The students recalled their time and place, as so many Americans did that day, when the Twin Towers were struck. Many of them were in their elementary classrooms, but when news hit, their lives were changed forever.
Their peers began to distance themselves from them. They were taunted for their identity because they were thought to be associated with terrorists, and they experienced uncertainty within their religion.
Held on the 13th anniversary of 9/11, the University of Florida’s first United in Remembrance event educated more than one hundred students on the importance of acceptance.
The event consisted of two parts: a panel, which discussed how the attack has affected the South Asian American, Muslim American, Sikh American and Arab American communities; and a candlelight vigil.
“We’ve officially helped create something innovative and inspirational for others,” said Narayan Kulkarni, the event’s organizer. “In the words of Margaret Mead, ‘Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.’”
Six students were selected to represent the affected communities in the panel, which was directed by Kulkarni. He presented a series of five questions for the speakers to reply to.
The questions inquired about the external effects on their family, religious identity, and societal interactions from micro-aggressions to isolation. Other questions delved deeper into personal accounts of discrimination, doubts of identity, moments of vulnerability and a present of progress and acceptance.
For Neal Singh, a 24-year-old panelist, middle school was when he decided to show people that the Sikh community is a group of peaceful people who contribute to society and do meaningful things. He learned to relate with others in order to understand his faith and how other people perceive him.
“People respected me for being open and honest, not focusing on the aggressions, but on what our community has done to make a difference,” he said.
With age, the panelists said they grew thicker skin and learned to speak out to correct misjudgments and accusations.
Negative stereotypes and false perception of Islamic beliefs led panelist Amana Abdulwakeel, 21, to more strongly defend her own beliefs and become hypersensitive to micro-aggressions.
“Sensitivity is a good thing because if I became desensitized to all these things, it would only perpetuate the socialization of these negative stereotypes… and I wouldn’t be able to formulate the words to speak against it,” she said.
After the panel, the candlelight vigil commenced with words to commemorate those affected by the terrorist attacks.
“Too often we focus on the past and not enough of the future. We act out in revenge instead of forgiveness. Here, tonight, we learned about the past and how we’ve moved forward,” Tony Yin, 19, said of the night’s significance.
Panelist Hayat Kemal, 19, said she believes people don’t change their perspective on their own. Someone has to say something for that change to happen.
Through this process, she said she realized that it’s okay to be one’s self, “because even if someone else doesn’t accept it, there’s always other people who will.”