She faced her father’s killers in a courtroom, and realized the al Qaeda militants held no power. He put Osama bin Laden’s image on a punching bag and let loose.
She has vivid memories of the years spent with an adoring father. His recollections of Dad are limited.
She grew up in southern France and reaches out to him on September 11. He was raised in New Jersey and made sure she was safe after last year’s Paris attacks.
They’re two strangers who’ve become friends over their unique and tragic bond: Each lost a father to terrorism.
Anaële Abescat was 11 when her father, Jean-Claude Abescat, 42, was killed in front of her in a 2007 al Qaeda attack in Saudi Arabia. He was a schoolteacher who had taken a job at the French International School in Riyadh and moved his family there.
9/11 Town Hall
Kyle Maddison was 4 when his dad, Simon Maddison, 40, was killed in the September 11 attacks on the United States. He was a software consultant for a division of Cantor Fitzgerald and worked in the north tower of the World Trade Center.
Kyle and Anaële first met five years ago at Project Common Bond, an annual camp that brings together children who lost a parent on 9/11 with young people from other nations who’ve lost loved ones to terror.
They arrived as struggling teens who had plunged to dark places. They were still trying to grasp the magnitude of their loss and asking the unanswerable question: “Why?”
They were quiet and at first frightened to bare their hearts. But they found one another and bonded. They could speak about the tragedy they’d experienced. They could talk about other things. Or just remain silent together. Each knew the other understood.
For Kyle, the camp quite literally saved his life. It brought him love at a time when he’d grown isolated and alone. Weeks before his first camp, the loss of his father grew too much, too unbearable. A decade hadn’t eased his pain. He slipped a rope around his neck.
“I don’t like talking about it,” he says, “but if I do talk about it, I have the chance to get the message to someone else who is in that place – to just keep going.”
Anaële’s story: ‘I couldn’t do it on my own’
Anaële Abescat’s mother was visiting her in Paris last November when a Friday night out turned deadly: ISIS shootings and bomb blasts in restaurants, a soccer stadium and the Bataclan concert hall killed 130 people.
Anaële began reliving her own horror; she was thankful her mother was there.
She couldn’t stop watching the news. Images of victims and their families unearthed so many memories: how she felt the day her father died, the look of utter grief on her own mother’s face nine years ago.
She knew what the world’s newest victims of terrorism would have to live through.
“I know what it feels like,” she says. “This kind of thing brings you back.”
Back to the day in February 2007 when her family and some friends set out on an excursion in the Saudi desert near the city of Medina. They’d picked a shady spot on the side of the road for a picnic when suddenly men carrying Kalashnikovs encircled them and unleashed a hail of bullets. Anaële threw herself under a car. She still doesn’t know how she, her mother and her brother Adrien survived.
Her father was gone. She would never sit on his lap or hear him sing Stevie Wonder’s “For Your Love” again. (She has it on her smartphone now and still cries when she listens to it). Suddenly, a scrapbook he made for her when she turned 10 became a most precious possession.
She suffered through flashbacks. On many nights she could not stop crying and felt as though people were whispering: “There is something wrong with you.” She found it difficult to accept her 17th birthday, the age her friend Romain was when he, too, died in the attack along with two other French nationals.
“My mom has always been a support for us,” Anaële says. “But then it was complicated because she raised two kids on her own. She had two roles, both Mom and Dad. We fought a lot. It was hard.”
When Anaële began college, everyone knew she was a victim. She didn’t want to be treated like a helpless little bird. She did not want anyone’s pity; she just wanted to be like everyone else. And when she did talk about her father, she could tell her friends did not know how to react.
She found help through therapy. And she found this camp, which she credits with changing her life.
“I couldn’t do it on my own,” she says.
Recently, a dark cloud has sometimes returned to hover over her. Some of her depression was related to all the carnage around her: the Charlie Hebdo killings, the Paris and Brussels attacks and, most fresh, the deaths in Nice when a truck plowed through a crowd of people gathered for Bastille Day fireworks.
A few days after the Nice tragedy, Anaële arrived at this year’s camp in Philadelphia. And she saw Kyle again.
That’s the beauty of Project Common Bond. A year had gone by, and yet she and Kyle were back to where they left off.
It’s not that Kyle is Anaële’s best friend. He could never take the place of her bestie or the girlfriends she likes to hang out with at outdoor cafes. The two don’t talk on the phone often or text throughout the day. Maybe months pass without any contact. But even then, they know the other is there, if the need arises.
Anaële finds that comforting, like a cozy blanket on a frigid night.
Kyle’s story: ‘I want to keep going for him’
The tattoo on Kyle’s upper right arm has two roses with a clock in between. “Good times,” it says. The clock is stopped at 3:28, signifying his father’s birthday on March 28.
Kyle designed the tattoo himself and had it inked onto his arm three days before college began last year at the University of Hartford. “The roses symbolize love and hurt,” he says. “The clock represents the limited time that I had with my father and the limited good times that I had with him – and to always remember that there will be good times ahead.”
When he wants to feel closer to his father, Kyle looks at a photograph of himself with his dad and his grandfather. Other times, he slips on headphones and listens to his dad’s punk rock cassette tapes. His favorite contains the Descendents on one side and The Offspring on the other.
“Listening to it makes you feel just a little bit closer.”
An artist, Kyle hopes to become a sculptor one day. He also plays with writing. A constant theme of his work, he says, is “the idea that the good die young, but the great live on forever in our hearts and we carry them with us everywhere we go.”
What do you do when you’re so young and you lose your hero? When your dad leaves for work one day and never returns?
Those were the issues a young Kyle faced. His mother, Maureen Maddison, made sure her three children got therapy. His older sister, Caileigh, was 7 on 9/11; his younger sister, Sydney, was 1.
“My mom really tried,” he says. “It was basically like any other kid’s life – but I didn’t have a father.”
There were strange moments. When he’d walk down the street, he’d find little hearts everywhere. In cracks in the street. Randomly, lying around. He wondered: Was it a sign from his father?
Once when his mother struggled, the young boy looked up at the nighttime sky. One star shone brighter than all the others. “It’s like Daddy’s shining straight through to my heart,” he told her.
The magnitude of his loss became clear as he grew older. Depression took hold his freshman year of high school. He didn’t want to eat or go out.
“I didn’t want to do anything,” he says.
He survived his suicide attempt and received counseling. He has managed to keep his depression in check. His advice to others struggling with suicidal thoughts is this: “You’ll learn to deal with it and you’ll learn to cope, and you just have to hold on and eventually you’ll be OK.”
One fact kept him motivated: Kyle is the only boy in his family and the only one left to carry on the Maddison name. He realized ending his life would tarnish his father’s legacy.
“I want to keep going for him,” he says. “When I was in such a dark place, I was like, ‘Alright, I can’t let this end here. I have to keep going.’”
‘Finding a different meaning’
In the quiet of a college dorm room during their week at camp, Anaële and Kyle reflect on their lives – and their friendship.
Anaële recalls when she and her family traveled back to Saudi Arabia for the first time since her father’s death. In January 2014, they were in court to hear the verdict for two of the al Qaeda gunmen. Anaële couldn’t anticipate how she would feel if or when her eyes met those of her father’s killers.
At first, she was frightened. But then she realized that mostly she felt unimpressed. She felt distant from these men, as though they were not even from the same species.
But she could not embrace the idea of putting them to death for what they did. What if they had children?
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.A place to belong
It’s a summer camp with a distinction: Participants are young people touched by terror. This year, 55 of them – from a dozen countries – gathered on a campus in Pennsylvania, where they found renewal and hope in their common bond.
“Killing those men would do the same thing to their children as they did to me,” she says. “I’ve been through this pain. I would not wish it upon anyone.”
Kyle recognizes his friend’s inner strength.
“Her being against the death penalty for those who killed her father, I guess, it really represents what (this camp) is about – bad things happen to us, but it doesn’t mean bad things need to happen to others,” he says. “It’s about finding a different meaning. It’s about finding a peaceful way to accomplish your goals.”
Kyle, of course, will never be able to face his father’s killers. They died carrying out the murders. But when he was 12, he pinned a photo of Osama bin Laden on a punching bag.
“I kind of had to figure out a way to deal with my anger, because I couldn’t be angry at my sisters. It wasn’t their fault. I couldn’t be angry at my mom. It wasn’t her fault.”
Instead, he beat up the photo of the man who launched al Qaeda.
“Didn’t last long, tore it up pretty fast,” he says.
When bin Laden was killed on May 2, 2011, Kyle thought, “Yes, finally. I’m glad that he can’t do it anymore.”
Still, the next day was no different than any other. He had to get through it without his father.
Every September 11, Anaële reaches out to the American friends she met at this camp.
“The 11th of September is now a difficult day for me,” she says. “I think of all my friends and I feel so much for them. I try to send my love and my support, because I know the feeling.”
Despite the recent spate of attacks at home in France, Anaële says she is determined not to let fear take control of her life.
“It’s what they want to do – instill fear,” she says. “It’s their way of controlling a population. I don’t want these people to forbid me from doing anything. I don’t want them to win.”
So she will return to the Bataclan for a concert or to Belle Equipe for a candlelight alfresco dinner.
“I’m actually very sad when I see people who are afraid, who keep their kids inside, who don’t travel,” she says. “No. We have to keep on living the way we want.”
Together, ‘we can do this’
Kyle and Anaële climb ladders up to a tightrope that spans tall white oaks in the Pennsylvania wilderness. It’s part of a camp exercise designed to build trust and confidence, to help overcome fears.
They get on separate lines and inch their way toward one another. Above, gray skies peek through thick branches. Below, the earth seems a mile away. Kyle doesn’t like heights.
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“Don’t look down,” Anaële tells him. “Stay with me.”
The wires come to a point, and the two arrive face to face. They lock onto one another’s wrists. They must walk the remainder of the line together.
“We can do this,” she says.
“I wouldn’t do this with anyone else,” he tells her.
They teeter on the wire, their bodies swaying as they focus on keeping their balance.
“Re-grab my wrist,” he tells her. “I got you.”
Together, they feel strong. They gingerly approach their end point and finally make it to safety.
Then they let go of each other and float on safety ropes in the sticky summer air, seemingly free of the burdens they’ve carried in their young lives.