Program begun by children of 9/11 victims helps kids who’ve lost family in violent conflicts
By Bryan Llenas
People often wondered what happened to her father.
Mijal Tenenbaum’s father died, but she didn’t like talking about the circumstances. The simplest questions: “Why?” “How?” would bring her down an emotional path few others have experienced as victims of terrorism.
The fact is her father’s death was widely publicized, plastered in news headlines throughout Argentina. Mijal was just 3 months old when a van packed with a bomb drove into the local Jewish Center in Buenos Aires killing her father and 84 others in Argentina’s worst terrorist attack. It’s referred to as the South American nation’s Sept. 11.
“While a lot of people can understand loss, it’s kind of weird having that loss be a spectacle in certain ways,” Tenenbaum said of the constant media attention.
For the past five years, the 21-year-old has traveled to Pennsylvania in search of others who can understand the pain elicited from losing someone at the hands of terrorism and global conflict. This year Project Common Bond brought together 60 teens from 12 different countries – from Israel and the West Bank, from both sides of the conflict in Northern Ireland and from Kenya. Most of the participants lost their fathers in terrorist attacks – one brother and sister were in a café in Saudia Arabia when a bomb went off killing their father in front of them. Someone else had lost their father in a suicide bomb attack in Pakistan.
The goal at its surface is to remind these young adults that they are not alone. For eight days at Pennsylvania’s Bryn Mawr College, they participate in therapeutic group work, leadership sessions and conflict resolution with the common ultimate goal of turning their tragedy into positive change back in their home communities.
“These teens are the most vulnerable to the narratives of violent extremism that we see throughout the world and these are the teens who are making the change and being the change that we want to see in the world, they are the ones that are moving forward with strength and resiliency and they are bringing that message back to home,” said Danielle Coon, Director of Project Common Bond.
The program was founded eight years ago by Tuesday’s Children, an organization started by the children of victims of the 9/11 attacks. Children like 22-year-old Robert Pycior. Pycior’s father Joseph died on 9/11 while working at the Pentagon.
“When I was younger I had a lot, a lot of anger, and the anger wasn’t geared towards specific people or a specific group,” he said. “It was just a lot of anger and wondering ‘why me,’ that’s a very common threat that other participants will say ‘Why me? Why’d it have to happen to me?’”
It’s not all fun and games at camp, following a Harvard curriculum and assisted by facilitators, campers openly address their trauma and experience with terrorism and teach diverse participants how to resolve conflicts and disagreements in a dignified way.
“Our communities all grieve for what happened to us but they don’t grieve in the same way,” Tenenbaum said. “It’s hard for us because we have to accept that grief and support that grief while also taking care of ourselves.”
This program can be emotionally tough, especially for those from either side of the Israeli and Palestinian conflict. Tomer Avisar, an Israeli 16 year-old, lost his uncle in an army tanker accident. Avisar says meeting Palestianins at Project Common Bond has shattered stereotypes and inspired him to foster peace back in Israel.
“I try to become friends with all of them, it is tough” Avisar said. “I still haven’t fully grown up. It is tough for me, especially since I am going into the army in two years. Can I befriend them? Sure I can. I get to know their stories, and they are good people.”
Project Common Bond says the goal isn’t to create friendships but to create understanding, and make sure the emotional anger and sadness that comes from losing a loved one in a murderous attack fuels a positive change rather than a continuous cycle of revenge and more extremism.
Palestinian Tamera Abuzant is from the West Bank. Tamera lost her uncle before she was born. Her family told her was killed by Israelis. Meeting Avisar though at camp has changed some of her perspective.
“When I see Tomer, I dont think of the stereotype we used to have, ‘Oh, he’s an Israeli. He will come kill you. I know now for sure that not all of them are bad,” she said. “I respect his loss, I respect him as a person as a human being, and I have nothing against him as a person.”
As Tenenbaum said while sitting outside surrounded by other campers eating lunch in Pennsylvania, “We are all here for the same reason. We all want to make it better, and because we want to end these horrible events that happened to us. We don’t want them to happen to other kids.”