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Sixteen years after Sept. 11, a need for superheroes

Where was our superhero?

Sixteen years ago, we needed one. We needed a powerful force, someone or something that could stop those planes from crashing into those buildings. Nearly 3,000 lives were stolen on Sept. 11, 2001. It’s the day all fantasies ended, the day we accepted a reality that we long suspected:

No superhero will ever swoop in. The superheroes need to be us.

It happened that day, as firefighters and police plunged into burning buildings to save as many people as they could. It happened that day aboard United Airlines Flight 93, when passengers realized their plane was on a suicide mission toward Washington and banded together to overtake the terrorists and down the plane in a grassy Pennsylvania field.

But it also happened in those days in ways that are much smaller. Junaid Zubairi, a Pakistan native and professor of computer and information sciences at SUNY Fredonia, remembers that directly after 9/11, his wife, Shagufta, was hesitant to step outside their home. She covers her head with a hijab, which is an expression of her Muslim faith. But in the aftermath of 9/11, she suspected that might draw ire.

For three days, she stayed inside. Until women who were the Zubairi family’s neighbors and friends in Fredonia stood by her side.

“Women came to her and supported her,” said Zubairi. “They said, ‘We will also cover our head, to support you.’ ”

It was a small act of superheroism.

Zubairi recounted this story to me on a recent evening at a Tim Hortons coffee shop in Hamburg, the town where he now lives. With a sturdy posture, neat beard and soft eyes behind his thick glasses, he projects a calm, professorial confidence. He earned his doctorate from Syracuse University in 1991, then taught in Pakistan and Malaysia, before coming to Fredonia in 1999.

Zubairi’s thick accent makes it clear that he emigrated here, but if he has stories of racism or intimidation on U.S. soil, he isn’t offering them. Instead, he is sharing examples of compassion and understanding: Those friends who stood with his wife in the days after 9/11. Or of the first few years after the Zubairis moved to Hamburg, and were among the few Muslim families in the predominantly Christian suburb. They invited neighbors to their house for traditional Muslim celebrations.

Sitting next to Zubairi was his daughter Sana, a freshman at the University at Buffalo.

“My dad said he’s had a great experience,” she said. “But he didn’t go to public school here.”

For the last couple of years, as Donald Trump pounded his way through a crowded Republican field and wrestled with Hillary Clinton for the presidency, Sana has become increasingly vocal. Talk of a Muslim ban, and what she feels is the general emboldening of xenophobes and racists, prompted her to start attending protests and rallies as she wrapped up her schooling at Frontier High School.

To be clear, none of the talk about deportations or repealing former President Barack Obama’s orders to protect young, undocumented immigrants apply to the Zubairis. They are all American citizens, and Sana was born in Buffalo. She is speaking not from a place of fear or resentment, but rather a mix of frustration and hope. Freedom of speech also can become freedom of ignorance, something she experienced as she got deeper into her teenage years.

“People start to notice that you’re different, you stand out,” said Sana, who isn't wearing a hijab, but rather chooses to let her long, dark hair fall over her shoulders. “They start to be curious about who you are. But they don’t know where the line is.”

Sana pulls out her phone. She wants to give an example, but she’s slightly hesitant. The people she went to school with “were really nice kids,” she said, and she doesn’t want to embarrass the girl whose text she is about to share. But the message on her screen, which she has saved, she said, is “so, so bad” — not for meanness, or even its intent but for the depth of its misunderstanding.

Sana covers the name at the top of the screen. I can see it’s written in all caps, the texting equivalent of screaming. She began reading the message aloud (punctuation and spelling edited here for clarity):

SANA, I FEEL BAD.

A PERSON LIKE YOU JUST SMILED AT ME AND I DIDN’T SMILE BACK. HE PROBABLY THINKS I’M RACIST NOW.

SANA, I WANT TO FORMALLY APOLOGIZE. I’M FREAKING OUT.

Let’s pause: A “person like you” — what does that mean? And why would the girl apologize to Sana, who was not even with her when she saw this man?

The answer: Because, as the girl pointed out in a text, IT WAS DEFINITELY AN ARAB MAN.

Sana, whose family is from South Asia, pointed out, “I am not even Arab.”

The girl responded: AREN’T THEY, LIKE, SIMILAR? HE WAS A MID-EASTERN MAN WITH A WIFE WEARING HER THING LIKE A NINJA.

Sana put down the phone. Her voice, which was level to this moment, now bled with a bemused exasperation.

“So this girl saw a Middle Eastern man at, I don’t know, maybe a shopping mall, and he smiled,” she said. “She didn’t smile back, so she apologized to me. How did that make sense? Like, caps-lock-freaking-out. Like I’m somehow attached to him, like we’re all one big monolith. Like we’re all the same.”

While Junaid Zubairi hopes a computer program he's developing will help save lives in emergencies and dispel stereotypes, his daughter Sana wishes Muslims no longer had to prove themselves in that way. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

“And she said, ‘What is the difference? I’m a white girl.’ It was just dumb.”

It was misunderstanding.

Sitting at that Tim Hortons, as Melissa Etheridge’s “Come To My Window” blared through the sound system, I told the Zubairis about something I witnessed a couple of weeks earlier at the Chautauqua Institution. The writer Kelly Carlin, whose dad is the legendary late comic George Carlin, was hosting a discussion with  W. Kamau Bell, a 6-foot-4 Black man who once towered over a white-hooded Ku Klux Klanman on his CNN television show.

(Yes, that is Black is a capital “B.” “If Wikipedia is going to insist on capitalizing 'Klansman,' Bell writes in his book, “The Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau Bell,” “then I am certainly going to insist on capitalizing “Black.”)

It was a bright, pleasant day, the type where the sun splashes through tree branches and dapples the sidewalks. A few thousand people packed into the amphitheater for the Carlin-Bell program, which was co-produced by the Institution and the National Comedy Center, which is being built in nearby Jamestown.

Bell, a self-described “sociopolitical comedian” whose CNN show is called “United Shades of America,” gently – but truthfully – pointed out that the crowd was predominantly white.

“You’re all in a very privileged place,” Bell said to the crowd.

He wasn’t just talking about their place in life. The Chautauqua Institution itself is a summer home to many wealthy business executives.

“I think they know that,” Carlin said.

“Some of you are in a very privileged place twice,” Bell said. “Because you’re here, and the color of your skin.

“I feel a lot of you are like a bunch of Clark Kents pretending not to be Superman.”

It was a jabbing reminder to the audience that they could do more to make a difference – that they can be superheroes. The Chautauqua crowd, which is often politely reserved, responded with a standing ovation.

Later that day, I found Bell on a tour of the comedy center construction site in Jamestown. He was wearing a dark T-shirt with the words “Give All the Damns.” I asked him to expand on his message from the morning.

“A lot of times people try to hide from privilege: ‘I feel bad that I have all this privilege,’ which to me is like Clark Kent (saying), ‘I feel bad that I’m Superman,’ ” he said. “It’s like, no, you have to actually ‘cape up,’ as we say. Use the power for good.”

When I shared that story with the Zubairis, Junaid offered his own example of caping up.

He has been developing a computer-based system for helping first responders in a disaster send patients to the nearest hospitals with open beds. It's technology that could save lives. That in itself is a big deal, and in an ideal world – one not shaped by the horror of 9/11 – that is where this point should end.

But we do have 9/11, we do have misconceptions, and Zubairi hopes that his “positive contribution” may have a broader effect than even saving lives.

“When people see a Muslim professor is doing this, they’ll appreciate and understand that this is good work, and there is no reason to think that every Muslim is a terrorist,” said Zubairi said. 

As her dad talked about his projects, Sana looked on proudly.

“He’s really smart,” she said.

She struggles with the reality that he sees benefit in this not only because the technology will help people but because when it comes from a Muslim, it will help combat a misconception.

Sana wishes that misconception didn’t exist. She wishes that when a Muslim does something evil, people would stop assuming it is because he is a Muslim, but rather recognize that it was done because that person is bad.

“That’s just the world we live in, that we have all these labels," she said. “Change starts at an individual level. I think we all need to accept that maybe there is a problem in this country where we judge other people and label them: This color. This religion. I think we all need to go out and make friends with someone who is different from us.”

There it is: The simplest superhero action you can take. And it’s the most important one, too.

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