From the Twin Towers to the Taliban: How 9/11 Changed This Afghan American Prof’s Life

Staff Writer Santino D'Agostino discusses the impact 9/11 had on Mursalin Singh, an Afghan American biology major at Rowan University. - Photo courtesy of Mursalin Singh

Have you ever faced consequences for something you had absolutely no connection to at all? Something that you yourself were the victim of? Or even worse: Something that happened before you were born?

Mursalin Singh, a 19-year-old Afghan American biology major (with two minors in chemistry and neuroscience) from Washington Twp. She has lived this reality every single day of her life.

On Sept. 11, 2001, thousands—if not millions—of innocent, unborn Muslims were sentenced to an indefinite period of ridicule, racial discrimination and taunting. 

Twenty years later, these individuals have a voice of their own and they’re ready to be heard.

“Mursal,” as her friends and family know her, is the daughter of two Afghan refugees. They both came to America in the 1990s. Her father, Rai, received his master’s degree in computer science from the New York Institute of Technology (NYIT). Her mother, Maliha, attended the Taylor Business Institute.

Upon graduation, Rai sifted his way through a few jobs and eventually landed one with a company as a chief technology officer.

As time progressed, so did the demise of Rai’s computer science aspirations.

“He thought that it was very boring and didn’t have as much of an interest in it as he used to,” Singh said.

He would wake up, put on the same suit-and-tie as the day before and make his dreaded commute to a job he dreaded just as much.

“He began slacking at his job,” Singh said. “Eventually, he was fired.”

Life for Rai, Maliha and their three-year-old daughter Yasamin, at the time, suddenly became extremely difficult.

“After he lost his job, my mom was still in school and they used to fight,” Singh said. “How are they going to pay the bills now that he lost his job?”

One week later, the Singh’s problems shrunk to the size of a pea.

They looked outside their Manhattan-apartment complex window on a Tuesday morning and saw smoke rising from the World Trade Center. The same place Rai Singh had worked at and commuted to every day.

“My dad was fired from the World Trade Center one week before 9/11,” Singh said. “He mentions feeling a closer connection to God afterwards. He just really thought he was saved, or chosen, or—he didn’t die. He knew people who died. His building was destroyed. He still feels like he was just lucky.”

Singh often thinks about what could have happened. What’s interesting about that is that we know what likely would’ve happened: her father wouldn’t be here with us today.

“Say if the attack had never happened, my dad still probably would have been a computer scientist somewhere in the city. That’s probably the lifestyle I would’ve grown up in. I can’t even imagine if he still worked there when it happened,” Singh said. “I probably would’ve grown up without him. Wait, I wouldn’t have been born.”

It’s hard for the deep-seated, vexing irony of that moment to go unnoticed. 

Singh’s life has been tied to this tragic event. From being called Osama Bin Laden’s granddaughter, to being blamed for the middle school bomb drill, the fact that she wasn’t even born on 9/11 can sometimes slip her mind.

If Rai’s boss didn’t fire him, he might not be here today.

He struggled to find a job in New York as a brown man post-9/11, so he decided to pursue business as a back-up option with his brother-in-law and move to New Jersey, where Mursalin was born.

Today, he owns a place that almost all of us can say has come in handy a time or two during those late nights of studying: the Checker’s down the street from Rowan University.

Beyond New Jersey, Mursalin Singh’s roots in Afghanistan were also affected as a result of the 9/11 attacks.

“I can’t even imagine what Afghanistan would look like, or what it would be—or how it would be safer or more fearful if America had never invaded. Going back there now, it’s heartbreaking,” Singh said. “I feel like, in my future, I can’t take my children there.”

The way Singh Speaks of Afghanistan is the way anyone speaks of home. She feels as time goes on, it’s becoming less of a home and more of a halfway house that her fellow Afghans are constantly having to flee.

Who’s to blame? Well, Mursalin has come face-to-face with the culprit: the Taliban.

“It was terrifying,” Singh said. “Their tanks were there and everything.”

Her great-aunt warned her not to speak, even if she could competently navigate the native language.

 “They will notice your accent and kidnap you,” her great-aunt said.

Speaking English is not something any person, let alone an American, should do in Afghanistan. According to Singh, poor Afghans could recognize your accent and potentially hold you for ransom. And what would the Taliban do? Nobody knows.

Singh feels a certain degree of anger towards the U.S.’s recent withdrawal from Afghanistan.

“America spent a lot of money funding the Taliban. I can’t imagine what life would have been like had they not had that money or without them invading. Maybe it would’ve been better, maybe it would’ve been worse. I have no idea, but it’s heartbreaking,” Singh said.

Singh has a friend in Kabul, Tahmina, who is a medical student. They met through an organization that Singh volunteers for called Sola.USA, a group that “aims to provide a free virtual English mentorship platform for Afghan women,” according to their website. She helps Tahmina improve her English so she can take the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL exam) and become a doctor. 

After the withdrawal, Tahmina told Singh that her schools closed entirely. She then said they’re starting school again, but just for boys, not girls. 

With the Taliban back in power, the rights Afghan women sought for years and achieved to a degree post-invasion are likely to revert.

“Back to square one,” Singh said.

Tahmina cried to Singh on the phone, “I want to be a doctor. How am I going to do that now?”

Despite the hardships she will inevitably face, Tahmina is hoping to get her degree, pass the TOEFL exam with Mursal Singh’s help, and become a doctor somewhere like Turkey — a place easier to get into than America.

Back at home, Singh is thankful for her Muslim Student Association community, but she yearns for an Afghan community at Rowan.

“I haven’t met one other Afghan here,” she said. “I would love to show people my cultural clothing or our cultural dances and everything, but I have no one to do it with. I just wish there were more Afghans in this area.”

In the bigger picture, Singh’s little sister, Heebba, has had experiences in middle school that suggest the racist banter her older sister had to endure is no longer as prevalent as before.

When Singh tells Heebba about her prior experiences, she responds, “Nobody would ever call me a terrorist”

But we can still do better on this front, and Mursal Singh offered a few beginning steps.

“I feel like everyone in my entire life has always said, ‘Oh, just ignore it,’ when someone’s name-calling me or being very racist. I don’t think that’s the proper way to go about it, ” she said. “I think it’s smart to distance yourself from those situations, especially if it’s harmful, but I think that every opportunity we get, we should speak about it and let people know. By telling my story, I’m hoping that people will hear it and be more conscious about what they say or about what they teach their children. I’m trying to break the cycle.”

Hopefully other young Muslim Americans share young Heebba’s experience so we can move on from coming together to keeping together, and perhaps, one day in the near future, find every soul—whether of European, African or Afghan descent—working together in the same way the stars of fate did for the Singh family on Sept. 11, 2001.

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