CHESHIRE — For many, the events of September 11, 2001, are ingrained in their memories. Watching the Twin Towers in New York City fall was a traumatic experience for so many Americans, and the events that followed led the country into a 20-year conflict.
But for the students at Cheshire Academy, who were born after 2001, there is no collective memory of the terror attacks. That is why the school took ample time last week to acknowledge the 20th anniversary of 9/11.
Cheshire Academy hosted a Voices of 9/11 speaker series to educate students about the events of that day, and how the world has changed since. On Sept. 8, students helped beautify the 9/11 Memorial at Sherwood Island in Westport. On Friday, volunteers participated in a day of service by helping out at the Cheshire Fall Festival and donating to the Cheshire Food Pantry.
The main event was held on Sept. 9, when several speakers were invited to address the student body as a whole, including Lt. Colonel Jason Hearn, a 24- year U.S. Army veteran who served three tours of duty abroad. Hearn explained to the students what the Army was like prior to 9/11, and how it changed afterwards.
“It was pretty boring,” he said. “There was a lot of training, drills, reports and PowerPoints — things like that.”
Hearn was living in Pennsylvania on 9/11, and was working on remodeling his home when he heard the news about planes crashing into the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. and Shanksville.
“I didn’t even have a TV out of storage yet,” he said. “I had to go grab it, plug it in and try to get a signal. When I did, I saw the recap of the Towers falling, along with the other crashes. … It seriously changed the military forever.”
Post-9/11, Hearn explained, a surge of patriotism led to hundreds of thousands of people signing up for the Armed Services.
“Usually the biggest sell the Army has is money for college, but these people weren’t signing up for college money,” Hearn said. “They wanted to protect our country.”
Another speaker shared his experience as a Muslim-American doctor.
“On 9/11, I was in the process of resuscitating one of my patients when I saw the first plane fly into the first Tower,” said Dr. Reza Mansoor, a cardiologist at Hartford Hospital. “It was a strange feeling, trying to revive someone while hundreds of people were dying in that building.”
Mansoor spoke about what it was like for him to experience 9/11, and how attitudes towards Muslims have turned negative since the attack.
“One in two people are terrified of me simply because I am a Muslim. That needs to change. Sixty percent of Americans have never met a Muslim,” said Mansoor, citing a Pew Research Center poll.
His message to the Cheshire Academy students was to get to know their Muslim neighbors, and by doing so, hopefully erase any negative stigmas that surround those communities. He even invited the students to visit him at a mosque in Berlin.
“That statistic (60% of Americans having never met a Muslim) really surprised me,” explained Santino Gambardella, a junior at Cheshire Academy. “As someone who was born after the event, I have never lived in a time where there weren’t those anti-Muslim sentiments and it’s hard for me to even imagine a time before that. I think that members of the younger generation are going to be the ones to be able to break through those barriers because we aren’t living with the direct trauma of having lived through the event.”
Another junior, Devan Fernando, explained how the events of 9/11 have always been around him.
“I have had friends and family members who were first responders or people who knew people in the Towers that day,” he said. “I have a limited glimpse of what happened, but the impact is not lost on me. Hopefully, what we learned today can be put towards making sure something like this never happens again.”
Ann O’Brian, the director of Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services (IRIS), became emotional when speaking about the current situation in Afghanistan.
“What happened in Afghanistan a few weeks ago exceeded anything that we thought was going to happen,” she explained, through tears. “In just days, the government not only collapsed, but hundreds of thousands of people immediately were in danger, and we have been trying to get them out since.”
On Aug. 15, Taliban fighters overtook the Afghanistan capital of Kabul after U.S. forces were withdrawn from the country, leading to the president of Afghanistan fleeing the country, and the evacuation of U.S. citizens from the country.
O’Brian went on to explain that many displaced families are going to be moving to towns like Cheshire in the coming months, and she urged everyone to welcome them with open arms.
“We need every town in Connecticut to organize and take in a (refugee) family,” she said. “There might be some Afghan kids in your neighborhood, or even in your school, and they hear that Americans are friendly. We need to show them that kindness.”