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U.S.: The Immigrant City Reflects On 11 September

The list of victims in the World Trade Center attacks reveals the extraordinary diversity of people who inhabit New York City. Immigrants grieved along with other Americans after 11 September, although their reactions were sometimes flavored by their very different paths to the city.

New York, 12 September 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The victims of last September's terrorist attacks against the World Trade Center were said to be from more than 90 nations, reinforcing New York's standing as a city of immigrants.

The historic melting pot of world cultures is still the main gateway for many people seeking to live in the United States. In the past year, immigrant communities across the city have mourned alongside other New Yorkers, maintained vigils and attended interfaith ceremonies.

But they also had more distinct concerns. Some immigrants worried about the safety they had taken for granted in a land they regarded as a haven. Others grew concerned about a backlash against Arabs and Muslims and those who resembled them. Still others wondered about the resiliency of their adopted city.

Interviews with a cross section of non-native New Yorkers found them -- on the first anniversary of the terrorist attacks -- to be appreciative of their city and eager to forge a common humanity.

Erol Avdovic is a Bosnian Muslim who moved his family to New York at the time of Bosnia's civil war. Now a correspondent for Radio Deutsche Welle, he repeatedly expresses gratefulness that he can raise his family in New York.

Avdovic says his first reaction to the terrorist attacks last year was panic about the safety of his wife and a son, who were in Manhattan. After accounting for his family, he said, concern about their security in New York set in.

But over time, Avdovic says, he felt a sense of solidarity with his neighbors and a renewed sense of appreciation for the city. As a Bosnian, he says, he can offer some advice on persevering: "I'm definitely going to be, with my thoughts, with all those who lost their relatives, their sons and daughters, feeling their pain absolutely, deeply, because they felt my pain when I came from Bosnia and when I was expressing my emotions about losing my relatives."

Kamila Zevallos, a Czech native, attended a small memorial service yesterday at Lenox Hill Hospital, where she is a medical resident in internal medicine. Zevallos was an intern at a different New York hospital last year when the attacks on the World Trade Center occurred.

She made her way to Ground Zero in the afternoon and found a chaotic scene, a jumble of metal and concrete and body parts. There were no survivors to treat, she said, only rescue workers.

Despite the horrors she saw, Zevallos found she was able to function calmly as a physician. "I have only collapsed [at the end of the day]. I came home and I was shaking, and I had to call my friends for somebody to be with me. But while I was there during that time, I was very calm and composed. And I was kind of surprised that that was the case, but I think that was very important for me to realize this."

Zevallos had come to New York 10 years earlier on a tourist visa from Czechoslovakia. Impressed by the education opportunities, she began taking university courses and decided on a career in medicine.

She says her experience in New York has exposed her to an extraordinary range of people from around the world and reminds her of our common humanity: "In New York, you see it every single day, and it will never cease to amaze me. You meet people from somewhere, a new place every time. You talk to them, you learn every single time something new, from somebody who you normally would never talk to."

Zevallos and her brother, Perma, have collaborated on a project in which they take portraits of New Yorkers. She says they have plans to exhibit the photographs, in a project called "Mosaica," at a gallery in Prague early next year.

Zevallos herself is one of five immigrant New Yorkers profiled in a new documentary film titled "Dreams Without Sleep." The documentary, which debuted in New York earlier this week, is the creation of Kuwaiti filmmaker Walid Al-Awadi, who studied film in New York and considers the city his second home.

Al-Awadi said he wanted to explore why people come to New York and to juxtapose this with the emotions of 11 September. He said that as an Arab and Muslim and admirer of New York, he felt compelled to make a film "about hope and peace and bringing different cultures together": "New York is the only city in the world that has all kinds of religions, backgrounds, ethnicities, colors. No one cares where you come from because there is opportunity for every single individual if they want to make it."

Al-Awadi, who lived through the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait in 1990, said he arrived in New York last year on 10 September to work on a film related to the Gulf War. He ended up filming the city for several straight days, capturing the raw aftermath of the terrorist attacks.

He says it is difficult emotionally to be in the city this year for the anniversary, but that it is necessary:"It's very important that we are here. It's very important for me as a filmmaker to come and show a film. It's very important to show that the city is strong. It's very important to show that we went because we love the city, and we went because we love people and we love peace." Al-Awadi's 75-minute film will be shown in several U.S. cities in the coming weeks and in Kuwait and Lebanon later this autumn.

Another filmmaker in New York, Tanaz Eshaghian, looks at the issue of immigrants and 11 September from a different angle. Her documentary film "I Call Myself Persian," made with fellow Iranian-born filmmaker Sara Nodjoumi, looks at anti-Iranian sentiment in the United States and the pressures facing Iranian-Americans.

Eshaghian, who is Jewish, said they had planned a documentary on Iranians in America. But after 11 September, she said, they decided to focus on the backlash against Iranian-Americans. This resentment, she said, had already been present since the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and the hostage ordeal at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran.

Eshaghian said the irony of the Iranian experience in the United States is that most of these immigrants were part of a multiethnic community that had fled Iran as a fundamentalist Shiite Muslim regime took power. They are religiously diverse, including representatives of the Jewish, Armenian Orthodox, Muslim, Baha'i, and Zoroastrian faiths, as well as Muslims.

This community, she said, grew very concerned after the instigators of the 11 September attacks were found to be from the Middle East. "I think the main overriding emotion that I could say I felt amongst Iranians after this was a real sense of unease and discomfort with where they come from and not wanting to really stress it or play it up so the level of anger would really [subside]."

Her film, "I Call Myself Persian," which aired earlier this year, portrays the experience of Iranians across the country. It looks at how they have sought to reconstruct their identity to deflect the hostility toward Iran. "If they're Iranian and Jewish, they would always say, 'I'm Iranian, but I'm Jewish.' Or if they were Iranian-Armenian, they would say, 'Armenian.' Because you develop a real sense of almost like shame."

Eshaghian, who left Iran at the age of 6, said she is eager to overcome some of the stereotypes in the American mind-set and that are perpetuated by the American media, especially toward people from the Middle East.

But she says she is also appreciative that there is the freedom to engage in such a discourse in the United States. And she says despite the negative backlash against some immigrants after 11 September, there is still a prevailing feeling in the United States, especially in New York, that immigrant culture should be embraced, not hidden.