It was Riverdale senior Amreen Bhasin’s second day of school in the second grade at Riverdale.
She waved farewell to her mother and stepped onto a New Jersey route Supertrans bus. But she did not return home that day.
New student Bhasin felt scared coming to Riverdale when, on her first day of school, her bus driver dropped her at Horace Mann by accident. The next day in school, her teacher told the class that there was a huge traffic jam and escorted her students to the lower school theater, where they were joined by the rest of the Lower school.
That day was September 11, 2001.
At that time, Bhasin and fellow students were not told what had actually happened but the atmosphere was tense. Her classmates’ parents began picking up their children and even groups of children–the beginning steps of the formation of Riverdale’s Emergency Host Families system.
Emergency host families were able to provide students with food, beds or sleeping bags and shelter.
Not knowing any kids or their parents two days into a new school, Bhasin began to panic.
“Where were my parents? Were they coming? Maybe they don’t know because they live in New Jersey, not New York,” she said. “I thought I was going to be stuck in school all by myself.”
Fortunately, Bhasin’s aunt and former head of Riverclub, Ms. Dolly Kapahi, took Bhasin to her home in Manhattan by subway.
When Bhasin’s parents contacted Ms. Kapahi and explained that they were unable to pick her up because the George Washington bridge, along with other bridges and tunnels, was shut down.
“I remember asking them ‘Can’t you just fly [and] take a plane here?’” said Bhasin.
That evening was difficult for all of her classmates, but for Bhasin, it was also the first night of her life away from home.
According to Riverdale’s Parents Association (PA) president Gina Sesler, Riverdale and the PA set up an emergency system in order “to have a more formal contingency plan following 9/11.”
The PA asked Westchester and Bronx families to host students who live NJ, Manhattan, and boroughs south of Manhattan such as Brooklyn.
This system still exists today and has expanded with more procedures, now run by the school instead of the PA.
“We tried to keep information about the attack to a minimum and followed [former Lower School Head] Sandy Shaller’s guidelines for young children of keeping the TV and radio off to minimize exposure,” Sesler wrote in an email.
However Bhasin recalls noticing pictures of the collapsed World Trade Center (WTC) from the Kapahis’ newspaper. Her great aunt and great uncle finally explained that the WTC had been hit by planes and that many people had died.
“I still did not understand because I did not know what the World Trade Center was,” she said.
As Riverdale was closed for several days following Sept. 11, Bhasin stayed with the Kapahis for two days until her parents picked her up. Safe in New Jersey, her parents explained also that it was no accident but planned by terrorists.
Only a second grader, Bhasin did not know what a terrorist was or the extent of the attacks.
Ten years later, she realizes the positive and negative consequences of Sept. 11. Her cousin had called in sick for work at the World Trade Center while a different cousin’s friend is a survivor of the attacks.
However one effect she’s experienced firsthand is witnessing the way others have treated her, not because she is from NJ, rather because her dad is Sikh.
Some people would just stare or glare at him when Bhasin’s father would walk by them. While others spewed anti-Muslim comments to Bhasin such as “you hate Americans” or “you definitely want to kill.”
“A lot of people would come up to my dad and say things to him about my dad’s turban,” she said. “They saw my dad’s turban and assumed he was a Muslim.”
Now the comments have lessened. As her Supertrans bus crosses the bridge to take Bhasin to Riverdale, Bhasin feels surreal about the events that left her stranded in New York 10 years ago.