In this Monday, July 25, 2011 photo, Vladimir Gavriushin sits at the grave he built for his daughter Yelena in a cemetery outside Vilnius, Lithuania. Yelena was one of the nearly 3,000 people killed on Sept. 11, 2001. Gavriushin has buried rocks from ground zero under these tombstone towers, far from the place Yelena died –– a place he can no longer afford to visit.
In a Lithuanian cemetery, a world away from ground zero, the twin towers still stand. Vladimir Gavriushin lays white roses near the 6-foot granite replicas of the World Trade Center’s skyscrapers, a memorial he built to honor his daughter, Yelena, one of the nearly 3,000 people killed on Sept. 11.
Gavriushin has buried rocks from ground zero under these tombstone towers, far from the place Yelena died — a place he can no longer afford to visit. And so, as the 10-year anniversary of the terrorist attacks approaches, he mourns for Yelena here, at his own ground zero.
He remembers frantically calling his daughter that day amid the terrified crowds in Brooklyn, where he was at the time: “She never answered.”
Sept. 11 sent waves of grief far beyond America, as people from London to New Zealand learned their loved ones were among the dead. But though the pain transcended borders, foreign families have battled to cope with their loss from afar.
For some, it was impossible to make healing pilgrimages to the site of the tragedy, or to grieve alongside a community that understood their pain. For others, the larger struggle lies within the symbolism of Sept. 11 itself — a day that, for Americans, is inextricably tied to national identity, politics and patriotism.
Most foreigners who lost loved ones that day had little urge to wave a flag. And many questioned the politics and wars that followed. Where, then, did they fit?
“Mum was not ‘a hero of freedom’ as I heard someone describe it once,” says Simon Kennedy, an Australian whose mother died on Sept. 11 when terrorists crashed her plane into the Pentagon. “She was in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
Yvonne Kennedy had handed the itinerary for her North American vacation to her son with trademark black humor. “This is just in case the terrorists get me,” the 62-year-old said — as she always did — before she set out on her adventure, a retirement gift she’d given herself after a nearly 30-year career with the Red Cross.
One year after the attacks, Kennedy traveled from his home in Sydney to Washington, D.C., to attend a memorial service in honor of those killed on American Airlines Flight 77. At the ceremony, Kennedy listened with growing unease to then-President George W. Bush’s speech.
“Trying to wade my way through the fog of American patriotism in order to identify my own grief was very difficult,” says Kennedy, a 36-year-old comedian. “So being back here in Australia, it’s better — because I can just grieve it for what it was.”
Grief is so personal, so complex, that it is of course too simplistic to say that those who mourned abroad had it harder, or easier, than their American counterparts. Psychologist Richard Bryant, who worked with Sept. 11 victims in the U.S. and Australia, has seen the struggle from both sides.
Some victims living in Australia temporarily felt isolated in their grief and longed for home. In other cases, being separated from the constant reminders of the tragedy was helpful.
“At least in Australia, they felt that they could talk about it and they could get away from it,” says Bryant, director of the University of New South Wales Traumatic Stress Clinic. “When they went back and lived in Manhattan, they found that it was everywhere. ... And they actually felt that they were less in control of how they were processing it.”
For some, though, the yearning to grieve where their loved ones died remains intense.
In a small mountain village in Mexico, Raquel Lopez and her family cannot afford visas from Mexico to the United States. So this Sept. 11, they will gather for a morning Mass and place flowers on the tomb of her brother, Leobardo Lopez.
They will share memories of the 42-year-old cook, who was killed at the Windows on the World restaurant on the top of the World Trade Center’s north tower. And they will watch the anniversary events on TV.
“Where we all want to be that day, though, is ground zero,” says Lopez, her eyes watering. “We want to be where he died, with people who are going through the same pain we are going through, and who understand that void we were all left with.”
Like many families of foreign victims, Lopez was disturbed by the wars that followed 9/11. This year, the family will wear white as a symbol of their wish for peace.
“Maybe what the United States needs to do is sit down and have a dialogue with those people,” she says. “Because they have tried war — and terrorism has not ended.”
In the Philippines, journalist Cookie Micaller is frustrated by the resources the U.S. has spent fighting terrorism over the past decade, instead of combating disease, improving education and providing food and water to those in need.
“Personally, even if they wage a war, it won’t bring back my sister,” Micaller says.
Micaller had been working late that day at a newspaper in Manila when her editor told her to turn on the TV. A plane had crashed into the World Trade Center — where her sister, Cynthia Wilson, worked. She raced to lay out the new front page story.
“I quietly feared that I may be laying down the story of my sister’s end,” she remembers.
The horrible confirmation came the next day.
Shortly after, she traveled to New York with her sister and sister’s husband, her first trip to the U.S. mainland. She was overwhelmed. At ground zero, a giant pile of steel pylons were twisted like an accordion. An acrid, burning stench filled the air. Rescuers, cleaners and investigators tipped their hard hats as a sign of grief and commiseration.
Wilson’s body was never found. The family buried an urn filled with ashes from ground zero in a suburban New York City cemetery.
Yambem Laba, an Indian whose brother, Jupiter Yambem, was killed in the attacks, believes the U.S. had no choice but to wage war and hunt for Osama bin Laden.
“The WTC attack was the spark and the flame was the war,” he says.
Each anniversary, up to 150 family members and friends honor Yambem’s memory with a Hindu lunch, prayer ceremony and floral offerings to his portrait. With bin Laden’s recent death, this year’s gathering will be special, Laba says.
“The aftereffect of 9/11 is that the war on terrorism took a different turn,” Laba says. “Earlier you could say one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter, but that no longer held true.”
As the post-Sept. 11 decade ends, some foreign families of the victims are eager to move past the tragedy.
In Israel, Daniel Lewin’s family honors his memory with a traditional Jewish yahrzeit, an annual memorial observance of a loved one’s death. They talk about his life and study the Torah, the Hebrew Bible, in his name.
Over the years, Daniel’s brother, Michael Lewin, has visited ground zero several times on business trips to New York. But he does not consider the site the best memorial for his brother.
“I’m glad to see that America is rebuilding ground zero,” he says. “But the point of memory is not to be sad, but to use the loss of 9/11 to make the world better. Wallowing in our loss is not productive.”
Iryna Ushakova, a Ukrainian whose father died in the World Trade Center, is looking for closure.
“Life goes on,” she says. “Ten years is a good time to say goodbye to all that we’ve been through, a good time to turn the page to a new era.”
Ushakova moved to the U.K. after receiving a scholarship from the British Council to dependents of Sept. 11 victims. She set up a folk band, which released a song to mark the 10th anniversary called “The Journey to Ground Zero.” The music has helped her heal.
This year, she and her family will travel to New York to attend the memorial ceremony.
“When he was killed, you realize you can’t control everything in your life,” she says. “I always wanted to do music. ... And I thought, ‘I have to do it now. There may not be a tomorrow.’”
Nine years after struggling through that first anniversary ceremony in Washington, Simon Kennedy is ready to return. He and his brother will attend a memorial service and visit Arlington National Cemetery, where some of their mother’s remains are buried.
This time, he feels prepared for what the day will bring.
“Here in Australia, it’s like, ‘It happened, and it’s awful — now let’s move on,’” he says. “It certainly has changed us as people, but it doesn’t in any way identify who we are.”