BY MEREDITH GOAD | The landscape, gray, black and smoldering, still looks shocked. As the young activists from the Maine-based Seeds of Peace program gazed at the vortex of death splayed in front of them, there were floods of tears and hugs of comfort.
Supported by two friends, Shani, a 17-year-old from Israel, went inside the remains of the World Trade Center complex where her cousin died. She emerged with eyes red from tears, shocked at the size of the hole. The hole, she said again and again. She couldn’t believe it was so big.
Shani was in New York for a Seeds of Peace International Youth Conference, called Uprooting Hatred and Terror. One of the highlights—if it can be called that—on Tuesday was a visit to ground zero. A reporter and photographer from the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram were invited to attend.
Standing on a platform above the remains of the towers, thinking of her cousin, Shani was surprised to feel herself filled with hate. If Osama bin Laden had been standing there, she said, she would have stabbed him.
“It was the first time in my life I felt hatred,” said the girl, who has seen herself as a lifelong peace activist. “It was horrible.”
An Egyptian friend wrapped her arms around her. “She was my friend and I love her, but she’s Arab and I’m not feeling really good about Arabs right now,” Shani said.
The Seeds of Peace visit, blessed by Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, marked the first time a youth group has been allowed to visit the site. It was also the first time such a diverse group had come to pay its respects. Muslims and Jews, Indians and Pakistanis stood together on the wooden platform overlooking the cranes, trucks and other equipment gently searching through the rubble. It was a sight that shocked many after years of working to combat such acts of hate.
Shani, like the other youths there, became enamored of the Seeds of Peace group at its camp in Otisfield, Maine, where children from countries in conflict come together to debate world problems and make friends with “the other side.” The New York conference was arranged as a response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Parents worried about sending their children to New York, but 120 of them from 20 countries came anyway, intent on drafting their own anti-terrorism charter to present to the United Nations on Thursday.
This week, as they heard from dignitaries such as Queen Noor of Jordan and met with the wife of a World Trade Center victim, they have hugged and talked and laughed—and asked tough questions of politicians. Nabil Sha’ath, a Palestinian official, pledged Yasser Arafat’s future support for the camp.
Seeds of Peace delegates are chosen for their bravery in being able to take a hard look at themselves and listen to points of view that can enrage them. Many showed a different kind of bravery Tuesday as they braced themselves for the World Trade Center visit.
Lars Okot, 15, of Portland, a Sudanese refugee, said he was a little nervous about the field trip.
“It might feel like I’ve been home again,” he said. “The ground is actually covered in the blood of everyone.”
Shani was a little afraid. “I don’t want to make a scene, and I know I’m going to cry my guts out,” she said. “It’s going to be so weird to see that place. I haven’t quite grasped it yet.”
She still can’t believe that her cousin, Collin Healey, is gone. Collin’s father, Robert Healey, was working in the World Trade Center on Sept. 11. He had stopped smoking seven years ago, “and he decided that on this day, at this specific hour, he wanted a cigarette.” He went out and sat in the park to have a smoke.
Little did he know that his son was coming by work that day to give him the good news that he had been accepted at New York University. Robert Healey, Shani’s uncle, saw the first plane hit, and ran away.
In Israel, Shani hopped into a friend’s car and heard the news on the radio. She went to school.
“The school was like dark,” she said. “It reminded me of the day Yitzhak Rabin died. People were sad. New York has meaning for the world. Seeing the thing that actually represents New York destroyed and so many people there, it was terrible. People could truly relate to that.”
As they prepared to board four buses Tuesday, John Wallach, a former journalist who founded the group in 1993, reminded the group not to take cameras with them. It has pained some of the victims’ families, he explained, to see so many people going to the platform overlooking the site. They are worried about this hallowed ground—where there are still thousands of bodies buried—potentially being exploited.
“We are being given an extraordinary—I hate to say—privilege. It’s a terrible thought,” he said.
When the buses, escorted by New York police, reached the site, the young people went onto the platform about 50 at a time. Anxiety was already apparent on many faces. Waiting in line, Amal Khan, a 15-year-old from Pakistan, wasn’t sure she wanted to go in.
“I’m saying to myself now, why did it have to happen?” she said, her eyes tearing. “Why would anyone be so angry? I’m so confused. I don’t know if I want to see it.”
As they looked out over the rubble—the skeleton of the first tower—they listened to Dina Hanna, a liaison with Giuliani’s office, recite a litany of bodies found, buildings still around. The Seeds of Peace youths have a firsthand relationship with terror, but it was hard even for them to understand this. Here, thousands of innocent souls first met both terror and death face to face. Their presence still lingers, sorrowfully.
On the wooden railing are messages to the dead, an impromptu and heartbreaking American journal: “We miss you Dad.”
“We love you Frank. I know you are happy to be at peace. Love, Mom and Dad.”
“Bless those who have died in this horrible tragedy.”
Naima Margan, 14, a Somalian refugee who lives in Portland, was sad and trembling when she left the platform.
“It brings back memories,” she said. “It just brings back innocent people dying. It’s a disaster. It should never have happened. It’s hard because you think of these people that were jumping out the windows …” She stopped, unable to go on.
Walking back to the United Nations, Shani said the experience reinforced her belief that the work Seeds of Peace is doing is as important as the work of diplomats. She also needed to call home.
“I really want to talk to my parents,” she said.