Kristina was a seventh grader on Staten Island on September 11th and discusses what that day was like for her and her classmates. In the weeks and months that followed, Staten Island and New York City as a whole were deeply affected by the attacks. Witnessing the aftermath in part inspired Kristina to study anthropology. She continues to live and work in New York.
Interview conducted on July 10, 2015 in Manhattan, New York
Present: Richard Hayden and Kristina Hodelin
Transcribed by Richard Hayden
Richard Hayden: What is your full name?
Kristina Hodelin: My full name is Kristina Renee Hodelin.
RH: Where are you from?
KH: I’m from Staten Island, New York.
RH: How old were you on September 11th?
KH: I was in seventh grade so thirteen years old.
RH: Where were you on September 11th?
KH: I was in school. I was either in my first or second class of the day because it was very early when it happened. I remember it happened like at nine thirty or so in the morning. When our teachers came to tell us, they made a big assembly at the school. I went to a small private school so there was only sixth to eighth graders in my section of the school so the whole school could fit into the gym.
They told us that two planes had crashed into the World Trade Center. They didn’t tell us why. I don’t even think some of the teachers knew why the planes crashed. I guess in my innocent thirteen year-old mind I just thought planes had crashed. I didn’t know that it was a terrorist attack or anything like that.
Some of my classmates, when they found out, they were crying because one girl, her dad worked in the buildings and then a few other girls, their dads were firefighters. The teachers told us that police and firefighters had gone down there and they were very nervous thinking, “oh, my dad might be there.” They were scared and I was very scared too because all the parents started to come pick us up from school and my dad came to pick me up.
Our school was on a big hill so that when we were driving down the hill, I saw the buildings. Well, I saw all the smoke. I guess by then the buildings had collapsed. I saw all the smoke in the sky and that’s when it hit me how scary the situation was. And the sad thing was, one of my classmates, her dad actually died. He was a firefighter and he died in the buildings.
RH: As the day progressed, do you remember what happened?
KH: I remember seeing it on the news, actually seeing the buildings collapse. I think I still was thinking that the buildings were still there. It was just on fire and they’re going to put out the fire. When I saw it on the news is when I actually saw the buildings fall and that scared me. They started talking about how it was a terrorist attack. At that point I didn’t know much about terrorism. It was the beginning of Bush’s presidency and I always remember the discussion of the War on Terror. That was the big thing after this happened. I don’t really remember much before 9/11 with the discussions of the War on Terror and things like that. Now that I’m older, I know that issues of terrorism had been around, probably, from the ‘80s on but at that point I was thirteen and I didn’t really realize about terrorism. I didn’t even really know much about the Middle East except for a few friends I had at school that were from there but otherwise I didn’t know much after that.
I distinctly remember the transition my three Muslim friends went through at the school. I went to a Catholic school and I’d say the majority of the people at the school were raised Catholic or some kind of other Christian denomination. We had three girls that were Muslim and one Hindu girl and everybody, their attitudes changed slightly towards the girls. For the most part the classmates were still friendly to them but I noticed some of the teachers changed a little bit in their attitude towards the girls. So that’s something that always stays with me.
I remember one of the girls I stayed in contact with throughout high school and college. I just saw the transition in her with the way she felt more isolated. And that hurt me, some of the things she went through growing up after that. The other two girls actually moved and they went back to the Middle East. Their families went back so I don’t know whatever happened with them but I do know the transition I saw which happened with them at school.
RH: How did your family react?
KH: My family. For the most part, my mom had already been afraid of planes. Growing up she was afraid to ride planes so she was very nervous with that. My family didn’t take a vacation for a long time where you had to take a plane because they were nervous about possible terrorist attacks and things like that.
For the most part I’d say my family, they noticed the change in how our Muslim American friends were treated. Some of my mom’s best friends from her job are Albanian Americans or some of them are straight from Albania too and they’re Muslim. At work, a lot of the workers didn’t realize that they were Muslim because I guess they don’t look like what most people in America would think of as a Muslim. So once people found out they were Muslim, all of a sudden they were treated not as nicely anymore amongst some of the coworkers – not everybody but some people. My family is not Muslim but my mom always felt some kind of solidarity with Muslim Americans because of the way her friends were treated. I’d say that, for the most part, those were the experiences that my family went through after 9/11.
RH: What do you remember about the first responders?
KH: I remember how the police officers and firefighters went there right away when everything happened. One of my friends, her dad was a police officer – he’s still a police officer – and my other friends their fathers were firefighters so I remember they went directly there. I always remember in the news for a while people would talk about the police and how good they were for going there and so quickly responding. And I remember how her dad – my best friend, her dad’s a police officer – he would complain a lot about all the smoke and everything but he had to do this to help the people recover bodies. Now I know he has some respiratory problems from all the asbestos, I think it’s called, that was in the buildings. I know a lot of police officers were affected from that. But when you talk to them still to this day they’ll tell you that they would have done it all over again because they had to rescue a lot of people and recover bodies from the building. Though something bad came out of it with their health, they still feel like they’d always do it again because they had to save the people that were in the building.
RH: Alright. Good to go. How was the event taught in your school immediately afterwards and through the rest of your middle school and high school career?
KH: I’d say right after, the schooling went along with the War on Terror propaganda and that whole thing with the George Bush presidency. I’d say, maybe high school was the same and then maybe once you get to college, now you start learning about the other issues that were going on in the Middle East and the background leading up to everything. So I’d say it was two polar opposites almost with the way I learned it in middle school and high school to then how I learned it in college.
I think, also, once I got to college Bush wasn’t in office anymore. It was a new President. We had Obama and I guess they didn’t want to discuss it a certain way while Bush was in office because he’s still there and schools are supposed to teach it in a different way. Now that he’s not in office anymore you can look at it from another side. I do remember criticism from the war in Afghanistan and Iraq while it was happening but I guess, now so after, I guess there’s even more criticism. I don’t know. I just feel like now he’s not in office anymore, more historians and writers critique it more.
RH: How did it affect your life at the time?
KH: Personally, I actually was really afraid of the sound of planes for a while. I always remember how, maybe it was a year or two after, a lot of fighter jet planes would fly over New York just to make sure nothing was going on and looking for suspicious activity.
I was nervous of the sound because it was very loud. They would fly around all the boroughs, all five boroughs, and I remember one day in particular it sounded really low and the house was rumbling a little bit just because it was so low. I was terrified! I always had this image, I told my mom, “they’re coming. They’re going to get us.” I always thought they were going to bomb New York, like the whole of New York. That was what was going on in my thirteen year-old mind. I was just very scared. It would make me shake when I would hear the sound because I didn’t connect that they were just looking for people. I thought that, I don’t know, maybe it’s the terrorist planes or something like that. For a while I kind of had a phobia about the planes that would fly low, the military planes, but I got over that within a few years.
RH: It took you a couple of years to get over that?
KH: Yes. I think maybe by the time I was fifteen or so. From thirteen to fifteen I guess I was just nervous because then eventually that stopped. Military planes wouldn’t fly around anymore and I guess, at that time when it stopped, that’s when my nerves stopped about it. [laughs]
RH: Cool. How has 9/11 affected your life ever since?
KH: I’d say 9/11 has affected my life in a way where I’m interested in looking at larger issues from a political perspective but from all different perspectives. Before that I didn’t know anything much about the Middle East except for the little things that my friends would tell me at school about cultural aspects. Stuff like that. But I didn’t really know much beyond that whereas, I’d say, in my college years I took a few classes about Middle Eastern studies and things like that. I learned about the politics of what was actually going on in the Middle East and US relations with the Middle East and I’d say that it sparked an interest in me to learn about that region of the world from different perspectives and not just from the US perspective.
RH: How has New York City changed since September 11th?
KH: I’d say, at first, Arab Americans were perceived as a certain way in New York. It seems like a community that wasn’t really – not to say not at the forefront but not noticed as much, I guess – was all of a sudden thrust into the spotlight but in a negative way. People would question Islam. They’d question women wearing veils. Everything was questioned but it seemed in a negative way and from the perspective of the outsider and not from the perspective of the Arab community or even other Muslim communities that are non-Arab. I’d say, slowly over time, that somewhat has diminished because New York’s always been a multi-cultural city and there’s so many different cultures here where now, I think, because we’re away from this idea of the War on Terror – even though some of it’s starting to come back with ISIS and stuff like that – I’d say before that Arab Americans were becoming more vocal in discussing their culture. It seems within the last few years they’ve been discussing their religion and their cultural practices for Americans of other ethnicities to understand. So I’d say it went from really negative against Arab Americans and Muslim Americans to now people are more open-minded and are learning more about a culture that they don’t necessarily understand and a religion that they don’t necessarily understand. It went from really negative to now it’s becoming more open-minded about them.
RH: Good to go. How has Staten Island changed since 9/11?
KH: The same thing I just said about New York as a whole. Also, I think Staten Island has changed with the fact that there are a lot of Arab Americans that live there now. Still in many ways there are only a few ethnic groups that live there but now I feel like more and more people are moving in. More immigrants are moving into Staten Island because there’s probably no more room in Brooklyn and Queens. [laughs] So they’re all going to Staten Island and I feel like Staten Island people are even changing and becoming more open-minded because, I’d say, even myself growing up Staten Island was never really that open-minded a place out of all the boroughs. I definitely feel like, since I’m from Staten Island and grew up there my whole life, there was a transition of it also becoming more open-minded to different people and different religions.
RH: How has the country changed since 9/11, in your opinion?
KH: I’d say the country has gone from very, overall maybe a little xenophobic where, like I said, they’re nervous about outsiders or what’s perceived as outsiders and different people to now having a dialogue to talk about different cultures. In many ways, a lot times even we know here working at an intercultural institution that discussing different cultures and learning about them really creates a dialogue to connect with other people. So I definitely feel like America has always been in that way the melting pot but even know with people constantly moving here, I think other cultures are finally sharing a spotlight with what is perceived as the average American culture, all-American culture, and really changing it up for the better.
RH: So you’ve travelled quite a bit, correct?
RH: In your travels abroad, how have other people throughout the world viewed 9/11?
KH: I lived in Malaysia and that’s a Muslim majority country. For the most part I’d say Malaysians seem to think that 9/11 was a way for Americans to blame Muslims for a lot of problems. I’d say some of them even thought 9/11 was maybe fake but that’s not the majority of Malaysians. That’s a small set of them that would think something like that. But I’d say, for the most part, some of them are nervous even. They would ask, “how are Muslims treated in America?” Some of their children wanted to go abroad and they’d ask me, “is it safe? Is it safe for my children to go? Will people even like them? How will they be treated?”
I think a lot of it has to do with their nervousness about their perception of America and if people will like them because they see on TV a lot of stuff that was said during the time Bush was in office about the War on Terror and they think that maybe Americans won’t like them. But I would tell them, “this isn’t true. Many Americans are going to like you. They’re going to be interested in learning about your culture.” And I would really try to squash some of the perceptions they had about coming to America. They are very open-minded and wanted to learn about Americans. I said, “it’s the same. People want to learn about you and learn about your culture.”
When I was in England, I don’t know because I wasn’t there, of course when it was discussed – when the War on Terror was discussed. But I’d say the climate in England now, if you were to bring up 9/11 or something like that some of them would maybe judge Americans a little bit for the way we handled things even though I think the British sent soldiers to the Middle East as well. I’m not one hundred percent sure about England but I do know from a documentary I watched once about Muslims in England that they also felt a little isolated during that time and that British society was judging them based on their religion. But I don’t know firsthand because I didn’t really speak with Muslim British people while I was there.
RH: How has 9/11 affected your generation?
KH: It depends on who you speak with. If you speak with my classmates that lost their parents, they’ll have a completely different opinion than somebody that maybe is a Muslim American of my generation. So I’d say, overall, it varies but I do see an interest in my people of my generation wanting to learn Arabic and wanting to go to the Middle East and learn about the conflicts going on. There is a growing field of Middle Eastern studies majors and minors amongst my generation I think. That wasn’t my major or minor in school but a lot of my friends, that was what they were interested in. Whether they wanted to join the military and use that to their advantage in jobs there or even just in jobs outside of the military in the corporate world or anything like that. I do feel like it’s a language that’s becoming more important to know especially if the US wants to maintain good relations with the Middle East and really understand their culture from their perspective so they need more Americans to learn that language. I do notice amongst my generation that there is a huge interest for Middle Eastern studies.
RH: Alright. Good to go. What lessons have you learned from 9/11?
KH: I learned vital lessons such as don’t necessarily judge a book by its cover. You have to always listen to all their perspectives in any kind of conflict or situation. Listen to different news outlets. Read all kinds of various newspapers and magazines to gather your own opinion on a situation that is seen as a threat to your country and your people but also learn about the perspective of the other person on the other side. So I think that’s definitely something I carried with me throughout my youth now into my twenties. Whenever I’ve gone anywhere, any job I’ve had I’ve always brought that with me – any project that I do. Somehow, always put yourself in the shoes of what maybe your community is, not against, but the opposite of your community. That’s how I always take my life and go through life is thinking of things from that perspective. That’s the number one lesson I’ve learned from 9/11.
RH: Did 9/11 influence your desire to study anthropology at all?
KH: Yes. Anthropology is something that I’ve always liked from a child even though as a child I didn’t know that it was called anthropology. I always was interested in other cultures. My own ethnic background helped with that being that my family is diverse. Being from the Caribbean everybody is diverse there so it’s something I’ve always been interested in. 9/11 and the experiences I saw my Muslim American friends go through definitely shaped my desire to want to know cultures from the people’s perspective. So it’s definitely something that’s always been there, always influenced me and always what I wanted to do.
RH: Did I leave anything out? Anything you want to address?
KH: I think, no!
RH: Well thank you very much! I appreciate it.
KH: Thank you.