In the early morning hours of a September Tuesday, Joseph Pycior, Jr., arrived at work. Headquartered for nearly three years at what his father called “the safest place in the world” — the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. — Pycior compiled raw data into digestible tidbits for press releases.
The desk work may not have been as exhilarating as his previous position, serving as a member of the navy in the Persian Gulf during Operation Desert Storm, but it gave the 39-year-old a chance to see his kids more often, taking them camping or fishing on occasion. Plus, he’d just put in his papers for retirement. He was four months from his golden years, a new job as a middle-school history teacher and a move back home to New Jersey.
Around 9:15 a.m. Pycior heard a report about a plane flying into the World Trade Center. He phoned his wife to see if she knew. Then he called his mother in Jersey and told her to look outside at the billowing smoke. Fifteen minutes later, at 9:37 a.m., another plane, a Boeing 757, slammed into the massive five-sided building, which houses the U.S. Department of Defense.
His son Robert Pycior, who goes by Robbie, was only eight years old as firefighters dug up the victims from the rubble and as news anchors confirmed that 184 people died at the Pentagon alone. For Robbie and each of the 3,050 children who lost a parent on Sept. 11, the experience of a parent’s death could feel isolating. The struggle to heal continues to single out victims of terrorism, 15 years after the attacks.
“For these teenagers, the sudden, violent and public nature of their loss becomes an overwhelming and defining characteristic of their lives,” says Terry Sears, executive director of Tuesday’s Children, a nonprofit that promotes healing for 9/11 victims. “Their experience is not something that’s easily shared with others.”
Every summer, Tuesday’s Children provides a welcoming place to share that experience in a tranquil setting. During a weeklong session, the organization’s Project COMMON BOND brings together several dozen teenagers, ages 15 to 20, at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania. American teenagers affected by 9/11 wanted an international community who’d suffered similar loss inspired the program, which is now in its eighth year. Half the group of 60 are Americans who lost a parent in 9/11 or in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; the remaining are international teens (from countries like France, Spain, India, Pakistan, Israel, Palestine, Kenya, Indonesia, Macedonia and Northern Ireland) who lost a family member to terrorism.
“The most important thing is just recognizing that the pain will be there. There will always be that hole in your heart, as the saying goes. You can fill that hole by sharing your story, by using your story to help others, by having a positive impact in somebody’s life … but it will never be completely filled,” Robbie Pycior, who returned to the camp for a second time as a counselor this year, tells NationSwell in an interview. “Twenty years from now, I still realize, ’Wait, I can’t tell my father about something’. As opposed to moving on from your loss, it’s moving on with your loss, with your loved one, with their memory.”
Pycior, a volunteer firefighter in his hometown of East Windsor, N.J., not far from Trenton, the state capital, just graduated from college, where he majored in psychology and history. He’s going back to school this September at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., to obtain his masters in social work. Even the second time around, Project COMMON BOND was a “roller coaster” of emotions. It left him feeling “sort of exhausted,” but in a good way, “like you’ve accomplished something.” He was amazed that people from so many different cultural backgrounds — often from conflict-torn countries — could find commonality.
“People who come to COMMON BOND could have lost someone at a very young age or lost them three years ago, as a 17 year old. They have very different perspectives than someone who experienced that at three months old,” Pycior says. “It’s hard to explain other than that we get each other. There’s an unspoken understanding that we know what it’s like to be in each others’ shoes. We understand what grief is and having that with people from 12 or 13 different countries is extremely powerful.”
Project COMMON BOND isn’t just a chance to unload a heavy emotional burden. Like Seeds of Peace (a youth peacebuilding organization), the curriculum is meticulously designed — in this case, by experts from Harvard Law School’s Negotiation and Mediation Clinical Program. The model involves intensive group therapy as well as leadership training, conflict resolution and peace-building exercises.
The initiative uses the “dignity model” (designed by Donna Hicks, an associate at Harvard’s Weatherhead Center for International Affairs), which teaches ways to respect every person’s inborn and inalienable dignity, says Monica Meehan McNamara, the program’s curriculum director. By talking through stereotypes and preconceived judgments, the kids get closer to removing the “blinders” we have about other cultures and “building empathy for other people,” she adds. It’s a lesson whose importance seems to grow daily, as tensions deepen domestically between African-Americans and police officers and abroad with ISIS recruiting extremists across the globe.
“The whole week people talk about the loss that they had, but they’re also thinking about what produces terrorism and violence,” Meehan McNamara says. “One young woman from France spoke about having witnessed her father, best friends and cousin being killed by terrorists in Saudi Arabia and how devastating that was. About four or five years later, [the murderers] were caught and brought to trial. People said to her, ‘Aren’t you glad about being able to get revenge? To put them away?’ Looking at [the attackers], she realized they were children once. She wondered, How did they come to this other place, this extreme? … Throughout the week, they’re offering their story about the way it impacted their family and the trauma that some still carry. They want to understand how such a thing can happen, but they also want work on the side of counteracting that.”
The afternoons, in contrast, are all centered around lighthearted, creative play, through drama, art, music or sports. It’s a chance to sublimate the morning’s raw emotion, to unwind and just be a kid. Some days, you’re playing soccer with a talented club player from Algeria who always lets someone else score or teaching foreigners ultimate frisbee; other days you’re acting silly, improvising throwing an invisible ball around a circle.
The final day at Project COMMON BOND looks like any other summer camp. Many are scribbling down email addresses and phone numbers to stay in touch. Tears dampen several eyes. “You’ve formed such a close, tight bond with people. Someone 9,000 miles away are some of your best friends,” Robbie Pycior says. He asks the instructors if he can help clean up the place afterward. He doesn’t want to go just yet. Eventually, Robbie gets into his car, counts to 10 to calm himself down and hits the road back home.