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I first learned that my son had been in the World Trade Center on the morning of September 11th, 2001. We didn't know if he had perished yet until 36 hours later. At the time, we knew that it was political. We were afraid of what our country was going to do in the name of our son -- my husband, Orlando, and I and our family. And when I saw it -- and yet, through the shock, the terrible shock, and the terrible explosion in our lives, literally, we were not vengeful. And a couple of weeks later when Zacarias Moussaoui was indicted on six counts of conspiracy to commit terrorism, and the U.S. government called for a death penalty for him, if convicted, my husband and I spoke out in opposition to that, publicly. Through that and through human rights groups, we were brought together with several other victims' families.
When I saw Aicha in the media, coming over when her son was indicted, and I thought, "What a brave woman. Someday I want to meet that woman when I'm stronger." I was still in deep grief; I knew I didn't have the strength. I knew I would find her someday, or we would find each other. Because, when people heard that my son was a victim, I got immediate sympathy. But when people learned what her son was accused of, she didn't get that sympathy. But her suffering is equal to mine.
(Translator) Aicha el-Wafi: Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. I am the mother of Zacarias Moussaoui. And I asked the Organization of Human Rights to put me in touch with the parents of the victims. So they introduced me to five families. And I saw Phyllis, and I watched her. She was the only mother in the group. The others were brothers, sisters. And I saw in her eyes that she was a mother, just like me. I suffered a lot as a mother. I was married when I was 14. I lost a child when I was 15, a second child when I was 16. So the story with Zacarias was too much really. And I still suffer, because my son is like he's buried alive. I know she really cried for her son. But she knows where he is. My son, I don't know where he is. I don't know if he's alive. I don't know if he's tortured. I don't know what happened to him.
So that's why I decided to tell my story, so that my suffering is something positive for other women. For all the women, all the mothers that give life, you can give back, you can change. It's up to us women, because we are women, because we love our children. We must be hand-in-hand and do something together. It's not against women, it's for us, for us women, for our children. I talk against violence, against terrorism. I go to schools to talk to young, Muslim girls so they don't accept to be married against their will very young. So if I can save one of the young girls, and avoid that they get married and suffer as much as I did, well this is something good. This is why I'm here in front of you.
PR: I would like to say that I have learned so much from Aicha, starting with that day we had our very first meeting with other family members -- which was a very private meeting with security, because it was November 2002, and, frankly, we were afraid of the super-patriotism of that time in the country -- those of us family members. But we were all so nervous. "Why does she want to meet us?" And then she was nervous. "Why did we want to meet her?" What did we want from each other? Before we knew each others' names, or anything, we had embraced and wept. Then we sat in a circle with support, with help, from people experienced in this kind of reconciliation. And Aicha started, and she said, "I don't know if my son is guilty or innocent, but I want to tell you how sorry I am for what happened to your families. I know what it is to suffer, and I feel that if there is a crime, a person should be tried fairly and punished." But she reached out to us in that way, and it was, I'd like to say, it was an ice-breaker. And what happened then is we all told our stories, and we all connected as human beings. By the end of the afternoon -- it was about three hours after lunch -- we'd felt as if we'd known each other forever.
Now what I learned from her, is a woman, not only who could be so generous under these present circumstances and what it was then, and what was being done to her son, but the life she's had. I never had met someone with such a hard life, from such a totally different culture and environment from my own. And I feel that we have a special connection, which I value very much. And I think it's all about being afraid of the other, but making that step and then realizing, "Hey, this wasn't so hard. Who else can I meet that I don't know, or that I'm so different from?"
(Translator) AW: I wanted to say that we have to try to know other people, the other. You have to be generous, and your hearts must be generous, your mind must be generous. You must be tolerant. You have to fight against violence. And I hope that someday we'll all live together in peace and respecting each other. This is what I wanted to say.
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Phyllis Rodriguez and Aicha el-Wafi have a powerful friendship born of unthinkable loss. Rodriguez' son was killed in the World Trade Center attacks on September 11, 2001; el-Wafi's son Zacarias Moussaoui was convicted of a role in those attacks and is serving a life sentence. In hoping to find peace, these two moms have come to understand and respect one another.
Aicha el-Wafi and Phyllis Rodriguez met around a shared tragedy -- and their friendship has become a powerful symbol for forgiveness and dialogue. Full bio »