By SUSAN ELAN
THE JOURNAL NEWS
(Original Publication: August 23, 2007)
WHITE PLAINS - Sorrow brought them together but a shared desire for peace and reconciliation has made an unusual friendship blossom between two mothers whose sons were taken from them by the attacks of Sept. 11.
Phyllis Rodriguez of White Plains, whose son Greg, 31, worked for Cantor Fitzgerald and died at the World Trade Center, and Aicha El-Wafi of Narbonne, France, the mother of Zacarias Moussaoui, the so-called 20th hijacker, came to a luncheon discussion yesterday at the WESPAC Foundation, a peace and justice center in White Plains.
"I want something good to come from something horrible," Rodriguez told about 30 peace workers and anti-death-penalty activists.
Since the two mothers met in November 2002, they have visited each other six times in the United States and France. Each visit has strengthened their friendship and their resolve to spread the message that revenge and violence can only lead to more suffering for other innocent people, they said.
"Dialogue has helped us know each other and taught us tolerance," el-Wafi said in French. "We understand each other's suffering. Leaders divide people in order to reign. But through discussion, people, no matter what their religions, can understand each other."
Moussaoui was arrested on Aug. 16, 2001, for an immigration violation and is serving a life sentence for conspiracy in the 9/11 attacks.
Orlando Rodriguez, Greg's father, testified for the defense in Moussaoui's death-penalty trial in Alexandria, Va. Yesterday he said he did so because "to kill someone for what they believe or want to do would be a terrible injustice."
But befriending el-Wafi has come at a price for the Rodriguezes.
"There is a good side and a bad side," Orlando Rodriguez said. "There is always the reminder of why we have this friendship."
Phyllis Rodriguez said that, at first, she and her husband feared for their personal safety.
"The atmosphere in the nation was so frightening, we were scared to speak out," she said.
But the Rodriguezes did not let fear stop them.
They wrote a public letter to President Bush urging him not to use their "son's memory as a justification to cause suffering for other sons and parents in other lands." On March 20, 2003, the day of the invasion of Iraq, Phyllis Rodriguez joined a small group of anti-war protesters in downtown White Plains.
When the couple received an invitation from Renny Cushing, head of an organization called Murder Victims' Families for Human Rights, to meet el-Wafi and four other relatives of 9/11 victims at a local university, they agreed. Cushing, whose father was a murder victim, attended yesterday's event.
Phyllis Rodriguez said her admiration for el-Wafi grew as she learned of her struggle to raise four children alone after leaving the abusive husband she had wed in an arranged marriage in Morocco at age 14. That same fortitude has enabled el-Wafi to stand by her son in a country where she does not speak the language and where they were both largely reviled, Phyllis Rodriguez said.
"My heart went out to her," she said. "She fought for a just deal for her son and she did not back down."
El-Wafi does not condone her son's actions but says she is unclear as to what he actually did. She cites the racism he faced as the child of Moroccan immigrants in France and abandonment by his father as the factors that contributed to his susceptibility to an Islamist movement which offered him a sense of purpose and belonging.
Her anguish for her 39-year-old son has been heightened by the loss of contact with him since his transfer to the maximum security federal prison in Florence, Colo., where he is held in solitary confinement. Her letters have gone unanswered. Prison officials have not responded to her appeals for information about his condition, she said.
Reports of abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and Guantanamo Bay in Cuba have made her fear that her son is being tortured too, she said.
"I lost two children when I was young and now I have lost my son," el-Wafi said. "I know Phyllis' suffering and I share it with all those who lost loved ones on Sept. 11. Now I hope we can do something together for the future."