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We 'were instantly suspect': 9/11 changed everything for this Iranian-American family

A family sits for a portrait, with two boys in black suits to the left and one adult man in a suit in the background, and a woman in a red jacket to the right.
Christopher Helali, Courtesy
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Christopher Helali
A portrait of Christopher Helali (left) with his parents and brother in 1996.

We did not have an American flag outside of our house prior to 9/11. But after 9/11, my dad made sure to put an American flag outside the house, at least as a visual symbol that yeah, in this house, we also support the US. Even if secretly we were criticizing everything. It was a way of protection.

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.

My name is Christopher Helali. I am 33 years old and currently live in Vershire, Vt.

I grew up with an immigrant family: my father is from Iran and my mom was born to political refugee parents in Montreal—my grandparents were both on the side of the communists during the Greek Civil War and World War II. So I grew up with a very political family.

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People think that you're not supposed to talk about politics and religion. Those are the only two things we did speak about! We didn't really care too much about sports and the weather. That definitely shaped my childhood.

I was just about 13 years old, a few days shy of turning 13, on 9/11. I remember the day, extremely vividly. I was in art class, and my brother ran into the class and came up to me and said a plane had crashed into one of the buildings in New York City. And I was shocked. I said, "That cannot be possible. What are you talking about?"

"We were in a majority white town in Paxton, Mass. A little bit of diversity, but not much -- we were the diversity in many ways. So most Middle Eastern Americans, Muslim Americans, were instantly suspect. Instantly. 'Do you have family over there? How religious are you?' And my dad's not really that religious. But you were suspect."
Christopher Helali, Vershire

It took a few more minutes until eventually there was an announcement over the intercom that an event had happened. Once the period ended, we ran to our science teacher's class, and we turned on the TV, and we saw the second plane hit. I instantly started to feel this heavy feeling, like, this is a pivotal moment, everything's going to shift from here, everything.

I got home. My parents were, like, ghost faced, you know? And my dad was just so quiet, so worried, because I think that, already, the idea was that this is going to come and fall on our heads, whatever this is. We knew that we would bear the brunt of that, as Americans who were from the Middle East.

My life before and after, it was completely different in terms of how I was in the community and how the community responded to our being there. Because we were in a majority white town in Paxton, Mass., right outside of Worcester, Mass. A little bit of diversity, but not much — we were the diversity in many ways. So, most Middle Eastern Americans, Muslim Americans, were instantly suspect, instantly. "Do you have family over there? How religious are you?" And my dad's not really that religious. But you were suspect.

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You know, we were interested in rocketry and robotics — all of that put us on prime lists. All the books that I checked out from the library. I remember the Axis of Evil speech, because instantly, now I was evil! You remember: Iraq, Iran, and the DPRK [Democratic People's Republic of Korea]. Well, now, all of a sudden, I'm Iranian American; I must somehow be evil! I must somehow have a connection; maybe I'm sympathetic. That whole period, I think, about 2001 to basically the Obama era, was a lot of prejudice.

christopher-helali-vpr-paxton-school-2000.jpg
Christopher Helali's school portrait from 2000.

My parents, prior to 9/11, never really had a conversation like I think some other families do, especially Black Americans, or people who are indigenous, or Latinx. For my family, it was more, "This is our country, let's blend in, let's try to be a part of the community," even with all the criticisms that my parents had, and that I had growing up.

That kind of conversation didn't happen until after 9/11, when it was, "Be very careful about what you say. Be very careful about who you talk to. Be careful about what you read and show to other people." This idea that we had to self-surveil, you know. I had to watch myself. I had to be careful about what I thought, what I said. You know, it was very tough. Looking back on it, I definitely grew up a lot faster than I think most young people do.

Twenty years later, I look at my own identity and I think that, primarily, I identify with my Iranian and Greek heritage before my American heritage, because I grew up with immigrant parents, because I was so rooted in our culture and our tradition and our language.

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Do I identify as the American of the shallow patriotism of football games, and baseball games and military parades? No. I look at myself as an American in the same vein as all those who struggled for the best of what the ideal of America is, not necessarily what America was in history. But what the ideal was, which was a pluralistic society where everybody could hold hands, where there was solidarity, where everyone could be empowered and could have equality, and could have a better life. That's what it means to be American, in my opinion.

And I served. I joined the military to help pay for school, and I was supposed to be deployed to Afghanistan. And I was able to get out of it and go to the Chaplain Corps, and then I resigned my commission.

And I think about had I gone. For what? What would have been accomplished? 20 years! Political power grows out of the barrel of the gun, and who has the gun? The Taliban! There's no effective resistance against the Taliban now, not even from the Northern Alliance.

And I don't think we've learned the lessons from 9/11 and the whole post-9/11 “War on Terror.” How can you fight terror? You know how you can fight terror? By not supporting terror regimes in the Middle East. By not supporting these brutal monarchies, the Gulf States that export this Wahhabi and Salafist ideology.

You know, we never really went the peace route. And I wonder what the world would be like, had we done that, had we said on, 9/12, "Okay. Let's everybody get to the table, and let's see how we can solve a lot of our issues." But they didn't do that.

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So many questions, so much pain, so much suffering, so much death and destruction. And I look back and I just wonder, where are we going now and have people really learned the lessons? And I'm very ... you know, I have ... I have three kids, two that live with me, and I'm very, very nervous about the future. But ever hopeful! You know, as a good Communist, I'm always hopeful about a better future. I hope we get there.

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