Susan’s story begins on a beautiful, clear-blue day in a suburb outside of Boston. Her 4-year old son’s first day at his new pre-school and her 2-year old daughter’s first day at hers. Her husband, David, had left each child a note on the kitchen table as he left on a business trip to Los Angeles. Susan, seven months pregnant with her third child, gradually got her day started as each child was dropped off in their respective school. While the day seemed routine on so many levels, it turned out to be quite the contrary. This wasn’t just any beautiful day in September, this was the 11th of September, 2001.
As Susan first heard news of a plane flying into the World Trade Tower, she was saddened to think of the family members of those on board. At this point, nobody knew the crash was an act of terror; all that was known was that the plane was American Airlines, Flight 11. Susan was relieved thinking that her husband was headed to Los Angeles, not New York. But, the more she listened to the radio about the flight, the more she started to worry. She knew nothing of a second plane into the buildings or the other acts of terrorism; one plane crash with her husband traveling that day was enough. She cut her errands short, went home, and she looked up his itinerary. David was on the plane.
Within hours David’s co-workers had descended upon the house. They also knew he was traveling on that flight. Susan doesn’t want to relive the details of that day and I don’t blame her. Most of us can’t imagine what Susan went through that day. I know I would be absolutely devastated to lose my husband for any reason- but for an act of terror? It makes his death even more senseless.
Her neighbors brought food, family planned the funeral and a friend even pulled together her son’s birthday party. While Susan greatly appreciated everyone’s support, it wasn’t until months after her third child- a daughter- was born that the fog began to lift and she was able to feel the full appreciation of what everyone had done for her.
Susan began her journey of healing, she finally connected with another woman left widowed by the terrorist attacks: Patti Quigley. Both she and Patti were pregnant at the time of their husband’s deaths and they lived nearby one another outside of Boston. Friends of both women encouraged a meeting. However, both women hesitated to contact one another; fearful that a meeting would just be hours of rehashing the events of that terrible day. When they did connect, it was an immediate friendship because it turned out that both women were anxious to look forward and heal versus look back and relive the sadness.
When Patti and Susan finally met, the United States was waging war on Taliban forces in Afghanistan. Susan describes how saddened she was at the thought that more people had to die as a result of terrorism- even if they were supposed to be the “enemy”. As the deaths of both US servicemen and civilians in Afghanistan began to climb- and more women were left widowed, Susan pondered what an Afghan widow might feel. Did she have a support network to help her recover from her loss? Did she have any rights to her husband’s assets or property? As she researched the answers to these questions, she was amazed to learn that Afghan women are not entitled to any of their husband’s assets or property once he dies. Instead, all of his assets are given to his parents or an uncle or a brother – definitely not any woman. Due to the harsh restrictions on women’s education and women in the workplace, most of these young women/mothers are left in poverty with very few resources for making money or feeding their children.
As the beneficiary of a community, region, and country that came together to support her and other families of 9/11, in 2002, Susan had the idea to help the life of one widow in Afghanistan and Patti was an enthusiastic supporter. Together, Susan and Patti decided to take action. Their original plan was that they would try to help just one Afghan widow. Not only did they want to share with someone else the same kind of compassion and support that they received but they also wanted to impart the message that the feelings of love and loss are universal. When all was said and done, they realized that they had enough resources not to help just one woman, but to help a multitude of women. Their non-profit venture, Beyond the 11th was born and in 2004 they had their first fund-raiser: Susan and Patti rode their bicycles on 9/11 from Ground Zero, NYC to Boston. Susan had never really ridden a bike for any great length or purpose before, but the NY-to-Boston fund-raiser became an annual event for Susan, cathartic in some respects and raising funds to support local organizations that provide resources to women in Afghanistan.
In 2006, although Patti had distanced herself from the venture, eager to break away from the title of 9/11 widow, they both agreed to travel to Afghanistan to meet some of the beneficiaries of their funds and be the subjects of Beth Murphy’s, of Principle Pictures, documentary. The documentary, Beyond Belief, was released in 2007 and chronicles a life-changing journey they made to Afghanistan to meet the Afghan widows they have worked to empower. Strikingly was Susan’s observation at how little the Afghan widows have on which to live.
Today, Susan accomplishes her mission in two ways: increasing awareness of the desperate situation of widows in Afghanistan, and raising funds to help them. By providing grants to partner non-governmental organizations (NGOs) on the ground in Afghanistan, they fund education and income-generation opportunities that are sustainable and culturally appropriate.
Hearing Susan and Patti’s story was inspirational for many reasons. Not only did they reach out to help others, they reached beyond the borders of the United States and helped women in a country that has been known to harbor terrorists. They are fearless and ambitious and they reached deep down, beyond their own sadness and loss, to a compassionate place. They became problem-solvers for people who are so far removed from the daily life in upper middle-class America. With new babies born after the tragic loss of their husbands to terrorism, it would have been easy, understandable, acceptable for them to have merely focused on rebuilding their part of the world and to have the strength to carry on and create a new life for themselves and their children. Instead, they rose above their despair. They looked internally at their own needs, their insecurities, and their pain and need to heal. They looked around them, at all the people who descended upon them in their time of need. They thought about the support they received from the community, friends, family, people they didn’t know and people they might not even recognize today. And, they decided to channel their emotions to give to other women in need. They went beyond their own grief. To read more and to get involved visit the website: Beyondthe11th.org