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Sayu Bhojwani

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Ten Years Later: A Return to Our Ideals

Posted: 09/09/11 02:02 PM ET

Ten years ago, on September 11, 2011, I cast my first vote. It had been over a decade since I turned 18, but I left the country of my childhood at 17 to come to the U.S. as an international student. Through a long and circuitous path, I finally became a U.S. citizen in December 2000. I registered to vote at my swearing in ceremony, and excitedly anticipated the day when I could finally participate fully in the American democratic process. Alas, my first vote did not count, as it was cast only an hour or so before the historic and horrific attacks on our country. The New York City primary had to be rescheduled to a later date, as the City's residents struggled to recover from the loss, shock and fear brought on by the attacks.

In the months after the attack, I voted in the rescheduled primary and then in the general election, exercising my democratic right even as members of my family and my community fought for theirs. Five years prior to September 11, I founded a youth organization, South Asian Youth Action (SAYA!) in Elmhurst, Queens. Later, as the executive director, I realized that the young people our organization served, the kids I spent most of my waking hours with, were targets of harassment at school. Not just by fellow students, but also by teachers and administrators. My parents, born in pre-partition India in what is now Pakistan and frequent travelers to the United States, were subjected to hours of questioning by immigration officials when they entered the country. And my partner ensured that he was especially clean-shaven before traveling, to avoid provoking unwarranted suspicion.

These anecdotes pale in comparison to the deaths and detentions that others experienced. For me, the loss was less concrete. My loved ones were alive, and I was largely spared bias-related harassment. But, in the months after the attack, I was more painfully aware of my difference than ever before. The hard-won sense of belonging that I felt after becoming a U.S. citizen (President Clinton even sent me a congratulatory letter, after all) was now constantly under threat simply because the males in my family and community looked like the men who flew planes into the twin towers.

Ten years later, I see how the targeted attacks on the South Asian community were the beginning of a broader movement against immigrants at large. From Special Registration in 2002, which required males from 25 countries to register with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, to SB 1070 in Arizona, which criminalizes large numbers of immigrants in that state, our country has been in a decade-long xenophobic fervor. These policies hurt families, pressure communities and destroy the fabric of our democracy. I am optimistic that on the tenth anniversary of September 11, we will consider returning to those ideals that made us the subject of attack -- the ideals of tolerance, diversity and opportunity, all of which make me a proud American.