“NeverForget 9/11 – I was in my hotel room in Bratislava… I turned on the TV… This was not a movie.”
The time was 2:50 pm on September 11, 2001, 8:50 am EST. I was in my hotel room in Bratislava, Slovakia changing my clothes before attending sessions. I was participating in a strategy meeting with Central and Eastern European Public Policy Think Tanks and Stakeholders from across 19 countries to develop solutions to the issue of corruption in the region. It was my first international business trip.
I turned on the TV to catch up on the news while I got ready and prepared myself for the day. Expecting to hear updates from around Europe, my eyes were glued to the images that flashed before my face: a plane crashing into the Twin Towers in New York. My first thought was that I turned on a movie channel. I saw CNN’s logo at the bottom of the screen just as footage of the second plane crash rolled. This was not a movie.
Oh my goodness, my country is being attacked and I am all alone in Bratislava.
I rushed out of my room to look for other Americans. News had traveled fast.
The next few days were a blur. The Bratislava airport had been shut down. My American colleagues and I were stuck. A few were able to fly to Canada and from there cross the border into the U.S. Yet this was not an option for some of us.
As we walked down the streets of Bratislava, people would hear our accents and stop us and give their condolences. Never having experienced a terrorist attack, it immediately made me think, “People that I work with experience horrific tragedies and acts of terrorism in their countries all the time, how often do I stop to offer my condolences?”
We walked by the U.S. Embassy and saw rows upon rows of flowers, stuffed animals and notes. The outpouring of support was overwhelming and very humbling. These people, gave all they had to show they cared. Have we ever stopped for a moment to offer those who suffer daily that which is most meaningful to them… a heartfelt helping hand, a hug, a kind word, a smile.
Not able to get out of Bratislava, we crossed the border into Austria with some Austrian colleagues.
Three days or so later, we were able to fly out. Much to my horror, they routed us through JFK on our way to Dulles. After a rather anxiety-filled flight, as we descended into JFK, I looked out my window. It was night-time, but I can still vividly recall the cloud of ash hovering over ground zero. It was eery, I was scared, and it made what happened just a few days prior a tangible reality.
This experience made me realize that we as Americans are not immune to terrorism and that peace within our borders should not be taken for granted. The world is a different place now, with tougher restrictions, and a terrible fear which has lead to extreme prejudices, with biased reactions and consequences.
It reinforced my vision, the importance of engaging globally. It made me wonder about the implications of what I was doing, and how to overcome the bias while cultivating climates conducive to economic growth, and what impact this could have on international security.
More so, it made me acutely sensitive to the tragedies that my colleagues in other countries experience on a regular basis, and the importance of sharing this message with others. We as Americans are not above reproach or humility. If we all can spread kindness through helping those in ways that have meaningful value then the world has the potential to be a better place for all to live.