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Moms Impacted by Sept. 11 Tell Their Stories

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Just ahead, what an American Muslim wants you to know. Barbershop regular Arsalan Iftikhar's commentary is next.

But first, it's time for our weekly visit with the Mocha Moms. We visit with members of this mother support group each week for their common sense and savvy parenting advice.

Today, a special Mocha Moms conversation. We're observing the sixth anniversary of 9/11 on the program today. So many affected by this tragedy, more than 2,900 people died. But as we all see, and the ripple effects were felt far and wide. We wanted to talk with our Mocha Moms about how their own lives were affected. And there's the ever important question of how to discuss events like this with your children.

So here to talk about all of this, I'm joined by regular Mocha Moms, Jolene Ivey and Asra Nomani, and guest mom Roslyn Means.

Welcome, ladies.

Ms. JOLENE IVEY (President, Mocha Moms): Hi, Michel.

Ms. ASRA NOMANI (Member, Mocha Moms): Hello.

Ms. ROSLYN MEANS (Member, Mocha Moms): Hi.

MARTIN: Asra, if we could start with you. I know I remember where I was when the planes hit the towers and the Pentagon. Where were you?

Ms. NOMANI: I was lunch lady at my niece and nephew's elementary school in my hometown, Morgantown, West Virginia. My mom called me, and she told me what had happened, and I couldn't believe it. I saw before me, also, you know, our youths - I mean our kids - coming in for their little, you know, sloppy Joe and I could see the historic moment unfolding before me in terms of how their lives were going to be changed.

MARTIN: And, of course, you say you're being lunch lady at the moment, but you are a journalist and very well traveled. And your own life has been touched by terrorism, that you're very close friends with the journalist Daniel Pearl, who was murdered investigating a story connected to al-Qaida in Pakistan where you were living at the time. I'd like to ask how that experience affects the work that you do now, how you see yourself now?

Ms. NOMANI: Well, yeah. After, you know, my little stint that afternoon, I got myself together to go to Pakistan. And so, really, 9/11 made me a mom in a crazy series of events. But when Danny went missing on January 23rd, 2002, he was investigating the shoe bomber, Richard Reid. He was visiting my house in Karachi, Pakistan, where I'd now settled. I had fallen in love also, while, you know, war was breaking loose in Afghanistan.

And unbeknownst to me, I was seven days pregnant with a boyfriend that I had fallen in love with there. Because of what happened to Danny, because of what happened on 9/11, I ended up coming to clarity about my future. And I had to choose between life and death. I had to choose whether I was going to have this baby that was inside of me. I had to choose what I was going to do with the rest of my life. And I was reading "Little Prince," literally, that night when I found out that I was pregnant. And, you know, in "The Little Prince," it tells us to see what is essential. And now, I know that for myself, as a Muslim, as a journalist, I wanted to stand up for a peaceful, tolerant world where children can grow and have future and have hope, and that's how I brought my son into the world then.

MARTIN: Roslyn, you also have a personal story that links you to 9/11 through Bernard Brown. And he was the young student who was on the plane that hit the Pentagon. And as I understand, that he was a classmate of your daughter Rachel at an elementary school in Washington, D.C. Do you remember what that day was like for you?

Ms. MEANS: Yes, he was. And also, at that time, the teacher was taking the class for an expedition. And he traveled - Rachel was supposed to travel, but she was not traveling because her papers went in order, and so Bernard traveled. So it was very, very emotional at the time.

MARTIN: What was that like to try to explain all this to your daughter?

Ms. MEAN: It was very difficult to really get her to understand that they were real tragedies, real terror, real situations in the world that had touched so chose to our home. Being a military, you do have to give your children a level of sensitivity to these issues.

MARTIN: And I think I should just point out - just to clarify for folks that your husband is an Air Force officer. And you were stationed near Boeing - at Boeing Air Force base at the time. Okay.

Ms. MEAN: Yeah. So it was quite difficult, but we had a lot of family support, a lot of community support, and a lot of church support, which helped us kind of get through it at the time.

MARTIN: Jolene, what about you? Do you remember where you were and what you were doing?

Ms. IVEY: Yeah. I remember very well, because my husband had gotten on the plane that morning going to New York. And when I first heard the news, I was driving one of my kids to school. And I didn't say anything to my son because I was hoping he wasn't thinking about it. But, of course, he heard the same report. He got out and went into the school.

And I just thought, my God, Glenn is dead, and I've got five kids to raise by myself. And now what am I going to do? Because I was just - just jumped right to the end of that. But, of course, I found out before long, he wasn't on that plane, and he was okay. It took him a while to get home that day. But the worst of it is one of my kids' teachers, her husband was on the plane that hit the Pentagon, and, of course, he died.

MARTIN: How did you explain this to your children?

Ms. IVEY: Well, as best we could. The bad thing is that I didn't say anything to my son right away when he was getting out of the car because I did come to pick him up at the end of that day. And as soon as he saw me, he said, daddy's dead, isn't he? And I said, oh, no, honey, he's in the car. Now, just don't be silly. And I didn't realize, here's this kid's been thinking the same thing all day that I was able to discount within an hour.

MARTIN: If you had to do it over again, is there something you would do differently?

Ms. IVEY: I probably wouldn't have dropped him off at school. I would have kept him with me.

MARTIN: Roslyn, you know, what about you? I - as I understand it, you made some choices for your family after that day, partly because of what happened.

Ms. MEANS: Yes, during that time, because there was so much media and emotionality in the school, I did make a very hard decision to take my daughter out of the school and transfer her to a private school where I felt she would get a lot more attention, you know, she would stay the A student that she was, and she wouldn't have so much distress and especially from the media during that time while we were trying to emotionally get her through this period.

MARTIN: In retrospect, what do you think? Was it the right decision, or would you - would she rather she had stayed there to experience this…

Ms. MEANS: I think…

MARTIN: …with her friends?

Ms. MEANS: Yeah. In retrospect, I know it was the right decision. I think she was so young, and she would not have been able to make it. But I know now, you know, as she's getting ready to graduate from high school, going on full scholarship to college that it might have taken a completely different turn.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're talking to the Mocha Moms about how their lives were affected by 9/11 and how they talked to their kids about it. Now we're joined Jolene Ivey, Asra Nomani and Roslyn Means. And I should mention that Rosalyn's joining us on the phone from her office in Tallahassee, which explains some of the excitement going on behind her.

I guess, Roslyn, this raises the important point about how, as a parent, you got to make the decision about what's best for your kids, and nobody else can really make that decision for you.

Asra, I'd like to ask you. How do you talk to your son about the fact that -the work that you do now, you, as you said before, have chosen, in part, to spend, you know, your time as a journalist, you're also a public figure speaking about tolerance, speaking about contemporary issues in Islam. That sometimes brings scrutiny to you in ways that are not always welcome and appreciated. Sometimes hostility is directed toward you. How do you discuss all that with your son?

Ms. NOMANI: I try to discuss it with him honestly, sort of in the kid language of bullies and, you know, the kind of playground language that they know.

When Shibli was just a couple of years old, I had gone on what I call the Muslim Women's Freedom Tour inspired by 9/11. Really, you know, I - like, you know, as journalists, we typically don't have a position on things, and that's how I spent most of my career. But 9/11 made me realize that we've got to take a stand if we want to do it and if we believe that we have the clarity to do it. And so I went on this Muslim Women's Freedom Tour to go, you know, proclaim women's rights in mosques and stand up for tolerance from the pulpit.

And I came back. My son had been with my parents, and I took him to Hershey Park to celebrate. So we spent a great weekend there. And, of course, he, you know, touches an engine in this old car show, and we're at the emergency room at Hershey, which is about the best place a kid could be. It…

MARTIN: Wait a minute, why are you at the emergency room?

Ms. NOMANI: Because he touches this engine, really faster than I could stop him, of one of the fancy cars…

MARTIN: Oh, he got burned. Oh, dear.

Ms. NOMANI: Yes. Yeah, it's a whole another story. But there I am, we're out of the emergency room. And I pick up my voice mail, and it's one of my first death threats, you know, this guy who wants to slaughter me as Danny was killed after 9/11, you know, in the name of Islam because of my activism. And all I had to do was, you know, look behind me to see my son now sleeping soundly in the car seat to feel that tension, you know, between just what you're saying, taking a stand and being a mother.

And I pulled over at the McDonald's and, you know, picked up the phone and called the FBI. The death threat came from a guy who left his number conveniently on caller ID. Yeah, go figure. That's fighting terrorism in the 21st century right there. And - but, you know, that's what is - why do we have to take a position? I mean, why do we take these calculated risks? I mean, that's for that investment into the future, right? So that hopefully Shibli can grow up with a different reality.

And I think that 9/11, for me, has been defining as a - not only a human being, but as a mother, and I think probably for all mothers because it is the defining moment at our children's generation.

MARTIN: Roslyn, what about you? Is 9/11 something that you still think about? Obviously, your husband being in the military, to my knowledge, has not been deployed to Iraq at this time but…

Ms. MEANS: That's right.

MARTIN: …is 9/11 still looming large in your life? Is it a defining moment for you?

Ms. MEANS: Oh, yeah. Yes, it really is. You know, especially being and living on a military installation. You know, you have to as a senior officer be a mentor to a lot of the troops and their spouses. So it's always at the forefront in our lives and sharing it with other family members who are not military, who are civilians not to take so lightly and take those types of things for granted.

MARTIN: And, Jolene, final word from you. How do you think about 9/11? How - has it changed your life?

Ms. IVEY: I think it's changed all of our lives. I mean, no one can feel safe ever again. You know, no matter where you are in the world, it's not a safe place. And we really have to look beyond our houses, our communities, our country, and look to the whole world as a place we have to make better to make us all safe. You're not going to be safe just by being in America.

MARTIN: And, Roslyn, final thought from you. How would you like most Americans to think about 9/11?

Ms. MEANS: I think most Americans should really think of it as a time that was very critical in the lives of people, not only in this country, but all over the world. Presently, I'd like them to think that you have to exercise precaution all the time. I like them to think in ways to just better mankind, you know, putting down stereotypes and cultural barriers and really looked at people as individuals and as human beings and build relationships.

I really like them to use 9/11 as a kind of an reflection that, one, it did happen, two, it can happen again, and three, there is hope to prevent such an event to happen. And if we share with each other to make, not just our neighborhood or our community safe, but to make our world safe.

MARTIN: Asra Nomani, final thought from you?

Ms. NOMANI: Well, each one of those hijackers on 9/11 had a mom. Each person in this world does. And I feel like we, from the personal to the political, have to try to inspire our kids to make the right choices so that they will be the whistleblowers, so that they will be the one to stand up for righteousness. It's even more critical in our world today.

And 9/11 showed us one example - if only one man perhaps had turned in this squad, you know, then that's what it takes in this world, is one person. And those people of good and morality can be our children, and that's how I think each one of us can change the future.

MARTIN: Mocha Moms Asra Nomani and Jolene Ivey joined us from our studios in Washington. Roslyn Means joined us from her office in Tallahassee, Florida. Ladies, moms, thanks so much for joining us.

Ms. NOMANI: Thank you, Michel.

Ms. IVEY: Thank you, Michel.

Ms. MEANS: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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