GARFIELD PARK- Americans across the country last Sunday marked the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks with candlelight vigils and memorial services.

In Chicago’s West Garfield Park neighborhood, Amina Syed solemnly stood at a church podium and reflected on her loss. Her cousin, Nasima Simjee, 38, died when one of four hijacked planes crashed into the south tower of the World Trade Center in New York City.

Simjee, who Syed said had a passion for mountain climbing, was among 41 Muslim-Americans who perished that tragic day 10 years ago.

“Osama Bin Laden and his ilk wanted to bring the financial world to its knees when it chose to attack the United States 10 years ago,” said Syed who spoke at a Sept. 11 commemoration event at New Mt. Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church, 4301 W. Washington Blvd. The event was held in conjunction with Elmhurst College.

“I’m sure they didn’t care that they killed Nasima and other Muslims, even though they profess to carry out these attacks in the name of Islam,” she said.

While Bin Laden aimed to fracture the American spirit, Syed said he failed to realize Muslims would be part of the rebuilding process. The country, she said, has become more unified regardless of naysayers who pigeonhole Islam as a “terrible faith.”

As the former head of the Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago, Syed made it a mission to convince people that “Muslims aren’t really bad people” and that the actions of a few don’t represent all Muslims or Islam. 

Syed hoped that Sunday’s event would aid in that effort. The event brought Muslims and Christians together for a day of service.

It featured free health screenings offered by Compassionate Care Network, a Muslim-run physicians group. The event included a fresh produce giveaway and an ecumenical prayer service.

Syed admitted relations between Muslims and Americans have frayed. The Muslim community has been the subject of hate crimes and marginalization.

But, Syed noted Muslims, too, have a role to play in reversing negative stereotypes. She contends Muslims isolate themselves. They must step outside their comfort zone and befriend their neighbors.

“Perhaps it’s American Muslims who need to change in order to get past 9/11 and for us all to heal together,” Syed said, encouraging young American Muslims and Christians to break bread together.

“When you enjoy a meal together, that breaks a lot of barriers,” she said, “and … you’ll find that you will have so much more in common with each other than differences.”

That was the event’s goal, said the Rev. Dr. Ronald K. Beauchamp, director of the Niebuhr Center at Elmhurst College. The west suburban college enlisted members of the Muslim community, including several mosques, to volunteer for the event.

Beauchamp noted many of the volunteers, including Elmhurst College students, have little interaction with blacks. He said this is a way of creating connections among different races and ethnic groups.

Nadia Khan, of the Islamic Foundation, brought in 30 youths representing Muslim student organizations from west suburban high schools. Events like this where Muslim kids work with other people of different faiths “gives [others] an opportunity to see that Islam is not terrorism and is not a terrorist religion,” she said.

But, as Syed reflected back on that day 10 years ago, she said she is still haunted by her cousin’s final moments.

“It just didn’t occur to me that she could be a victim,” she said.

Only 16 minutes elapsed from the time the first plane hit the first tower to the time the second plane slammed into the South Tower, where Simjee worked for Fiduciary Trust International.

“There was exactly 16 minutes for people who were in the second tower to think about what they were going to do,” Syed said. “They say that those who survived were the ones who just immediately walked out of whatever meeting they were at, didn’t go back for a purse, didn’t go back for a cellphone.”

Whatever her cousin’s final moments were, Syed said Simjee along with nearly 3,000 other Americans were doomed to die that day. And their deaths were inconsequential to Osama Bin Laden.

“They didn’t care whether people who died that day were people of faith or not,” she said. “All they cared about was the same brand of faith that they believed in.”

But she added the faith community is the one working to reaffirm “our unitedness as Americans.”

Rev. Marshall Hatch, pastor of New Mt. Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church, agreed.

“One of the things about America is diversity of religion,” said Hatch. “I think that is part of America’s gift to the world, that religion does not have to divide. We can each have our distinct faiths and still have a common bond for doing common good.”