They were children that Tuesday when the world changed.
Jessica Murphy was 5 years old on Sept. 11, 2001, a kindergartner at P.S. 183 on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Rob Pycior was 8 and at home with his mother in Landover, Md., when the phone rang that day. Pycior’s father, stationed at the Pentagon, told them to turn on the TV, and they watched as the second airplane hit the World Trade Center.
As the nation grieved the terrorist attacks, Murphy and Pycior suffered a personal tragedy. Murphy’s father died in the North Tower at his Cantor Fitzgerald office. Pycior’s father died in the Pentagon’s Navy Command Center.
Now young adults, Murphy and Pycior still bear the emotional toll of the deaths of their fathers. But they are working to help combat terrorism by promoting peace.
Murphy and Pycior met up in the Washington area this week to participate in a program at George Mason University designed for the children of Sept. 11 victims, helping them push for worldwide peace efforts.
The four-day seminar and leadership program is part of Project Common Bond, which brings together teens and young adults who share the experience of losing a family member because of “an act of terrorism, violent extremism or war.”
At George Mason, Murphy and Pycior joined six others personally affected by Sept. 11 and met with professors and experts in conflict negotiations to discuss healing, community building and other techniques that can aid collaboration and the peaceful end of conflict.
“They obviously have a unique story to tell as victims of terrorism and violence extremism, and their points of view are those that the world needs to hear,” said Deirdre Dolan, a program manager for Tuesday’s Children, a nonprofit group that runs the Project Common Bond seminars. “By giving them these skills in conflict resolution, we’re helping them to go out into the world as peace builders and counter the narrative of violent terrorism.”
Pycior said that the program is beneficial for young people like him who share the common bond of having lost family in the terrorist attacks. Pycior wears a bracelet inscribed with his father’s name, a daily reminder of what he lost.
“It’s just a deep connection that is near instantaneous,” said Pycior, 22, who is studying social work in graduate school at Rutgers University. “With 9/11, it’s ‘Never forget.’ That moniker has stayed with me and other surviving families of 9/11.”
At George Mason, Pycior said that each of the eight young people in the room taking part in a peace-building exercise are tied to history. Murphy said that participating in events such as Project Common Bond offers her the opportunity to meet others who share her experience.
“I’ve known from a young age that bad things can happen,” said Murphy, 19, a freshman at Brown University. “September 11th was a traumatic day and the whole country was traumatized by it, but having a personal experience in the national grief made it deeper.”
Casey Hargrave, who was 6 at the time, said she remembers her mother pulling her close and telling her that her father was not coming home from his office that day. Her father also worked at Cantor Fitzgerald, a firm that lost 658 employees at the World Trade Center.
Touched personally by terrorism, Hargrave, a junior at George Washington University, hopes one day to combat it as a diplomat with the State Department or at the National Counterterrorism Center. She has studied Sharia law, the history of the Middle East and has taken Arabic classes in college, all in an effort to get a better understanding of what breeds terrorist actions. Hargrave said that learning conflict resolution skills will play a crucial role in her future.
“I think that the first step is you have to secure it and make the world a safer place before you can sit down and talk things out,” said Hargrave, 21. “But if you bring up a whole generation of kids who know these skills, who know how to talk it out before fighting to resolve conflicts, it’s going to change it.”