Susan Retik had every reason to hate. Seven months pregnant with her third child, Susan Retik’s husband David was killed on Sept. 11, 2001. He was aboard American Airlines Flight 11 to Los Angeles, the flight that hijackers crashed into the World Trade Center.
She had every reason to hate and desire vengeance as retribution for the death of her husband as well as the death of all killed and injured from the attack on the U.S. However, Retik, of Needham, Mass., is no ordinary victim. Instead, she has devoted her life to helping women in the same country where the hijackers had trained.
She and Patti Quigley, also widowed on Sept. 11, and eight months pregnant with her second child when her husband Patrick was killed while traveling on United Airlines Flight 175, directed their grief toward helping Afghan widows, who were also suffering.
“We basically became aware of Afghanistan and the plight of the women through the news media,” said Retik. “We were struck by how terrible it was to be a woman and couldn’t imagine what it was like. I felt a kinship toward them, and remembered about all the people that helped me when I lost David, and knew that they had no one to help them.”
Decades of fighting in Afghanistan had left tens of thousands of women widowed. Their faces haunted Retik and Quigley, who realized the Afghan widows were also victims of violence. However, unlike the Afghan widows, grief-stricken individuals around their neighborhoods and country instantly embraced the women, and sent cards, money, stuffed animals, gifts and quilts.
“We had people making dinner for us, helping with our laundry, and sending us letters,” said Retik, who is Jewish. “And we had assistance from our husbands’ employers, the Red Cross and Salvation Army. These Muslim women have no support.”
Initially, Retik thought about helping one widowed Afghan woman financially so she no longer had to struggle. However, as she thought about it, she realized it would be beneficial to help many more. With Quigley’s help, the women began the non-profit organization, Beyond the 11th. The organization aids Afghan widows whose lives have been touched by terrorism and war, such as the ones whose faces they saw on the evening news after U.S. forces went in to remove the Taliban and Al Qaeda, which was responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks.
After raising thousands of dollars through bike rides, and various fundraisers, Quigley and Retik traveled to Afghanistan in 2006 to see the challenges burqa-clad widows face in a country that grants women few rights. Under the Taliban regime, women were unable to work or leave the house without a male escort. They have more freedom today, but still, widowed or not, are primarily illiterate and at the mercy of men and the government.
An International Day of Peace Celebration will be held on the Mount Mary campus Wednesday, Sept. 21 from 11:45 a.m. to 12:45 p.m. Janan Najeeb, president of the Milwaukee Muslim Women’s Coalition, will present “Muslim Women as Peacemakers.” The program will close with an interfaith prayer of peace. The event is free. Attendees may bring or buy their lunch, plus enjoy a complimentary sample of Middle Eastern cuisine. “But we have seen progress through out efforts, and it was good to travel to Kabul to see progress in the women we were trying to help,” said Retik. “The challenge, though, involves not only getting men to value the women more, but getting the women to value themselves more. Because they have never experienced true freedom or equality, they don’t think they are worth as much as a man.”
In 2005, Quigley, a Catholic, resigned from Beyond the 11th to shift her focus to Afghan Girls. She is now part of Razia’s Ray of Hope and helps pioneering activist Razia Jan fulfill her dream of educating the next generation of Afghan people in order to end the cycle of poverty, despair and terrorism.
A documentary chronicling the women’s six-day visit to Kabul and their work, called, “Beyond Belief,” a film by Beth Murphy, will be shown Friday, Sept. 16 at 6 p.m. in the Gerhardinger Center, Room 109 on the Mount Mary College campus, 2900 N. Menomonee River Pkwy. Milwaukee.
Retik will be the featured speaker at a luncheon, hosted by Mount Mary College, at the Pfister Hotel on Thursday, Sept. 22.
Through the documentary, Retik hopes that others will understand the importance of the mission to help the Afghan women.
“I hope it gives people a much better understanding of why we do what we do, and the need we had to meet different women in Afghanistan,” said Retik. “It is important to see their struggles and how we all can make a difference in their lives. I think the documentary humanizes the women. I mean we hear it in the news, but they are real mothers, daughters, and sisters just like us, living uneducated and difficult lives.”
Retik is assisted in her work by her children, Ben, Molly and Dina, who help in fundraising when they can. In 2006, she married Donald Ger, and the couple has a 3-year-old daughter, Rebecca.
Last year, President Barack Obama presented Retik with the Citizens Medal in recognition of her efforts.
“It was incredible and not something I ever expected to happen,” admitted Retik. “I had never been to the White House and it was so amazing to meet the president and be surrounded by others receiving this same award. It makes me feel good that the president of the United States is aware of the work of Beyond the 11th, and by choosing me as a representative, it says to me that he understands the important role that widows play.”