Hello, My name is Bilal Ghassan Shakoor Morris. Why I am telling you my entire name will become more important later. Like every adult in America, I too have a 9/11 story.
It’s sad, it’s real, and it’s relatable.
Even though I didn’t lose anyone I knew personally, I lost a part of myself that took over a decade to get back. That day not only changed the world, it also changed every single one of us as individuals. What we thought we knew was completely stolen away from us and our values were replaced with fear.
Little did I know I’d have the battle that fears for years.
On September 11, 2001, I was 17-years-old and a junior at The Peddie School, a private boarding school in Central Jersey about an hour outside of New York City. My twin brother and I repeated our sophomore year because my mother thought it would make for an easier transition to our first year of boarding school.
It was a beautiful morning that day. My roommate had class during the AM block, so I had the entire room to myself. We couldn’t have cellphones in our rooms, but everyone had a school-issued laptop for homework and such, though we mostly used it to converse on AOL instant messenger.
I was hungry, but I didn’t want to walk to the cafe alone so I sent a message to a friend to have them meet me halfway. It was 8:45 am and breakfast was over in less than an hour. We met up outside one of the dorms then hurried over to the cafeteria to eat.
Chapel talk was at 10 a.m. and I needed to get back to the dorm to grab my things for class afterward.
As we left the cafeteria, students were grouped all over the courtyard and we had no idea why. Shouldn’t they have been in class? Someone yelled my name across the street near the dorms.
“Bilal, get over here and grab your laptop!”
I quickly turned around kind of startled because I had no idea who it was. Kirk, my roommate was jumping up and down frantically with my laptop and book in his hand. He must have gotten out of class early and went to the room while I was in the cafeteria.
“Yo someone crashed a plane into the World Trade Center! We gotta get to a TV,” said Kirk as he tossed me my book bag down the stairs outside the dorm.
We walked to the student lounge and it was filled with worried teenagers. I saw some of our friends sitting at a table by the TVs. As soon as we sat down Flight 175 crashed into the South Tower.
My world was different from that point on. I was subconsciously trapped in this condition of fear and wouldn’t even realize it until years later. One of the first things I began to question only days after the towers collapsed was my Muslim name and what that meant to the people around me.
I was taught growing up that a name had power. It was like a map that peers into your future and I believe I was given my name for a reason.
Bilal Ghassan Shakoor Morris was such a strong name but all I could see was the Muslim in it. All I could hear was the Muslim vowels, and all I could feel was the pain that Muslims had inflected that day. It was a naive way of thinking, but fear didn’t care about right or wrong, all it cared about was dominating my thoughts and my emotions. I asked my friends to call me ‘B’ because I was ashamed of my Muslim name. I didn’t want to be associated with terrorists, but the fear made me believe I was one of them.
Fear haunted us all for years after 9/11, but it made me fear myself. When I looked in the mirror I saw a young man who didn’t know himself and I wanted to change that. Two years later I went to college and I carried that fear with me. I continued to introduce myself to new friends as ‘B’.
The twin towers became an afterthought but my mind didn’t see it that way. I eventually kept my middle names a secret in fear people would assocIate me with terrorists. Stories of people with Muslim names being harassed at airports and train stations were all over the nightly news. I didn’t want that to be me so I kept my true self locked in a cage with bars made of self-doubt.
I couldn’t continue to live this way. I had to come to terms with my self-hatred and the only way to do that was to learn about Islam. I spent the next month in the Koran, learning that Islam was a peaceful religion at its core and that the doubt in my heart was self-inflicted.
People make man, it was never about a religion or a name. Sometimes fear gets the upper hand and without clarity when can get lost.
9/11 hurt us bad and some of us are still healing 20 years later. I’m here today to tell you it’s ok to still be burdened with the trauma from September 11, 2001. That day took so much from us.
But the path forward won’t be through a lens of fear, but rather understanding. Fear is all-consuming. It doesn’t allow for room to grow and learn. One thing 9/11 taught me is that life is never guaranteed. You get one day, you take one day, and you learn to love yourself in between.
Fear is just a diversion from the love you deserve to give yourself.
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