'Those people are not me'

Updated 10:53 AM ET, Fri September 10, 2021

(CNN) — Many Muslims in the United States point to September 11, 2001, as the day their relationship with the country changed.
Islamophobia had always existed, but the terrorist attacks in New York, Pennsylvania and Virginia seemingly made it worse -- much worse.
Muslims of all stripes -- citizens, immigrants and refugees -- faced backlash. Many were ostracized and harassed, some physically assaulted and even killed. Charged rhetoric, successive wars and attacks further inflamed the situation.
Feeling condemned for crimes they didn't commit, some Muslims changed their names and clothing to conceal their identities, while others clung even tighter to their faith. A few became outspoken advocates for the community.
Every Muslim in America has a story to tell. Here are some of them.

Ruwa Romman

Ruwa Romman, 28, is a Palestinian American community organizer and policy analyst living in Duluth, Georgia.
When the terrorists attacked, she was 8 years old and had just recently immigrated to the US with her parents. But the dream she had of building a new life in America quickly turned into a nightmare.
Ruwa Romman and her husband Shahzaib Jiwani.
"I remember the hallways and the day seemed darker even though I remember it was sunny outside," Romman told CNN about her experience in school that day. "I don't think I fully understood what was happening since I barely spoke English."
Still, she recalls the long list of insults hurled at her as a child: "terrorist" and "sand n****r." Some even asked if she was related to Osama bin Laden, the al Qaeda mastermind behind the attacks.
Romman says she can't remember a single day in elementary school when the bullying stopped. High school wasn't much better -- with one teacher pulling her out of class to ask if her family belongs to a terrorist group.
Outside of school, a close friend's family banned her from their home because she was Muslim and "dangerous," she said. Airport travel required numerous bag checks -- sometimes three times during a single trip.
The bullying and harassment set Romman on a path to educate and advocate for her community, even at a young age.
"I felt this sense of duty to never respond to every terrible comment made to me and instead try to educate people," Romman said. "Looking back at my younger self, I'm so angry and sad for her. I didn't have to do any of that. I was a kid trying to grow up and figure out my life. All of a sudden I'd become an ambassador for a billion people around the world."
"I remember trying so hard to get people to just see me as a person," she added. "I stubbornly ignored the reality in front of me that my community was being systemically targeted from airports to universities to mosques. It wasn't until I was around 18 that I began to learn about government entrapment, surveillance of students in Muslim Student Associations, and so much more."
In 2016, Romman joined the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the nation's largest Muslim civil rights and advocacy organization, as their communications director. She's since become a community organizer, policy analyst and consultant working on related issues.
Romman says advocating for US Muslims and the issues they face is daunting, but sees hope in every small victory.
"We will continue to be politically engaged and unapologetically so." Romman said. "Muslims are no longer willing to carry that burden. None of us committed 9/11. Why should we carry that burden?"

Qasim Rashid

Qasim Rashid, 39, is a Pakistani American human rights lawyer living in Stafford, Virginia.
He remembers standing with coworkers in front of the office TV watching the World Trade Center collapse. Like the others, he was shocked by the news, but then he overheard a colleague whisper "rag heads" and fear set in.
Qasim Rashid.
"I moved here when I was four, so this was the only home I knew," Rashid told CNN. "I'm American through and through in every sense of the word. But I was 19, Muslim, and I had a beard, and suddenly people couldn't see me as American."
Random police stops became his norm. Racial slurs that once felt so jarring eventually became predictable. And anytime Rashid met someone new, he braced for when they would inevitably bring up 9/11.
"Whether I liked it or not, just by existing I was suddenly representing 1.6 billion Muslims," Rashid said. "I knew if I didn't take an active role in writing my narrative, my story, someone else is going to do it for me and it's not going to be true."
He channeled his desire for truth and justice into studying law, and now works as a human rights lawyer representing Muslims, among other marginalized communities.
"There have been immense atrocities and horrific violence committed against Muslims because of 9/11. We saw things like the Patriot Act, the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, and Guantanamo Bay and the indefinite detention of people without due process of law," Rashid said.
"I knew I had to do something to create the kind of country I thought America should be; one based on justice and compassion," he added. "Becoming a lawyer was an acknowledgment that this country has noble values of equal justice and protection and a constitution worth fighting for."
Much of Rashid's work has centered on issues of immigration, asylum and women's rights.
Fighting for justice in the court system hasn't been easy, he said, but he's heartened by the next generation, which has become increasingly vocal about rights issues and intolerant of hate.
As for young Muslims, he offers these words of advice: "Be fierce and be courageous in your identity. You don't need to be ashamed or shy about it. Embrace it fully and confidently, and do so while leading with justice and creating an inclusive world for all voices."

Nakibur Rahman

Nakibur Rahman, 44, is a Bangladeshi American university professor living in Fayetteville, North Carolina.
He immigrated to the US just weeks before 9/11 -- young, confident and inspired to make his dreams come true. But everything changed that fateful morning, and the future didn't seem so bright anymore.
Nakibur Rahman and his two daughters.
"What came to my mind immediately was my friends and family in New York, one who worked in the towers," Rahman told CNN. "It was a very traumatic moment for me, and I hadn't even had the time to think about what this could mean for my community."
His loved ones were found safe, but the fear and panic he felt remain with him to this day.
"If I close my eyes, it's like I'm watching a movie," Rahman said. "I can see exactly what happened from the moment I woke up to the moment I saw the attack on TV. After that, it was like my life stopped and I couldn't remember anything."
Rahman said he was fortunate to receive loads of support from his community in Maine, where he was in graduate school at the time. Still, he thought twice about doing or saying anything that could be misconstrued as suspicious.
"I was lucky to be surrounded by kindness, but something would always bring me back to reality," he said. "I was constantly reminded of the same question: Am I going to be subject to backlash because a Muslim group committed this? It made me sad and very careful."
His fears were bolstered by frequent news reports of hate crimes targeting Muslims. He said it led to a terrifying realization for the Muslim community that ultimately brought them together.
"The Muslim community learned that the things we cherish most in this country, the First Amendment, liberty, and pursuit of happiness could be taken away from us in a second," Rahman said. "We came together because of that."
For decades, Muslims have lived in the shadow of 9/11, but Rahman believes the future won't be as dark.
"Muslim organizations we see today that are flourishing were born after 9/11, when we realized that if we don't start helping ourselves, be active in the community, tell our sides of the story, no one else is going to do it for us," he said. "And we refuse to be made the scapegoats forever."

Ashanti Jabri

Ashanti Jabri, 27, is a data analyst and martial artist living in Atlanta.
Jabri says he always felt like an outsider in the South. Being both Black and Muslim, he was taught to be wary of racism and Islamophobia from a very young age. But Jabri didn't really understand what that meant until the morning of the attacks.
Ashanti Jabri.