“Where are you from?”
The question seemed strange to ask during a robbery, which certainly this was—the man wore a bandana, sunglasses and a baseball cap and aimed the gun directly at my face as I stood over the gas station register. “Excuse me?” I asked. As soon as I spoke, Allah sent some angel and I turned my face a bit to the left; otherwise I would have been blinded in both eyes. I felt the sensation of a million of bees stinging my face, then heard an explosion. Images of my mother, my father, my fiancée appeared before my eyes, and then, a graveyard. I didn’t know if I was alive. I looked down at the floor and saw blood pouring like an open faucet from the side of my head. Frantically, I placed both hands on my face, thinking I had to keep my brains from spilling out. I heard myself screaming, “Mom!”
The gunman was still standing there. I thought if I don’t pretend I’m dead, he’ll shoot me again.
I had been working at the gas station in Dallas for only three months. A year or so earlier, I’d left my home in Bangladesh, where I was an Air Force officer, to study computer technology in New York. A schoolmate from Bangladesh who now lived in Texas called to invite me to become partners in a new gas station. The cost of living was cheaper in Dallas, as well as tuition, and I could get in on a start-up business. It seemed a wonderful opportunity, a way of gaining stability in my adopted country.
Our station was in a bad neighborhood, but I was a young boy in my early 20s, and very encouraged. I was friendly with my customers. Cops came in and talked to me—they loved asking about my Islamic faith and culture. Then between June and September I was robbed twice, once at gunpoint. I worried I was taking too much of a risk, but didn’t want to pull out from my friend.
When September 11th happened, the sheer horror seemed to make a lot of people crazy. A few days later a Pakistani owner of a grocery store near our station was shot and killed. I wanted to increase our security, or have someone work with me after dark, but my friend didn’t want to spend the money. He even returned the fake closed circuit TV we used as a robbery deterrent.
For two nights in a row, I dreamt of being shot at the gas station. I told my friend I no longer wanted to work at night. On Friday Sept 21st, I took the morning shift. It was grey and drizzling. I was supposed to be relieved at noon so that I could go to prayers, but instead at 12:30 the gunman walked in. “Don’t shoot me!” I said, opening the register. “Here’s all the money.”
Then he asked where I was from and fired before I could answer and left. Afraid I’d pass out if I called 911 and waited for help by myself, I ran to the barbershop next door. Three men inside looked at me in horror, scrambling to escape out back. I don’t blame them; the shooter might have been right behind me. “I don’t want to die!” I screamed, grabbing one of the men. “Please call 911.”
While he made a quick call, I caught myself in the mirror. A few minutes earlier, I was a smiling boy and now I was ugly and going to die. “It is too early to leave today,” I told myself. “I have not seen anything, done anything. I can’t break down now or it will cause my death.”
The ambulance workers found me running around screaming in the parking lot. I arrived at the hospital at 1:30. The entire time I recited the Koran, my mouth moving like a machine, reciting whatever I knew. I told God to let me live and I would do good with my life. Finally five hours after I was shot, I lost consciousness.
“Am I still alive?” I asked out loud.
“Yes you are still alive. Good morning”
The most beautiful moment was awakening the next day. I heard a woman’s voice and wondered whether I was dead and an angel was comforting me. I tried to open my eyes, but it was too painful. At last, my left eye opened, full of tears. A nurse gently held my hand. I had my life.
My nightmare, though, was just beginning. At noon the hospital, which was private and expensive, discharged me saying I had to make my own arrangements with one of the hospital’s eye specialists. The first appointment alone would cost $500. I had neither insurance nor workman’s comp since my partner at the station had wanted to keep costs low. The eye specialist warned that I’d need several surgeries but wasn’t sure he could save my vision. He gave me a form to apply for compensation for crime victims.
Somebody had called my parents and told them their son had been shot in the face, but nothing more. I couldn’t move my mouth or speak, and no one else followed up to let my parents know I was alive until five or six days later. During that time my father suffered a stroke from the stress. I couldn’t fly home because the pressure changes on the plane might make my eye explode.
I couldn’t understand why the man shot me. Had I done something wrong to someone? Daily, the police came to show me hundreds of pictures of criminals. Everyone looked the same. Yet from hundreds, I pinpointed four. Then I narrowed it to two.
I was on my way to eye surgery when the news reported the murder of another gas station owner. This time a camera captured on tape the killing of Vasudev Patal, an Indian immigrant. The shooter in the video was one of the two men I had picked.
A few days later after his arrest, the killer, a man named Mark Stroman, called a TV reporter from jail to speak his mind. He was a true patriot, he bragged. This was an act of war. He did what every American wanted to do but was too scared.
During his trial I felt terrified. What if people associated with him tried to kill me? In the courtroom Stroman turned toward the families of the other victims and myself and raised his middle finger. When they sentenced him to death, he gave the thumbs up and said, “True American.”
His conviction didn’t stop the downward spiral of my life. For six months, I holed up, praying to God to heal my badly scarred face so that people wouldn’t recoil at the sight of me. After two major operations, one extremely painful, I lost vision in my right eye.
Before the shooting I had won a permanent residency card in a lottery, amazingly picked at random out of several million people. All I had to do was return home and obtain my visa, along with my fiancée whom I was thrilled to bring back with me to America. Now I could no longer travel due to my surgeries and lost my permanent residency. Attorneys in the DA’s office offered to “fix” my immigration status, but wanted $10,000 up front, knowing full well I was penniless. My letters to the government and private charities went unanswered. At last, I received my Texas crime victim compensation but it fell $10,000 short of my medical bills. My credit was already ruined.
Through all of this, my friend viewed me as a burden. I was totally shocked that this guy who brought me to Texas now wanted me to get out after I was shot and needed treatment. I knew hardly anyone in Dallas. Then out of the blue, a man who knew my friend called and gave me a job answering phones for a few months at minimum wage. At his office a fellow employee invited me to live with him in his one-bedroom apartment until I could find a place. “Pay whatever you can,” he said. “I’ll take care of the rest.” We wound up moving into a two-bedroom together.
One Friday evening at the mosque where I prayed, I spotted someone from my high school back in Bangladesh. We spoke and he told me the mosque ran programs to help people. Through the mosque I met a man who headed a computer school and offered me free high-tech training. The teacher was a very good Muslim. He gave me my books for no charge and after the course continued to mentor me. That was the beginning of my career and led to the IT job I have today. My teacher remains my good friend.
I would not know such people if I had not gone through this disaster. No matter the pain and suffering, this experience made me a stronger person. I could have gone back home, but I’m a fighter and came to the United States to do something good, not simply survive day to day. Likewise, 9/11 is the worst thing to ever happen to this country. But a terrible thing has resulted in some good. People became curious to learn exactly what my religion is about. It opened another door for a lot of immigrant people; many Americans understand more than they once did about Islam. I have learned, too. Sometimes I attend a Christian church or a Jewish temple. There is no harm in seeking knowledge. That’s why I like talking to people. I hear their ideas, they hear mine and both our minds are opened. Although I did receive counseling in 2005, my strong faith in God has provided me with the best counseling. I can ask guidance from the Koran. Universal counseling.
I and the other victims have reminders of the shooting that will never leave us. My scars are healed, but I suffer severe headaches. (I get two visions, one is blurry, one is clear and my brain has to pick.) One Sunday not long ago, I visited Alka Patel, the widow of Vasudev, whom Stroman also shot. Without money to hire employees at the gas station, she works long hours and her children have no lives. She looked so stressed and tired; I felt much pain in my heart.
I never hated America for what happened. My shooting was an individual incident. I forgave Mark Stroman many years ago. He was ignorant; if he could differentiate wrong from right, he wouldn’t have done this. I think of him waiting in a cell to be executed and can feel the pain of how one terrible mistake put him in this situation. How he now must realize that killing an innocent person in Texas did not avenge anyone who perished in the World Trade Center in New York. Everyday he must think if he could go back and change things and not commit this crime, he would be free.
In my faith, forgiveness is the best policy. My parents raised me with the religious principle that he is the best who can forgive easily. Once the prophet Mohammed went to Tayef to teach Islam to the people, who treated him so brutally that he was near death. The angle Gabriel appeared and told him if he wanted, God would destroy these people. Mohammed asked, “But if there are no people to whom will I spread God’s message?”
Perhaps God kept me alive so I can pass this message onto others. I feel more love and compassion for human beings than I ever did before this accident. Sight is gone from one eye, but my vision has never been clearer.
Past Close Up Articles
Anya Cordell, activist