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'The Ripple Effects': Growing Up In Pakistan On 9/11

Islamabad, Pakistan at sunset
Sunset view of capital of Islamabad, Pakistan.

I'm Sam Nelis and I live in Winooski. On September 11, I was in seventh grade. And at the time, I was living in Islamabad, Pakistan, with my family. My dad's originally from Belgium, my mom's originally from Montreal, and they're international teachers. So they were teaching at an international English-speaking school in Pakistan. And we were there for about five years. This was at the tail end of it. So I was there from third grade all the way through seventh grade.

This story is part of VPR’s 9/11 remembrance project, featuring the voices of Vermonters reflecting on how their lives were changed by 9/11.To find the full project, go to www.vpr.org/911.

Because of the time difference, it was the evening time, I remember walking into the living room, and my dad, my father, was watching BBC — I think that was the news that he liked to watch there — and kind of saw the towers on fire and everything. And honestly [I] thought he was watching a movie until then I quickly realized what was going on.

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Our reaction was shock, I think, at first. Kind of like, "Whoa, what is going on?" And then very quickly, bin Laden and Al Qaeda kind of came out saying that they were responsible for it. And so, right then and there, we knew immediately that it was going to directly affect our immediate lives — especially because I think even that evening, they were already talking about him fleeing to Pakistan, specifically, to hide. And we're in Pakistan.

We had already been evacuated once a couple years prior because of some tension between the Pakistani and Indian border. There was conflict there, and there were some nuclear threats, so we had been evacuated. I was younger then, so I kind of just went with the flow and didn't really understand too much was going on. But for this instance, for September 11, I was old enough to understand like, "OK, this is probably going to change a lot of things."

Very quickly, you saw all of the kind of tension and frankly, hate towards folks from that area of the world. And a lot of discrimination started happening. And you've heard the stories of people beating up folks of color who potentially looked like they come from those areas of the world.
Sam Nelis

By the next day, we had a requirement from the American Embassy to be evacuated, which meant you had to leave the country within a few days — or something like that. And so: stress. You know, you feel the stress as a kid. You feel that little bit of fear, of course.

It's interesting when you live there full-time, I think a lot of our family here, you see the stuff on the news and they thought it was a dangerous place. But it's not. Islamabad was a very safe place, relatively speaking, to a lot of places in the world. And we never had direct interactions where we felt unsafe ever.

And so that was a little bit of a part of it, for me, was that then, very quickly, you saw all of the kind of tension and, frankly, hate towards folks from that area of the world. And a lot of discrimination started happening. And you've heard the stories of people beating up folks of color who potentially looked like they come from those areas of the world.

And that was always very hard too, because that was my community. There were all my friends I had from Pakistan. I had some friends from Afghanistan. I had some friends from Germany, from Italy, from everywhere — it was an international school.

And when I'm in Pakistan, I'm calling myself an American and Canadian, but I had never really lived too long in America or Canada. So it was a little bit embarrassing, a little bit of shame I felt, I think, as someone who has an American passport, to see that kind of reaction.

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We went to Canada. My parents had a house a little bit north of Montreal. I ended up going to a school there for a couple months. Everyone was asking me about my experience in Pakistan, and just kind of a little bit of the ignorance of this part of the world in a lot of ways, especially for kids.

People asked me, "Did I meet bin Laden? People asked me if I lived in a tent or drove a camel to school — these kind of ignorant, stupid questions. We were there for maybe a couple months. And then we ... actually went back to Pakistan and continued living.

It was just ... Always, for me, still reflecting on it now, the biggest impact was still just the perception that everyone started to turn against folks who wore salwar kameez, or had a beard, or had this type of hat and discrimination at airports and things like that. That always was just the biggest negative from all of this.

Personally, I think that a lot of people's lives got ruined after the fact — as many people's lives got ruined during it, obviously — but there were a lot of ripple effects still today, I think.

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