It’s been five years now that Talat Hamdani has been able to talk about her son without crying, but she still prefers mostly not to tell his story.
“It’s all over the Internet,” she said.
She’s stopped talking about how she initially didn’t worry when her son, Mohammad Salman Hamdani, who was a cadet with the New York City Police Department, didn’t answer his cellphone that night; about how police questioned her and her husband when authorities couldn’t find their son’s body, to see if he had any terrorist connections; about the New York Post headline a month after the attacks – “Missing – Or Hiding? – Mystery Of NYPD Cadet From Pakistan,” that cast him as a suspect in the 9/11 attacks.
She’s mostly stopped talking, but she’s still fighting for the recognition she says is due her son.
Hamdani’s remains were found five months after 9/11 at Ground Zero, next to his medical kit. He had been headed to his job as a research technician at Rockefeller University in midtown Manhattan but apparently detoured to the World Trade Center, voluntarily, to help.
Hamdani received full police honors at his 2002 funeral, where Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly both praised his heroics. His name was cited in the Patriot Act as an example of Muslim American valor, and on the first anniversary of 9/11, Kelly presented Talat Hamdani with a police shield in her son’s honor.
NYPD officials promised they would “always be there” for her. “But everybody disappeared,” she said.
Hamdani’s name was left off the NYPD’s official 9/11 memorial, and there’s no mention of him in the list of 441 first responders on the National September 11 Memorial in lower Manhattan. Instead, his name is etched with others on the panels surrounding the spot where the South Tower originally stood.
His mother didn’t find this out until 2009, when she was mailed the official National Memorial package. “It was a shock.”
She called memorial organizers and was told they based their decision to list Salman on the list of victims “loosely connected” to the attacks because his name wasn’t on the NYPD memorial, erected several years earlier.
Salman’s two younger brothers, Zeshan and Adnaan, knew about the omissions but didn’t tell their mother for fear of breaking her heart.
“I told them they should have told me right away, because I would have started fighting long ago.”
Hamdani wrote three letters to Kelly; an NYPD spokesman told her her son was not on their list of 9/11 fallen because he was a cadet, and hadn’t worked for several weeks at the time of the attacks. His mother countered that he was still an NYPD employee when he was killed, at the age of 23.
Since then, Hamdani has written politicians and President Barack Obama, lobbied memorial organizers and other groups and spoken on television, all to no avail. But she hasn’t given up.
“I won’t find peace until this thing is resolved with justice. He gave the same sacrifice as the other police officers did, why is he not acknowledged as such?”
Some people suspect the NYPD has left Hamdani’s name off their memorial because it would mean having to pay compensation to the family, just like they did to the families of other fallen NYPD members.
“I think this is a major factor, but it should not be. His sacrifice is no less than the others,” said Hamdani.
She suspects there is another reason.
“If his name had been anything but Mohammad, it would have been a different story,” she said.
The NYPD did not reply to requests for comment.
Hamdani said a lawyer has contacted her, offering to file a lawsuit against the NYPD for discrimination. She said she prefers to wait until New York City has a new mayor and new police commissioner later this year, and see how they respond to her pleas.
“This should not come to the point of having to take legal recourse,” she said.
In the fight to get her son properly commemorated, Hamdani has also emerged as a leading voice against Islamophobia. She publicly denounced Rep. Peter King, a Long Island Republican and then-chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, for holding hearings on Muslim radicalization in 2010. She’s squared off against opponents of a proposed Islamic community center near Ground Zero, including other 9/11 families, and has spoken out against the NYPD’s warrantless surveillance of mosques and Muslim businesses and organizations.
She also believes that other Muslim families who lost loved ones on 9/11 were questioned by police who thought their lost loved oned might have had something to do with the attacks.
“They went and questioned each and every one,” she said. “That’s why no one else is speaking up (about Islamophobia).”
Rockefeller University, where Hamdani worked, created a scholarship in his name. And like other Twin Tower victims, who have had streets renamed in their honor, Salman may have the street in Queens where he lived named in his honor.
“Her story was very disheartening,” said Jerry Iannece, a lawyer and chairman of Community Board 11, in Bayside, Queens, which voted unanimously for the renaming, now pending before the City Council. “It was clear she believed in what she was doing, and we believed with her.”
He added: “It’s not an ethnic thing. He was one of our own, he wasn’t an outsider. It was a wrong that we could correct. It was the least we could do.”
Although she acknowledges her battles have taken a toll on her physically and mentally, Hamdani said she has more than enough energy to keep fighting until her son’s name is included on the NYPD and first responders memorials.
“Salman is not here, I cannot see him in flesh and blood, but I say to everybody, spiritually, we are reunited,” she said. “I am his voice, and he is my strength.”