Susan Retik, 9/11 Widow, Helps Afghan Widows Through Nonprofit Beyond The 11th
This story is part of the "The Impact of 9/12," series, which focuses on those who were inspired to give back after the tragedies of September 11, 2001.
As fall set in and the dust cleared from the September 11 attacks, Susan Retik gave birth to her third child: a baby girl. She had lost Dave, her husband and college sweetheart, on American Airlines Flight 11 to Los Angeles. With three kids and her American dream shattered, Retik looked across the world and felt a certain calling.
Retik began work on co-founding the nonprofit, Beyond the 11th, in spring 2002 with a friend who also lost her husband on 9/11. The organization raises money for nongovernment organizations that help widows in Afghanistan learn sustainable skills so that they can find jobs.
To date, the organization has helped more than 10,000 women.
"When the U.S. began to invade Afghanistan, I looked across oceans and continents to the women in Afghanistan who were widowed as a result of the same terrorist network that had killed my husband," Retik tells the Huffington Post. "I just felt a kinship with them and thought, 'What kind of support are they receiving after their husbands are murdered or die -- who supports them?'"
Retik described how complete strangers came to her aid after she lost Dave, sending her notes, meals and doing household tasks. She wanted to pay that goodwill forward.
"People always say, 'They're strangers! How can you feel this for these people?'" Retik says of the women she helps in Afghanistan. "And I try to explain, after 9/11, I had strangers from all over the country, and even around the world, reaching out to help me. And they didn't know me!"
The idea for her nonprofit originated when Retik wanted to simply reach out to just one other woman who also lost her husband -- just to make one connection -- as others had with her.
But Beyond the 11th ended up becoming something much bigger. She and co-founder, Patti Quigley, began holding fundraisers in the fall of 2004 to donate to organizations such as CARE. Their first fundraiser was a bike ride from Ground Zero to Boston and back, which raised almost $160,000 that year.
Retik won the Citizens Medal in 2010, awarded by President Obama at the White House. One of the highest civilian honors, the award recognizes people for their acts of service. Boston.com reported how Obama lauded Retik for the way she channeled her grief to do good:
"...nobody would have blamed Susan if she had turned inward with grief or with anger. But that isn't who she is,'' Obama said. "So instead, she and another widow started 'Beyond the 11th,' and this is a group that empowers Afghan widows affected by war and terrorism. And Susan says, 'These women are not our enemy.'"
Retik was able to witness the effects of her work firsthand when she traveled to Afghanistan in 2006 to shoot the documentary "Beyond Belief."
Through CARE's poultry program, for example, Retik was able to help Sahara, an Afghanistan woman, by supplying her with a chicken, feed and materials to build coops. Sahara was then able to sell products in the market.
Retik said that skeptics sometimes question her goals.
"People often ask me, 'Why would you want to help them over there?'", she says. "What I try to explain to people is that when people try to focus on our differences -- I'm Jewish, they're Muslim; I'm educated, they're not; I have economic security and they don't -- it's so easy to be indifferent."
Retik says she tries to look at commonalities, to identify with the women she helps.
"What I tried to focus on is that we're all mothers and we all want the same things for our kids. We want to live with peace and security and education and active healthcare. And these aren't American ideals--they're human -- they're universal."
Retik's efforts and outlook have had an impact on her own family.
She remarried, had another child and her whole family participates in fundraisers. Her oldest son, Ben, rode 62 miles to raise money for Afghan women who own a soccer ball manufacturing business. The 14-year-old also started "Soccer for Haiti," which collects soccer balls and sends them to kids in the earthquake-ravaged country. Ben and his friends also arranged for some of the handmade Afghan soccer balls to be sent to children in Haiti.
"Our kids have grown up with this all these years," Retik noted. "But I think they're more aware than other kids of the needs of people outside their own community."
Beth Murphy, executive producer and director of Beyond Belief says Retik's story of choosing joy and growth after losing her husband is what keeps her moving.
"I've heard of post-traumatic stress syndrome, but I've never heard of post-traumatic growth," Murphy says. "That if you are able to make your way through tragedy, there can be something good and positive that comes out of it."
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