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They grow up, very carefully

On 9/11, they were too young to comprehend what was happening. Now entering their teens, they speak with the solemnity of adults. They cope. And they pray.

By JOHN BARRY
Published September 10, 2006


Aisha Merchant is 13, small and fine-boned with olive skin and brown eyes. She speaks softly and seriously, and prays all the time, for everyone touched by terrorism.

She prays for her grandmother. Last summer, explosions ripped through passenger trains near her grandma's house in Bombay. She always tells people that, no, she is not Arabic, she is Indian; that, yes, she is Muslim, but, no, she is not part of a jihad. The difference between the Muslim jihadists and herself, she explains, is that "they are crazy and I'm not."

She is seated with two other children in a small room at Osceola Middle School in Seminole. No one is smiling much. All three look solemn and sound like little adults when they talk about 9/11.

You might not expect them to be affected that much. They were little children on 9/11 and have only blurry memories of it. They all have busy lives today. Middle school alone gives them plenty to worry about.

Today, kids everywhere are bombarded by images of fear. They see the carnage on TV. They hear their loved ones talk. They have cousins in New York or aunts and uncles under fire in Iraq or Afghanistan, or in Aisha's case, a grandma in harm's way in India.

Everyone says to be careful: Be careful when you travel; be careful on the Internet; be careful talking to strangers. It's like something in the air. It doesn't bludgeon, it permeates. It chips away at their innate youthful optimism.

Aisha and her two classmates - Austin Kier, 13, and Monica Brimm, 12 - try to explain how it feels to grow up in a 9/11 world. Austin sits beside Aisha as she talks about how much she prays. He says he prays, too.

"It's just kind of scary," Austin says.

Aisha Merchant

Aisha remembers little about the actual day, Sept. 11, 2001. "I just remember watching TV in the third grade," she says. "Parents talked about it. They said, 'Just be careful. You never know what is going to happen.' I didn't really understand."

Her parents came from Bombay, "one of the most cosmopolitan cities in India," as her mother Mahdiya Merchant puts it. You can find almost any of the world's religions there. Aisha and her older brother have been raised to be "open-minded, comfortable with all religions," Mrs. Merchant says.

The Merchants talk to each other about world events. They think the United States tries to do too much. "People need to address problems in their own country," Mrs. Merchant says.

When the topic turns to people getting killed, Aisha says, "I don't like to listen."

Their neighbors include a protective elderly man who tells Aisha, "If anyone says anything to you about being a Muslim you tell them to come talk to me."

Family and friends help Aisha feel secure. Then something happens that puts her right in the middle of it.

July 11 in Bombay, seven bombs went off in 11 minutes in passenger trains, killing 207 people and injuring 700. "The bombings were 2 miles from my grandmother's house," Aisha says.

The Merchants, who speak Hindi at home, want their children to remember where they come from. Aisha and her parents are there now. They flew to Bombay on Sept. 1 for a family reunion.

Austin Kier

Austin also saw 9/11 unfold on TV at school. He remembers only fragments of how his father explained it to him. Austin recalls hearing something about the earlier Persian Gulf War and freedom fighters being "slaughtered" after "we just left them."

The reference was probably to uprisings in southern and northern Iraq that were crushed by Saddam Hussein after American forces departed.

"9/11 had something to do with that," Austin says.

He remembers more clearly images from the Michael Moore movie Fahrenheit 911 in 2004. He watched it with his uncle "three or four times" and vividly remembers a scene showing President Bush visiting a classroom of second-graders in Sarasota on 9/11.

He is ambivalent about the Iraq war. "It must be really sad for President Bush to keep sending people. I have a cousin who wants to join the Army, but he says Bush won't be president by then."

Yet he has this to say about terrorists: "You have to give them back double the pain so they know they're messing with the wrong people."

Generally, Austin believes he's growing up in an environment of chaos. "People are more racist. Gangs are starting up again," he says. "I would put my kids in private school."

He's a big, athletic-looking kid with sunny good looks, and his words sound jarring, too grim, too adult. Told about Austin's comments, his mother, Teresa Kier, says, "He's learning that people can be mean. It's sad. It's a shame. He's a very good boy."

Monica Brimm

Monica, only 7 on 9/11, remembers seeing images of flame and collapsing buildings - horror scenes played over and over on the TV at home.

All the while, the family buzzed over her uncle's near escape.

He was a Pentagon worker. He was late for work that day, still in his car when an airliner crashed into the Pentagon. His wife reached him on his cell phone and told him to come right home.

"A whole bunch of family members were calling," Monica recalls. She is thin and fine-boned like Aisha, and her soft voice makes her vulnerability more emphatic. "Me and my sister were very scared. I didn't know what it was. I was clueless."

Monica, now 12, uses that word a lot. She says she is still clueless about terrorism, clueless about the Iraq war.

"She doesn't have a full understanding," says her mother, Valerie Brimm. "As an adult, I don't have it either. We have a lot of adults at church with sons in the service. The true purpose of it all? We really don't know. It just all piggybacked off 9/11."

* * *

All three children say they are cautious about places they go, things they say on the computer.

They said this:

Aisha: "I pray every night."

Austin: "I pray all the time."

Monica: "I pray for everyone."

John Barry can be reached at jbarry@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2258.