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A Northeast Ohio Muslim Family Grows Up In The Wake Of 9/11

Nadia Zaiem watched her father's fervent activism in the aftermath of 9/11. Isam Zaiem co-founded the Cleveland chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations in 2003.
Jenny Hamel
Ideastream Public Media

Nadia Zaiem was a 13-year-old 8th grader at a Westlake middle school on the day of the 9/11 terror attacks.

She’d only started wearing a hijab, a Muslim head scarf, a month or two before, and was still “getting used to it and how people reacted to it,” she said.

“On that day, I remember that I was in science class, and I remember the principal coming onto the loudspeaker and telling us that one of the Twin Towers had been hit by a plane,” she said. “I think at first I was just sort of confused. I didn't really have any understanding of even what the Twin Towers were.”

Zaiem recalled a classmate making a comment to the effect of “I bet it was the Saudis.” She recalled being confused as to why that would be his immediate reaction.

Not all Americans experienced the wave of unity that followed the attacks. Many Muslims and Arab Americans faced a different wave, one of suspicion and hostility. For Muslim children, in particular, it was a confusing and distressing time.

Nadia’s dad, Isam Zaiem, moved to the U.S. from Syria in 1974. He came to Cleveland for a medical internship, met his wife and found a job as a medical technologist at the Cleveland Clinic.

On 9/11, Isam watched the terror unfold through the eyes of an adult.

“I thought at the beginning it was an accident. But then afterwards, when I heard the other plane’s hitting the second tower, I knew there was something fishy. And I kept telling myself, ‘Please, please, God, don't make him a Muslim,’” he said.

That day will stay with him until he dies, he said.

When Nadia came home from school on 9/11, she began to grasp how the tragedy would impact her differently from classmates and neighbors. 

It was all over the news, she said, and “it was at that point that I realized that my faith was being blamed for it.”

“I started be concerned…if my classmates had come home and seen the same footage that I did and the same things happening on television, if I went to school the next day, they may start to associate that with me,” she said.

She never told her parents how scared she was. She went to school as usual, and no one ever said anything negative to her. But she felt different. 9/11 changed everything. There was a time before 9/11 and a time after. They felt like outsiders.

“It was almost like we were bombarded with negative imagery of Muslims and Islam,” she said. “It created an atmosphere of fear among our community, especially people my age…I mean, we're already trying to fit in. We're kids. We're already trying to fit in with our classmates,” Nadia said.

Islamophobia and anti-Arab sentiment made targets of anyone that fit the stereotype of a terrorist, whether it was a Muslim or a Sikh man or an Arab Christian.

Isam had to do something about it. He’d already been an active member of CAIR, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a national group based in Washington, D.C. The local chapter was based in Columbus, so he’d been driving there for meetings. In the wake of 9/11, he knew it was time for a CAIR chapter to represent Cleveland and Northeast Ohio.

“We realized that we have a lot on our hands or a lot of discrimination and issues that we need to address. Education, educating the public, educating our community about how to react and behave. So we realized that an office here is necessary. And we hit the ground running,” Isam said.

Nadia watched as her father’s activism took off as a response to the violence and discrimination facing Muslims and Arab Americans.

“After 9/11, he really made it a goal and a mission for himself to educate Americans about our religion and to do whatever he could to help our community thrive in the United States,” she said.

As part of his activism, Isam also emphasized the need for the United States to “follow through on our principles as Americans” and protect people from abuse and to withhold “support from oppressive regimes” worldwide.

Looking back, Nadia thinks activism has been key. Her “fellow Americans” showed a willingness to learn about Islam and support the Muslim community.

Yet, still there are problems, according to Nadia, who said that it seems every time there’s an election, Muslims are attacked by candidates looking to score political points.  This is true, she said, for local elections and the 2016 presidential election.  And it wasn’t just the Islamic community under attack, she said.

“It was Hispanics and African-Americans and other immigrants and other races and ethnicities. And one of the things that I think our community learned after 9/11, is that we couldn't do it on our own, that there were other groups that were being marginalized and being discriminated against, and that if we worked together, we would accomplish a lot more,” Nadia said.

Nadia is 33 now. She practices law in downtown Cleveland, specializing in family law, immigration and civil litigation. As she has always been, she is guided by her faith and proudly discusses her continued activism. She’s currently the secretary of the League of Women Voters’ Greater Cleveland chapter. 

If there’s one lesson “we should learn from 9/11,” according to Nadia, “it’s that we’re all Americans.”

“And we should learn to get to know one another and learn from each other's experiences because we all ultimately want the same thing. We all love this country and we want it to be great. But that only happens if we're all included in that,” she said. 

Isam echoed his daughter’s sentiment and said, ultimately, “We all care about our children, about their education, about our health, about peace.”

“We don't want to hurt anybody, don't want anybody to hurt us,” he said. “So there is a lot of commonality between us that we should really emphasize, instead of having to talk about our differences. And once we get to know others more closely than we just heard about them from the news, our perspective and behavior will change.”

Copyright 2021 WCPN. To see more, visit WCPN.

Jenny Hamel