Elizabeth Miller was just 6 years old when her father, Douglas C. Miller, a firefighter, was killed during the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center. Years later, in her grief, she began to learn more about the United States' response to 9/11. She met a Middle Eastern man held at Guantánamo Bay purely for "seeming suspicious." What she learned made her feel obligated to "speak out about the injustices that stemmed from (her) loss," she wrote in a Time opinion piece this week.
Hers was just one of the stories shared by some of the more than 200 people gathered in Palo Alto's King Plaza on Saturday evening for the Multifaith Peace Picnic & Prayer Service. For the 20th year in a row, organizers put together the event to not only memorialize 9/11 victims and remember their families, but also to share stories of peace and unity despite the backlash against the Muslim community after Sept. 11.
This year's program began with boxed dinners and included musical performances by local faith groups and speeches. Chairs were spread out throughout the plaza as a precaution against the spread of the coronavirus. The event, which was held solely virtually last year, was also streamed live on Zoom for those who couldn't attend in person.
The evening ended with attendees gathered in a circle and holding candles in a prayer vigil to honor the victims.
Organizer and Palo Alto resident Samina Sundas, founder of American Muslim Voice, has held the vigil annually since the first anniversary of Sept. 11.
She shared with Palo Alto Weekly this week that the return to power by the Taliban in Afghanistan and the current of hatred among some groups throughout the country sometimes make her feel that nothing has changed over two decades.
"I don't know why you need a boogeyman," she said of the history of xenophobia in America and tendency of some to choose a group toward which to direct their fears and anxieties. "I try to bring the community together and try to heal and build peace. … A few handful of terrorists do not represent me. It's been so wonderful and supportive, every time we host that event."
Sundas recalled online commenters asking if beheading would be on the menu when she held the first picnic in 2002. She said she's now seeing a similar hatred directed toward Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.
"Sadly 20 years later, we are still divided more so than ever," she said.