As the 20th anniversary of the September 11th attacks approaches, I recognize that our country should learn about those tragic events, but I take issue with the fact that only one narrative is constantly being told: the innocent lives taken on that day and the family members who lost loved ones. Stories like mine are silenced because some may have to suffer in the name of liberty and justice—primarily people of color.
I was born in Conakry, the capital of the West African country of Guinea, in 1988. At two years old, I arrived with my family in the United States. I grew up thinking I was an American citizen. But at thirteen, the planes hit the World Trade Center. When I first heard the news, I remember asking myself, “Did I hear right? Did the teacher say a plane flew into the twin towers?” I recalled going there with my school. Though my memory of the buildings was faint, I remember being fascinated with all of its stores. How could anyone attack this place?
I was in a religious boarding school in Buffalo, New York when the towers were struck. We didn’t have TV or newspapers, so we had to imagine what happened, but it was hard to visualize something like that.
That summer, when I came back from school break, I knew the country had changed. The hijab I’d always worn made me stand out as a Muslim. The looks of hate at the airport were just enough to know things weren’t the same. The ticket agent even asked us why we were going to New York City, not knowing that it was my native home, and I couldn’t wait to go back.
On March 25, 2005, I was awakened by a stranger pulling the blankets off my head. I was asked to go to the living room. My mother was being yelled at in the bedroom by agents saying they were going to deport her.
My father later arrived in the apartment in handcuffs. It broke me when I saw him like that. I’m a daddy’s girl, and in my eyes, my father was invincible. I was later asked to stand up and choose a pair of shoes. My naive sixteen-year-old self thought they wanted to see my sneaker collection. Little did I know I was also going to be arrested.
I don’t recall being read my rights or what was said afterward. I remember being led out of our apartment as my mother and siblings peered from the door to see what was happening.
I was taken to Federal Plaza, where the majority of my interrogations took place. As I sat on the bench, the rude officer asked me questions. When I told him I was an American, he explained that I was undocumented, illegal, not an American, not who I thought I was. I felt betrayed by my parents. My father, who was sitting next to me, quickly said, “Tell them you can’t go back. Don’t let them send you back. They will circumcise you.” I don’t know what that meant, but I told it to them anyway.
I had all sorts of emotions running, and I didn’t know how to control them. I didn’t know which emotion I needed because I was confused and scared. I thought they were going to hurt me. I look back at this moment from time to time as an adult, wishing I could have told my younger self to breathe and that it’s going to be okay.
While I waited on the bench, a familiar face walked in handcuffed. Her name is Tashnuba. I wasn’t close with her, but I saw her and her sisters once gathering in the local mosque. I got to know her while we shared a cell in Pennsylvania, where they eventually took us. We had a lot in common. She was an intelligent girl and funny, too. I wished I had gotten to know her better. She was also sixteen years old and later deported to Bangladesh. I often wonder about her. She’s the only other person who would better understand the emotional trauma we went through that day.
I ended up being led to a room where I was interrogated for hours by the FBI, CIA, NYPD, and some other agencies I can’t recall. They asked me all sorts of questions about people and places. I didn’t know the answers to any of the questions they were asking. “We already know. We want to hear from you. Just tell us and you won’t get in more trouble,” the federal agents said. “You know Tashnuba put you on a list to become a suicide bomber.” She later told me they said the same thing to her about me. I remember responding to the officer, “There’s a signup list?” I was confused and upset with her. Why would she do that?
After hours of interrogations, I thought it was over and would finally return home. But we were just led from room to room, in handcuffs, and later to a different location. Tashnuba and I were searched by a woman who asked us what we were in for. We didn’t know how to respond. “They said you guys wanted to blow something up,” she said. That woman was a federal agent. “I’m transporting you to Pennsylvania,” she continued.
We were later transferred to a maximum security jail in Reading, Pennsylvania, where we were dehumanized. Stripped, searched, ridiculed by staff, talked down by officers, and treated as the worst criminals. They wouldn’t allow us to go outside and play, or much at all. Once our story hit the headlines, the atmosphere of the juvenile detention center changed for Tashnumba and me. I remember an office saying, “Oh, there goes the terrorists.” Grown men and women making fun of us.
I turned 17 in that crappy place. It was one of the worst birthdays ever. After six and half weeks, I was able to leave because I agreed to wear an ankle bracelet and gag order.
I had entered an innocent sixteen-year-old and came out as a traumatized seventeen-year-old. I thought it was over, but little did I know this was just the beginning of my nightmare.
From the age of sixteen to my current age of thirty-three, I’ve been battling with Immigration to stay in the United States, the only home I know.
In 2007, I was granted asylum and was finally able to stay. Around 2009, I was granted a green card. In 2014, I applied for citizenship and was denied, having to eventually file a lawsuit. Seventeen years of battling with Immigration.
On August 4, 2021, I was sworn in as an American citizen in the same building I was interrogated as a sixteen-year-old.
I’ve spent the majority of my life in court. Honestly, I’m drained. I’m focusing on healing years of trauma and evaluating my experience to better help others around me who are in the same situation.
This all happened because two towers fell in New York.
Adama Bah is an immigrant rights advocate and the author of the forthcoming Accused: My Story of Injustice, part of the I, Witness series (W.W. Norton).