Everybody has their own September 11 story; everyone remembers exactly where they were when they heard the news. I’ve talked to people who live in France, kids who actually witnessed the buildings fall while in math class, even reporters who were at the scene, and everyone has their own story. I remember coming into the kitchen and looking at the TV expecting to hear something new about Chandra Levy, and instead seeing buildings with smoke coming from them. I remember thinking, Now what’s going on in Israel? Then, I very clearly remember the unassuming voice with which my mom told me, "There’s a little problem in New York."
That’s not the 9/11 story I tell people when they ask. Instead, I tell the story of how 9/11 really did change my life, even though I live 3,000 miles from New York. I became involved a month later when the U.S. began bombing Afghanistan. Every day there were stories of people trying to escape, stories about thousands of Afghans without clothes, blankets or food in Pakistani refugee camps. What especially struck me were the huge numbers of children who were suffering because of the war - not that they hadn’t suffered before. I started researching refugee camps, and one foreboding fact kept coming up - winter was fast approaching and over half the refugees (mostly children) were expected to freeze to death. This was too horrible to imagine, and I wanted to do all I could to help.
I decided that I would send as many blankets, warm clothes and sleeping bags as I could to the kids and teenagers in the refugee camps. I then discovered that the American Friends Service Community was holding a drive for the same reason, so I combined mine with theirs. I set up bins at schools throughout the Bay Area, and in three weeks had collected 30 huge bags full of warm supplies, which were sent to Pakistan just in time for the winter. It was incredibly gratifying how much my school and friends supported me, and how many people turned their rooms upside-down to find old clothes for the Afghan youth.
But I didn’t want this effort to end my involvement, so I tried to figure out what else I could do. I discovered that the Feminist Majority was raising money to fund schools, pay teachers and buy school supplies for Afghan girls, and decided this would be my next project. Over the next few months, I collected hundreds of dollars to fund education for girls in Afghanistan, another truly gratifying experience. Last year, I held another drive to collect school supplies for children in Afghanistan. I just finished a drive where I collected hundreds of hygiene kits (with soap, toothbrushes, toothpaste, razors and nail clippers) to be distributed to kids and teens in refugee camps in Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran and Pakistan.
Now, I am focusing on increasing awareness of how teens, especially girls, live in the Middle East. I have written articles for my school newspaper about the latest bombings of girls schools, demonstrations against female education, schools that have been closed, and the few schools that are surviving the turmoil. I also am working with a program called "Sister Schools of San Diego" that allows U.S. teenagers to communicate with teens in the Middle East.
My involvement in community service for the Middle East has truly changed me. I realize how much I take for granted, and am trying to change my attitude toward material things. I want to be a better person, and my work is helping me realize exactly who I want to be. I also hope that some of those I talk to, or who donate clothes or give money, take what they are doing to heart. My goal is to influence enough people in both the U.S. and the Middle East so that the next generation will aim for a more peaceful solution, a happier future and the spread of cultural ideas.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.