Americans Helping Americans Abroad

Perspectives from Abroad

AARO members from around the globe share stories and perspectives, from economic analysis to human interest. Their reports tell us about the unique challenges they face and the inventive solutions they find their host countries.

We welcome contributions from members everywhere! If you would like to share a story, a lesson learned, an obstacle overcome or a new challenge on the horizon, please use this form to contact us.

We are also interested in articles that appear (preferably in English) in your local press giving more information or new perspectives on issues that AARO is following closely. Feel free to send us links to such articles and, where possible, we will post them for others to read.

September 11th Tribute, Anthony Quintano, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

I was one of about 15 U.S. diplomats studying Arabic in Tunis, Tunisia, on September 11, 2001. Many of us had days earlier been reading Arabic articles in regional print media, as part of our training, citing U.S. government sources as claiming that al-Qa’ida had mysteriously and suddenly gone “silent.”

On the afternoon in question, my class was finishing up shortly after 1400 local time. We could hear through the closed classroom door the sound of the television in the common room near the front door. It was clear once the classroom door opened for us to leave that someone had turned the volume way up while watching CNN. I descended to the common room and saw two locally hired instructors staring silently at the television screen that showed smoke pouring out of the top of one of the World Trade Center towers. It looked almost like a cigarette.

The CNN commentators speculated that there had been some sort of freakish air accident involving an airplane crashing into the tower like the bomber that flew into the Empire State Building in 1945. I sat down and joined the growing crowd of students and teachers transfixed by the images. Occasionally, someone spoke but rarely. At 1503, we all saw the second airliner strike the other tower. Everyone gasped. Some reflexively blurted out “F***!” or “Holy s***!” One of the teachers declared “This is an attack. Those al-Qa’ida motherf*****rs did this!” We all looked at each other and then the screen. Although some people had left for home after the first plane strike, no one who had seen the second strike made a move toward the door. I phoned my wife at home to tell her to turn on the TV.

When word began circulating about some sort of explosion in DC – maybe National Airport, maybe the Capitol, maybe the State Department – students began running to the Internet room to clarify what was happening. Remember, this was 2001 and this was Tunisia. The connection was slow, and non-broadcast media were not fully capable of reporting in real time. Some students tried to contact friends and colleagues in DC, generally by e-mail. The idea of a car bomb at the State Department had freaked most of us out. I tried to reach a friend on the Japan desk, both at his State and personal e-mail addresses. No response. Those who tried to use the phone had no better luck, either because no one answered or lines were busy.

Eventually, we all left. The American director of the facility had checked with the embassy security office for guidance as to special precautions we should observe. There really were none beyond go home, keep a low profile, avoid crowds, and be extremely cautious. I usually walked (or biked) to and from the language school. That day, I got a lift home. Everything outside was eerily normal.

My wife and daughter, a bit resentful that we had preempted her usual afternoon cartoons, were watching the coverage. I had a chance to check my e-mail and received a message from my friend. He and thousands of other Department employees had been ordered to go home. In the crush of people trying to leave town at once under stressful conditions, he had walked across the Roosevelt Bridge over the Potomac to Rosslyn whence he made his way home to Ballston a few miles away. He had heard the rumors of a car bomb somewhere near the State Department building, but he assured me no such thing had happened. It was the only piece of good news that day.

– William Jordan

I remember listening to the radio at breakfast and hearing about the first airplane crashing into one of the Towers. I worked at the town library and was on the morning shift. Just before leaving the house, the second airplane hit the other Tower. Now, my impression was that this was not an accident. It was about 8:45 am.

By the time I arrived at the library, it was clear that there was an attack on the USA since the Pentagon was another target. By mid-morning, the Towers had collapsed 5I saw this on TV in the break room) and we were told to return home.

I lived in Clifton, New Jersey, at the time and my husband and I took a walk to an street parallel to our own which gave a pretty good view of lower Manhattan. All we could see were two columns of smoke - very dark, dense smoke. It was so shocking there were no words and there are still no words to describe what we felt.

And my son was in Yokosuka, Japan at that time, serving on the USS Kitty Hawk.

– Carolyn Rackauskas

I was working at Standard & Poor’s in Paris. At 3 p.m. local time/9 a.m. New York, I dialed in to a scheduled conference call with the headquarters. My colleagues had seen, from their office windows, the first airplane hit the Twin Towers. We thought it must have been a horrible accident. Minutes later, the colleague who had organized the call said, “Another plane just hit. We have to go.” Click.

That evening I had planned to have dinner with an American friend, but we postponed it by a day so we could follow the evening news.

It took several days before I heard from my New York colleagues, all of whom were safe, thankfully.

– Therese Hogan

I was ambulating in a nondescript IKEA outlet in an outlying Paris suburb when I received a phone call on my new Nokia cellphone. The call was from my wife. She told me that yet another terrorist attack had just taken place, this time not in Europe, as was often the case, but on U.S. soil. I curtly replied that the fact that I was from upstate New York did not warrant a special wireless phone call every time people were murdered in New York City.

Over the years, countless terrorist attacks all over the world, each with its set of gory images, had become staple fare for the mainstream media. In Paris alone, there wasn’t a single year that went by without several bloody terror attacks. After all, France is the birthplace of La Terreur and the ideology structuring modern terrorism. Two decades earlier, while visiting the historic Marais quarter where my wife had gone to high school, we sampled the Ashkenazi cuisine of the famed Jo Goldenberg restaurant. Exactly one week later, a grenade was thrown into the very room we had dined in and the guests were mowed down with machine guns. The Fates spin out our destinies in a very unequal manner.

I asked my wife if she wanted me to purchase anything else at IKEA and hung up. A couple of minutes later l noticed that a small number of customers were slowly congregating around a colorful and flickering screen. I looked on and saw the images of one of the Twin Towers crashing down. This was not just another isolated terrorist attack, this was War. I called back my wife.

On the Paris Metro train I later witnessed three exhilarated French teenagers of Middle-Eastern descent noisily jubilating their “victory.” I lost my temper and menacingly called them out. They quickly jumped off the wagon at the following station. Over the next few days several of my highly-educated French acquaintances elaborated intricate theories as to why the September 11 attack was justified. I half-heartedly debated their arcane arguments, but the schadenfreude I saw in their eyes left me powerless. Life in Paris would never be the same.

– Bernard Fuhrer

On September 11, 2001 I was in Sarajevo plotting out a workshop for Bosnian journalists when the local office manager burst into the room. “Come quick! TV is showing something terrible happening in America right now!”

Running behind Amna to her office I found the entire staff staring open mouthed at TV images of smoke coming out of a New York skyscraper, people running through the streets in panic, white dust falling like snow. “Oh my God, there’s another one!” someone screamed and we froze in horror as an airplane crashed into what I could now identify as one of New York’s Twin Towers. The Bosnian staffers gathered around me in a group hug, tears in their eyes though not yet in mine.

“We had twin towers here in Sarajevo,” Mirko, the photographer, said in a low voice, staring at the screen. “Of course, they were smaller and their destruction took several days.” He passed his hands over his face in the Muslim prayer gesture. I knew that his wife had been killed in that attack.

“But such things don’t happen in America!” Amna shouted flinging an arm at the screen. “Well”, Mirko groaned, “it looks like America’s age of innocence may be over,”

A year and a half later I was in Kabul, to cover the reaction of Afghans to the bombing of Tora Bora in retaliation against the man held responsible for that terrorist attack. But Osama bin Laden had escaped to Pakistan. One day while walking down Chicken Street with my interpreter, I spied a small carpet hanging outside a shop. It was a bit of Afghan kitsch, not very well made and certainly not old. Tiny airplanes, red and yellow flames, the words USA, Afghanistan, First Impact, Second Impact, woven in drab hues of green and brown around two skyscrapers. I looked in shock at Saboor.

“Haven’t you seen these before?” He laughed at my consternation. “They’re all over Kabul. U.S. soldiers, and journalists like you, love them.” A grinning, obsequious boy joined us. “You like? Kilim good,” he said, fondly stroking the carpet.

I reached into my backpack to find the worn copy of the 9/11 commemorative issue of Newsweek magazine I carried everywhere in Afghanistan. “Look at this! Don’t you know what it shows?” I flipped through pages of photos of planes slamming into buildings and bursting into in flame, terrified people running through dense clouds of smoke and ash. The boy broke into a wide grin and said something in Pashto.

“He wants to know if it’s a movie,” Saboor said, suppressing a smile. “Few have television in Afghanistan. Most Afghans believe the U.S. bombing of Tora Bora was to avenge the Taliban assassination on September 11 of our hero, Ahmed Shah Masoud.”

“But my God, more than 3,000 people died!” I was incredulous.

Saboor shrugged. “Many thousands more died during the decades of war in Afghanistan.” I bought the carpet of course and it now lies in the hall of an apartment in Paris.

– Pamela Taylor

We began a ceremony a few days after 9/11 to provide comfort and a place to gather together. It happens every year. We read letters from firefighters who lost their “brothers” as well as other people who lost friends and family. There is music – “Amazing Grace”, “Where Were You When The World Stopped Turning”, “Taps”. Each year we read names - the names of the men of Squad One in Brooklyn. (Our community also supported a widows and orphans fund they set up. 10 women lost their husbands and 26 children their Dads.) Twelve out of 20 men from Squad One died.

We visited Squad One on December 26th 2001 and brought 2 of the members to The Hague in January 2002. That relationship continues as does our connection with the families of other firefighters who died that day.

Where was I? In the American School marking papers. The phone rang in the Teachers lounge. Another teacher picked it up, looked and said “They just bombed the Trade Center.” I went down to the library. A TV was on. Two people were watching and 2 HS students kept coming in and out, looking in disbelief. At one point a man sitting in the room said, almost to himself, “it’s gonna fall.” It was literally seconds later that the South Tower imploded. Never ever will I forget it.

Two days later on Thursday morning I came to school. There were 1400 white roses, each with a little note, in the front lobby. They were from the kids in the Dutch HS close by the American School. “They didn’t know what else to do.” On September 11th 2002, we planted a magnolia tree in front of the school. There is a painted tile in front of the tree that reads “May we grow and blossom like this tree.”

Right now, I’m writing and editing the texts for the ceremony. It takes time, lots of time. Each single word has to be right!

– Roberta Enschede, Wassenaar NL

September 11th 2001, I was a tech writer at the branch office of the French multinational, Air Liquid, on route de la Reine in Boulogne next to Paris. The administrator of our local computer network was set up in an office near where I worked. On the afternoon of September 11th, he called out, “Regardez ce qui se passe à New York!”. The two World Trade Center towers were shown in his computer screen. The first plane had crashed into one tower.

I thought wow, surely people on a couple of floors of the building have been killed. It came to my mind the 1943 crash of a two engine B-26 bomber, in bad weather, into the Empire State Building, causing extensive damage to 2 or 3 floors. Soon our system administrator called out again. The second tower had been hit. By now many of us had gathered around. I remember thinking that the buildings were made of a steel framework. JP4 cannot cause these to fail. Imagine everyone’s surprise when first one then the next building collapsed! Quite astounded, I think my first thought was we are going to have new problems traveling back to the USA.

My wife, Hong, had returned on the 10th from the Parents’ Week at Boston University where daughter Alexandra was a new freshman. When I got home that evening, I learned that daughter Desiree, who lives in Costa Rica, had called in a panic a little earlier. Her mother had caught one of those flights from Boston Logan 24 hours before!

The next day, the director of our Air Liquid office held a memorial service with all the personnel on that site.

– Alex Brassert

On September 11, 2001, I was at work. I was still new to the company, their first technical writer, and had already taken time off for a pre-scheduled vacation followed by my father’s death at the end of August, so I was still being trained on the software. That day, I was sitting in on a training session between the project manager and the business customer’s travel manager. She was learning how to set up the tool to conform to her company’s travel policy. At about 3:00, we decided it was time for a coffee break.

As we came out of the conference room there was a buzz. “What did you say? What’s going on? Where?” The secretary, who had the radio on, told us she understood that a plane had crashed.... You know the rest. Then, we didn’t know. I immediately got on the phone and called home, knowing that my son did not have a long day at school that day. I asked him to turn on the TV to CNN and tell me what was going on. He did. As the images of the second plane came on, he asked what movie this was; he had never heard of it. Then, it hit that this was not a movie. I got off the phone with him and asked the C.E.O. in the office next to mine if I could call the States. Of course, he said, and I tried to call my brother in Pittsburgh but calls just didn’t get through. When news came of the plane that crashed near Pittsburgh, I was particularly upset.

The training session never resumed. I made one more phone call before leaving the office. I called the American Aid Society to offer a room to Americans stranded in Paris because flights to the U.S. had been cancelled.

I got home and sat in front of the TV. In retrospect, that’s not the thing to do. Since then, when there’s a major event, I allow one news cycle and as soon as it starts repeating, I turn it off.

Not long afterwards, there was an announcement that there would be a ceremony at the American Church. I don’t know if I would have gone to that. But I was upset that I could not. It was reserved for dignitaries. President Chirac and the U.S. Ambassador were going. There was a feeling of community that was new to me. Americans seeking out other Americans and talking about September 11. I do not live in a town with other Americans. There was one other American working at the company. Via email, though, this feeling of community was building. I was a member of AAWE, not an active member, but enough to get emails and monthly news. And one AAWE member was upset about the exclusion of everyday Americans at the American Church to call for a manifestation of community of our own. On the same day as the ceremony at the church, we would assemble at the Statue of Liberty on the Ile aux Cygnes. I got permission to leave work early enough and my eldest daughter, who suddenly felt very American, joined me, there. I don’t remember how many of us there were. More than 20, yes, less than 50? We sang “America the Beautiful”. There was a flag. Since we couldn’t put it at half mast, I donated my raincoat belt to wrap around it, in the French manner of mourning. It just felt good to be with other Americans, to cry, to talk, to get it out of our systems.

– Ellen Lebelle

That morning, I had an 8:30am breakfast appointment scheduled with a client, in the restaurant at the top of the building.

Normally, I would have taken the train from Newark into the basement station of the building.

He called me Monday afternoon to say that since it was going to be a beautiful day on Tuesday, he was going to stay home and garden with his wife.

We rescheduled for Thursday morning – which of course, never happened.

Thank goodness for the weather forecast and his decency in calling me.

– Barry Epstein

I was on home leave from my post at the American Consulate in Frankfurt, Germany, taking a class at the John Campbell Folk School in western North Carolina. We began the day listening to the radio and gradually realized the seriousness of the morning events. Since there were no television sets on this farm-style campus, everyone was crowded around a few radios. In spite of the effect of shock, we finished the week-long class although some parents left early to be with their children. The lucky ones had their own cars but those of us dependent on flights faced long delays and cancellations. I asked my friends and relatives to save the newspapers so I could see the photos since the only newspaper we had at the school was always taken.

But the most moving experience for me was when I made my first diplomatic courier trip a short time after September 11 to the American Consulate in Milan. Coming into the entrance, I saw a large bulletin board with many letters from Italians expressing their grief for the victims and their families. That brought tears to my eyes.

Several years later, I was moved by the Memorial on the site of the catastrophe in New York. I knew none of them but as I touched the names of the victims, I felt a bond with them.

– Barbara Jacquin

Paris was our home, but my husband had been transferred to a New York office in 1999. It happened that I was alone in Manhattan on 9/11, as my husband had returned to Paris to renew his visa. Our 24-year-old son had also gone back to Paris for a few days and was flying back to New York on the morning of the 11th. His Air France flight had already entered American airspace when the attacks occurred, so that instead of being rerouted to a Canadian airport, his plane was diverted to Philadelphia. But they had flown close enough to New York city to be able to see the towers, although our son cannot say whether it was one tower on fire or two. When the news hit Paris, his fiancée happened to be in a bridal shop trying on wedding dresses and it was several very stressful hours before she learned that her fiancé was safe. He managed to return to New York by train the following day.

My husband flew back on the very first flight from Paris, which was the following Friday or Saturday.

As everyone knows, it was a gorgeous day, and eerily quiet anywhere away from lower Manhattan. There were no cars on the streets but loads of people on the sidewalks. Around noon I decided to go to the blood bank to give blood, which was the only way I could think of to help. Arriving at the blood bank somewhere midtown, I found 2 lines of people, each several blocks long: one for universal donors with type-O blood, the other for the rest of us with other blood types. I gave up, and of course it turned out that there were no survivors who would need transfusions.

– Sheryl Savina

Working Party 3 of the Economic Policy Committee, a small OECD committee of senior finance ministry and central bank officials, met on 11 September. I was responsible for the preparation of the main documentation for the Working Party and routinely attended its meetings, which were highly restricted. After a lengthy lunch, where the delegates were able to deal informally with each other, the meeting reconvened at around 15h00. Shortly after the session began, someone passed a note to the Chairman, Mario Draghi (now Prime Minister of Italy). He read the note and commented that some "bad things" were happening in the U.S. The meeting continued and adjourned normally, around 18h00. When we moved to the main hall in the OECD's Chateau televisions were on and we realized what had been happening during the afternoon session of the meeting.

Two days later, I received an email from the National Association of Business Economists (NABE), of which I am a member. NABE's annual meeting had been scheduled for the same day as Working Party 3, at the World Trade Center (in one of the big hotels, not the towers). Given the scheduling conflict there was never a question of my attending the annual meeting. But I have always wondered where I would have been had either meeting taken place later. I can only imagine the chaos and wonder how easily it might have been for an attendee to go for breakfast in the towers on a nice September morning instead of the hotel. Just for a bit of tourism and the panorama before the meetings. The hotel was destroyed. The email said that after two days of search everyone from NABE was accounted for and healthy.

– Paul Atkinson