On Sept. 11, 2001, Rima Fakih was a student at St. John's Prep High School in Astoria, Queens. She was in a social studies class when a student behind her said that the World Trade Center had been hit, and from the window of the school, she could see that he was right.
"All you could see was just some big black smoke," she said, noting that her teacher's husband worked in the buildings at the time and that the students had to bring their instructor water to try to calm her down.
It was a defining moment in the life of Fakih, a Lebanese immigrant who last year became the first Muslim and first Arab-American to win the Miss USA crown.
"It was kind of a nightmare, to be honest with you, because the principal came on the speakers and was saying, 'Attention, students: Please everyone report down to the basement. We need you all in shelters.' I just couldn't move because my older brother Rabih worked across the street from the World Trade Center, he worked with Goldman Sachs." In addition, her older sister worked in tower seven of the WTC and her father was on his way to work at the time.
When Fakih got home, her mother was on the ground in tears, barely able to breathe because the attacks evoked vivid memories of the 15-year Lebanese civil war that had forced the family to flee their homeland. "I was born in South Lebanon during the war and I remember vivid memories [of] hiding in shelters during the shelling," Fakih told MTV News. "At that moment, it felt just like that."
With her father stuck on the Queensboro Bridge and her mother unable to reach Fakih's siblings, the tension mounted during the day. Her father eventually made it to safety at an uncle's house, while, luckily, her newlywed brother, just back from his honeymoon, had taken a few extra days off at his new wife's request.
Unfortunately, nobody could reach her sister. "It was very terrifying. I remember my little brother was a baby and he was asking my mom to change the channel because he couldn't watch the scary movie anymore," she recalled.
The images of the planes hitting the buildings kept playing all day, with the building Fakih's sister worked in clearly visible in the footage. Finally, though, they got word that her sister had spent 12 hours in a shelter, wearing a gas mask, a scenario so haunting that she ended up in therapy for more than a year. "She saw people jumping out of the buildings ... on fire, from the top," Fakih said of her sister Rouba. "She was in a meeting when the first plane hit and the windows shattered."
A veteran observer of the war in Lebanon, Rouba counseled her co-workers to take shelter and stay away from the windows. Some, however, didn't take her advice and ended up dying that day. "I remember how hard it was for my family and I at the time to not only live around the atmosphere of New York City, but to receive a lot of stereotypes," Fakih said of her family, which owned a Middle Eastern restaurant on New York's Upper East Side for 20 years.
Bricks were thrown through the restaurant window and business tanked in the wake of the attacks as a result of the some of the post-9/11 anti-Muslim sentiment, with Fakih remembering how she was bullied at a her Catholic high school by some students who made rude comments. "Every time something would happen, I would be scared. I'd watch TV and ... [think], 'Please God don't let this be a terrorist act; don't let this be Arabs or Muslims."
The family moved to Dearborn, Michigan, in 2003, a city that boasts the highest concentration of Middle Eastern immigrants in the U.S., and they felt much more at ease. Rima began attending the University of Michigan, but unlike some of her Arab-American peers, she did not change her name in order to fit in and escape greater scrutiny. She held fast to her identity, even when some fellow Muslims warned her not to enter the Miss USA pageant because they believed she could never win.
Ten years later, though, she thinks things have gotten better.
"I think I'm a great example to that," she said. "Winning the crown of Miss USA, being the first Arab American, the first Muslim-American and possibly the first immigrant to win the title of Miss USA just testifies to the fact that there is freedom in this country and there is justice and there is freedom of religion and freedom of choice and this is what America is based on."
Fakih said the 9/11 attacks planted fear in a lot of people in her generation, including her. "I might be an Arab and a Muslim, and I might get on a train sometimes and see a man leave a bag and I just don't want to touch it, I want to get off at the next stop," she admitted. "Now, I think our generation has grown. My generation especially has seen so much fear and then so much change and growth in the [last] 10 years that it planted this fearlessness inside us and this ability to feel like we live in a country where you can do anything and we can overcome."
And when people asked whether she could win the Miss USA title, she'd say, "If Barack Hussein Obama is in office, then Rima Hussein Fakih can win Miss USA."
As part of the "I Will" campaign to commemorate the 9/11 attacks as a national day of service and remembrance, we asked Fakih how she'll mark the anniversary on Sunday. "On September 11, I will call to check on my sister and my older brother, who worked at the World Trade Center, to make sure that they still love and trust this county as much as everyone else."
What will you do to remember 9/11? Share your thoughts below, and visit 911day.org to upload your video response.