their stomachs thinking about someone they cherish but never got to know. Time has yet to change that. It likely never will.
Their faces light up when asked: Do you try to make your parent proud all these years later? Their body language shifts from one of uncertainty to confidence.
Brendan Fitzpatrick, 17, shows off a bracelet that hugs his wrist: “Thomas J. Fitzpatrick 9-11-01 Daddy WTC IN MY HEART FOREVER.”
“I try to stay positive to keep everyone around me happy, because I want to be a light that shines and helps everyone else stay bright,” he says. “I try to live my life in a way that would make (my father) proud.”
He paints two tiles in art class. In one, the sun shines amid gray skies. In the other, the sun beams against blue skies.
“One is just a happy sky,” he says. “The other is dark and cloudy. But in both the sun shines through.”
The campers begin the week by engaging with each other on a very personal level and then stretch themselves to discuss the political. They yearn for an end to violence and bloodshed.
“It’s kind of disheartening to see that even after 15 years, there’s still acts of terror that go on all around the world,” says Pierce O’Hagan, 16, who was just over a year old when his father was killed.
Thomas O’Hagan, a New York City firefighter, climbed the stairs of the north tower of the World Trade Center that day. He gave his life to help others, a tragedy that motivates Pierce to aim high in life.
“I want him to be proud of me up in heaven,” he says. “Like kind of not let him die in vain. I want people to be like, ‘Oh, Tom O’Hagan’s kids, they were great. They did really well in school and they got into a great college and they went on to be very good people.’”
He clings to the images of his father in home videos. The first thing his dad always says when he walks through the door: “How are my two good boys?”
Even as terrorist attacks have ramped up, these campers don’t hate. They don’t call for vengeance. Even as they see their own grief reflected on the faces of victims in Iraq, Turkey, Bangladesh, Belgium and France, they remain committed to peaceful solutions.
They brainstorm different ways of responding to conflict. They learn to listen to those who are unlike them and to suspend judgment.
Deep inside, they still wonder: “Why me? Why did they target my father, my mother, my sister?”
How to help
Astrid and Margrethe Boeyum Kloven were inseparable until the day in 2011 when gunman Andres Brevik unleashed a hail of bullets in Utoya, Norway, and killed Margrethe and 68 others.
“I loved her. Like a lot,” Boeyum Kloven, 17, says of her older sister.
“We live in a violent world, but we should probably try to stand together and try fighting back – but not with violence,” she says. “Everybody wants to seek revenge, but take a step back and take a deep breath. Evaluate whether taking revenge will really help.
“You won’t get better by hurting anybody else, because the pain will still be there.”
In art class, Boeyum Kloven bobs her head and sings aloud to Taylor Swift’s “Bad Blood.” Her hair is dyed the color of an emerald sea and her lips let loose a smile. She catches the eye of Zoe Jacobs, 16, sitting across the table. They point at each other and sing the lyrics together.
Zoe’s father, Jason Kyle Jacobs, worked in the World Trade Center.
“My loss is no excuse for someone else to be mean or terrible to others,” she says. “I don’t believe you should try to destroy someone else’s society, someone else’s reality because some people – a very small amount of people – did something terrible.”
That’s important, they say, because an act of terrorism reverberates through families, through generations.
Anna Rose Taggart, 16, of Northern Ireland lost her uncle in the 1998 Omagh car bombing carried out by the Real Irish Republican Army. It was the deadliest attack in the long-running feud between Roman Catholics and Protestants, leaving 31 dead and 200 others wounded.
Taggart’s uncle was killed before she was born, and yet, she saw his absence wear down her mother and grandparents. They realized they had to celebrate one another each day.
Northern Ireland was able to carve out a framework for a fragile peace deal in the attacks’ aftermath. As terrorism spreads globally, she wishes those seeking harm would stop the killings.
“It will be beautiful,” she says, “if everybody could find a way to accept each other despite race or religion or gender.”
Reason for optimism
On the penultimate day of camp, 17 young Indonesians have joined a morning dignity session. They traveled from Jakarta through a State Department youth leadership program and visited the September 11 memorial in Manhattan. Though terrorism is no stranger in their land, they have not suffered loss like the camp participants. But they draw inspiration from this place.
In the sacred circle, Robbie Hayes continues his story.
He was only 4 when his father boarded American Airlines Flight 11 at Boston’s Logan International Airport for a routine business trip to Los Angeles. That flight was hijacked by five al Qaeda members who crashed it into the north tower of the World Trade Center.
When he hears news of another terrorist attack, he immediately thinks of the victims and their families.
“It makes me sort of want to reach out to them,” he says. “It’s sort of an empathetic link through a long distance.”
Mastin Annisa, the young Indonesian woman who posed the question about animosity toward Muslims, looks Hayes in the eyes, digesting a response that surprises her. She had expected anger, maybe even hatred.
How can someone who experienced grief almost all his life be so forgiving? Maybe if all the world’s terror victims, like Hayes, did not seek revenge, there could be reason to see the future with optimism.
On a billboard in one of the dormitories, the campers post messages. Some are personal; others state pithy truths. “Peace. It does not mean to be in a place where there is no noise, trouble or hard work. It means to be in the midst of those things and still be calm in your heart.”
When their week comes to an end, the participants of this special camp go their separate ways – back to New York, New Jersey, France, Spain, Northern Ireland, Norway, Kosovo, the Palestinian territories, Kenya, India, Sri Lanka.
They leave with the customary smiles and tears that accompany goodbyes. But they know that this place, in many ways, goes with them. They will be challenged in the years ahead to practice what they have learned, to carry themselves non-violently in an often-violent world.
They leave knowing this is a place where they will always belong.
Video produced by Melody Shih, Jon Reyes, Paddy Driscoll, Curtis Brown, Claudia Morales and Madeleine Stix.