This is not a story of a first-hand loss on 9/11, I had no loved ones in the twin towers, Pentagon, or the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania. I’m just an ordinary American residing on the opposite side of the continent and this is my reflection on that historic day, twelve years ago.

It started as a typical day like any other. I was at home getting ready for work, my husband had already left to go serve on jury duty selection. When the phone rang it was him at the other end. “There’s been…a terrorist…attack…in New York...,” he said, with exasperation and disbelief in his voice. After I hung up the phone, I turned on the TV and watched as the horror of the twin towers bombing unfolded over and over again with the replay of the incident. I was numbed. To see such an icon of US society going up in smoke and flames was surreal. And, of course, innocent lives had been abruptly ended.

I watched for a while and tried to gather my thoughts and feelings enough to get on with my workday. I was already late to my job at the university lab. When I got in, there was an awkward stillness and silence about the day that I’ve never felt before or since. There was silence in the skies and heavy hearts showed in the faces of those I passed in the hallways. We were all moving in slow motion.

These are all remembrances of that fateful day. But another memory stands out clearer in my mind than any of the smoke or falling buildings or quiet shock of the day.

While working in the lab that morning, I saw Gökçen , a small, young Turkish woman employed there while her husband worked on his Ph.D. in the same university department. We had worked together for some time. She was a quiet girl, but fun as well, and I remember times when groups of us would share laughter along with our daily tasks. On this day her demeanor was different, as everyone’s was. But hers seemed especially unusual; she had a look of sadness coupled with fear. She gazed at the floor. I remember saying something about the news and she did not lift her gaze. Then at some point we had a brief conversation about her country and Islam. I think I asked something like, ‘Are there a lot of Muslims in your country?’, and her answer was something like, ‘Practically everyone is Muslim there.’ I felt pretty naive not knowing this fact, and Gökçen’s look and demeanor remained the same.

I could have been completely imagining her feelings, but by her look I guessed that, along with the sadness we all felt for the senseless violence that had taken place, she was feeling fear. Fear of reprisal or anger toward her or anyone who might remotely be associated with the terrorists of that day. And she had good reason to feel this way. Escalated hatred and violence against Muslims resulted. Even the small mosque in our quiet town would be firebombed nine years later, the result of a hate crime. So that day, I gave her a kind smile and a mental hug and we went about our workday in a relatively quiet way.

Each year on 9/11, while we are reminded of the burning towers and crashing planes, the screams and crying, the anger and yelling, and the heroes that came after, I keep in mind that poignant moment that I shared in the lab with Gökçen. I remember how my heart went out to her in empathy of what she might be feeling. And how side by side we worked to each fulfill our lives’ dreams in our own way. I hope I will always recall it and how it reminded me that we are all one people on this tiny blue speck of rock.

While I won’t pretend that there isn’t evil in the world nor sick people, generally we are not all that different from those we would think of and call ‘different’. Arab, Caucasian, black, white, brown, Christian, Muslim, Atheist, women, and men. We are all born with the same basic needs for food, shelter, and love. We all wonder from where we came. We all seek to belong. We all have fears. We all dream and we all ultimately die. And I believe that we are all born with empathy. In short, we are all cut from the same cloth. The look on Gökçen’s face confirmed this.