The United States paused this week to mark 17 years since the September 11 terrorist attacks, which claimed the lives of nearly 3,000 people from the U.S. and around the world. The impact of the day still echoes through life all these years later due the trauma it caused to so many people, which still lingers, and the wars it led to in Afghanistan and Iraq, which have destroyed the lives of millions, among many other horrific consequences throughout the world. While it’s necessary to mourn the day and commemorate all the lives lost, we also need to celebrate those who chose to respond to the tragedy constructively rather than destructively.
It is said that pain leads to pain. And the pain that was caused on September 11 has indeed led to much pain in Iraq and Afghanistan. More than that, it has led to the rise of monsters from ISIS and the Taliban. But there are also those who have chose to find another path of dealing with pain — one that is based on building bridges of peace rather than war and fear in the ensuing years.
Two American women from the Minneapolis area demonstrated their commitment to peace building as they filled a container of books to help the University of Mosul repopulate its library after ISIS burned all of the books stored there in 2014. Jessica Belt, 29 and Erin Hart, 37, are two young mothers who have led a campaign in response to an Iraqi professor’s call via social media for the world to help send books to the Library of Mosul. With volunteers from all walks of life — students, teachers, peace activists, even a hydrologist — they managed to collect 10,000 books and raise $15,000 through crowdfunding to pay for the cost of the container to ship this month from New Jersey to Mosul, Iraq.
Belt is the executive director of the Iraqi American Reconciliation Project and Hart is the only other employee of this small NGO in the Minneapolis area The two women recall the impact of September 11 as having raised their awareness to a new reality, and inspiring them to action. “I was in my junior year in college in IOWA Nebraska. I was walking to go to literature class and noticed that everyone was watching a big screen TV in the campus hall. Everything froze that day and we tried to understand what was happening,” Hart recalled in an interview with Women in the World.
The daughter of a Bible studies teacher, Belt was living in Beirut Lebanon with her three other siblings and parents. Her father was teaching in a school there. “I remember watching in our living room, the plane and the twin towers. We started receiving phone calls from our Lebanese friends and colleagues saying how sorry they were at the news. I remember going to lunch that day and the people in the restaurant approached us [and said] they were sorry for what was happening,” Belt said. “I just remember how kind and thoughtful everyone was there.”
Both women met each other after Hart resigned from her State Department job to build her family in Minneapolis and went on to become good friends. Together with more than 20 volunteers they ended up deciding to do all they can to build peace “in a time where our government is not in the position to show the best face of America and to reflect the values of our people. People need to step in,” both women explained.
“People feel powerless because we have the images of the world in pain and Muslims and Arabs as terrorists,” Hart explains. “This is an opportunity to show that we are not our government. That our community thinks of Muslims and Arabs as our friends, our neighbors and our community. The best thing we can do is to establish peace in Iraq and in the world.” Belt quickly adds her own thoughts: “Muslims and Iraqi immigrants are not something to fear. They are friends, they have similar hopes and dreams and wants to partake in the community. For me personally, diversity in our community is a beautiful thing and it benefits all of us as Americans to have people from across the world make up our community.”
As Americans commemorate the day of loss with each passing year, let us also heed the words of Hart and Belt, two women who are holding the torch of hope and beautiful American values. “We are afraid of things that we do not know. Some of our projects [are meant] to break down the barriers. Because we are scared when we don’t’ understand the others,” Belt said, explaining the spirit behind their work. May all join them and may the books they sent to Mosul contribute to a much needed peace there and in the world. For now, they were joined by the group Veterans for Peace, which sent 5,000 reading glasses to accompany the books. It is the stories of hope that we must elevate to equally honor this day of loss.
Zainab Salbi is an author, media commentator and the founder of Women for Women International — a grassroots humanitarian and development organization dedicated to serving women survivors of war. Salbi is an editor at large for Women in the World, reporting on the intersection of Middle Eastern and Western cultures, and is the host of PBS’s #MeToo, Now What. For more information on Salbi’s work visit www.zainabsalbi.com.
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