Visiting Ground Zero, Praying to Allah

September 9, 2010

Visiting Ground Zero, Asking Allah for Comfort

Nearly every Sept. 11 since Sept. 11, Hadidjatou Karamoko Traoré has made sure that her three children were dressed in their best clothes, and taken them from their tidy brick home in the Bronx to the pit where the World Trade Center stood, and where her husband, their father, worked and died.

After the attacks, all that was found of Abdoul-Karim Traoré, a cook at the Windows on the World restaurant, were his leather wallet, its identification cards and a few coins.

“I like to go down there and pray and see the place and remember,” said Mrs. Traoré, a native of Ivory Coast who came to the United States in 1997. “When I go there, I feel closer to him. And him to me. I pray for him, too.”

The God she prays to she calls Allah. Mrs. Traoré, 40, says praying in the pit feels entirely natural, even if some of those standing with her — widows and widowers, parents and children — blame her religion for the destruction of that day.

“That’s not fair,” she said. “It’s not because of Allah that these buildings fell.”

Mrs. Traoré is the widow of one of roughly 60 Muslims — cooks, businessmen, emergency responders and airline passengers — believed to have died on 9/11. It is a group that has been little examined, and no precisely reliable count of their ranks exists. But their stories, when told, have frequently been offered as counterweights in the latest public argument over terrorism and Islam.

Mrs. Traoré works the overnight shift as a nurse’s assistant at Jacobi Medical Center in the Bronx. She loves to cook: peanut sauce and doughy fritters are her specialties. She has a wide smile and a raspy laugh. Her life, a juggling act of homework, bills and prayer, is one Sept. 11 story — the kind of personal account Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and others have sought to highlight amid the debate over a planned Islamic community center near the pit where Ms. Traoré prays every September.

Over the past nine years, Mrs. Traoré has lived a kind of dual life. She is a 9/11 widow struggling to raise her children, cope with her loss and tame her anger. The trials of her days would ring familiar to single mothers and fathers from Staten Island to Washington. But she is also a Muslim woman, both devoted to her faith and conscious of the discomfort it can evoke in her adopted homeland.

She wears Western clothes when she shops at Costco. But she wears a robe and head scarf when she visits her mosque in the Bronx. When she is in her religious attire, she can sense a shift as people on the street appear to regard her with suspicion.

“When people run away from me, I feel sad,” she said. “But I understand why they’re doing that. What happened was terrible.”

Her two sons, Souleymane, 11, and Siaka, 9, attend a Roman Catholic school near their home. During prayer, they sit in the back of the classroom with the few other non-Catholic students. They feel comfortable there, but they, too, have hidden their religion from schoolyard bullies. Mrs. Traoré received government money from the Sept. 11 compensation fund, and she says she is both unsurprised by and grateful for the American generosity.

She is also frustrated and troubled, she says, that so many Americans find it impossible to separate the pious of her faith from its fanatics. But it has not buckled her beliefs.

“I’m proud to be Muslim,” she said. “I’m going to be Muslim until God takes my spirit.”

Family Prayer in Bedroom

Mrs. Traoré met her husband in 1990 in Abidjan, Ivory Coast. He was a handsome mechanic, she was working at a health clinic and they quickly fell in love. They married in 1992 and she was pregnant the next year. Before their daughter was born, however, Mr. Traoré moved to New York in search of a better life. Mrs. Traoré followed four years later.

They lived, at first, in the Parkchester section of the Bronx. She braided women’s hair and spent most of her time with other West Africans. She felt comfortable in the city, and never felt the need to hide her religion.

Mr. Traoré first worked delivering groceries; later he got a job as a cook at the restaurant inside the American Museum of Natural History, and then came the opportunity at Windows on the World. He worked the 7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. shift, which allowed him to make extra money delivering USA Today in the early morning. Mr. Traoré never met his daughter, Djenebou, a quiet 17-year-old who now looks after her brothers as something of a surrogate parent. Unable to move to the United States with her mother, she grew up with relatives in Ivory Coast, and only came to New York in 2002 after receiving “humanitarian parole.”

Their home, a jumble of New York and Africa, is filled with the laugh track of Disney Channel sitcoms and the smell of peanut stew. A pile of shoes lies by the door — leopard-print Timberland boots, shiny high-top sneakers, slippers, sandals, and high heels.

Mrs. Traoré keeps hand-drawn Mother’s Day cards taped to her bedroom door and posters of Mecca taped to the living room walls. Those walls could use a fresh coat of paint, and the ragged carpet has seen better days, but the family is busy, and the house is well loved, a refuge from the rough streets of Hunts Point outside.

Mrs. Traoré is strict — she keeps her children indoors or in their small backyard — and she tries to limit television to an hour a day. Djenebou spends much of her time checking Facebook and juggling instant messages, but her sessions are routinely interrupted by the call to prayer, which Mrs. Traoré has set to issue from the family laptop’s speakers.

Mrs. Traoré wants her children to pray, but that can take some nudging. They pray together in her bedroom, and they have long, quiet conversations about their religion. And on Fridays, they visit a ground-floor mosque nearby on Southern Boulevard that sits opposite a graffiti-covered junkyard, down the street from El Mundo Department Store.

“I tell them we have to believe in God, you have to pray,” she said.

While she finishes her overnight shift at the hospital, the children get themselves up and prepare their bowls of cereal. She calls when she is five minutes away so they can jump in the car and race to school. “We’re always late,” she said. “Always, always.”

She sleeps until 3 p.m., and then picks them up from after-school programs, prepares dinner, reviews homework, and checks backpacks before leaving for another night shift.

“I’m the father and mother now,” she said.

‘He Went to Work’

Mrs. Traoré can barely discuss Sept. 11 without tears pooling in her eyes. “He went to work,” she said. “That’s it.”

She remembers her husband praying and getting dressed for his first job of the day, delivering newspapers, but it was too early for them to speak. She woke up at 8 a.m. for what was to be her second day of formal English classes. Though she had spent four years in New York, she knew only rudimentary phrases.

As she was hurrying to leave, her brother-in-law called to ask if Abdoul had gone to the World Trade Center. Yes, of course. Like always. He told her to turn on the television.

She saw the towers burning, but she could not understand what the newscasters were saying. She began crying, dialing her husband’s cellphone “again, again, again.” Relatives rushed to the apartment to translate the TV for her.

For two weeks, Mrs. Traoré barely slept. She called her husband’s phone repeatedly and visited a string of hospitals in search of him. She did not tell her children what she most feared.

“I just said he went away,” she remembered. “I said he’s coming, he’s coming.”

Souleymane, then 3, struggled. He insisted, for whatever reason, on sleeping on sheets that were perfectly white. A social worker advised her to tell the children what happened, and nine years later they still have not made peace with their father’s death.

“I want to ask why they did that,” Souleymane said on a recent afternoon. “If they were mad at somebody, they could have sorted it out instead of starting a war.”

Mr. Traoré’s remains were never found, but his wallet was recovered intact, as if he had only forgotten it on the nightside table. For years, Souleymane kept it as a totem.

Soon after the attacks, the family moved from Parkchester in the eastern Bronx to a three-story home in Hunts Point that Mr. Traoré had found before he died. His brother, a taxi driver, lives on the top floor. A family friend from Ivory Coast lives on the second floor. Mrs. Traoré has support. She is not one to live in the past, even if her busy life allowed for more reflection.

“Life has never been normal, but it’s better,” she said. “I still miss him. But it’s not horrible like before.”

If the attacks forever upended her family, they also altered her understanding of America, and her place in this country.

“After 9/11, everything has changed,” she said. “At the beginning after 9/11, they were saying terrorists are all Islamic people. But terrorists and the religious people are different. God doesn’t say kill people.”

At home, the river of mail and bills never stops, a deluge her husband managed so smoothly. She still struggles with English. Perhaps the one part of her world that has remained fixed is her faith.

“My children are Muslim and my parents are Muslim,” she said. “I read the Koran and I am proud.”

Islam, indeed, acts as the ballast of her life. “It puts me in the right direction and it protects me from doing bad things,” she said.

She does not blame God for her husband’s death. “That was my husband’s destiny,” she said.

If they had stayed in Ivory Coast, she reasons, perhaps he would have fallen fatally ill. “I’m praying to God to make me strong to protect them and raise them,” she said of her children. “I believe God is helping me because my children here are growing and they’re healthy and I’m doing my work.”

“I move closer to prayer, closer to God and I thank him,” she said. “I keep praying to God to make me strong.”

On Sept. 10, she will throw a birthday party for Siaka. He has asked for ice cream cake. On Sept. 11, the family will return to ground zero. And she will pray to Allah.