By Kevin Tuerff
On September 11, 2001, I saw actions that restored my faith in humanity. It all happened on an island in the Atlantic Ocean, in a foreign country.
I never expected that my story of being a 9/11 refugee in Gander, Newfoundland and Labrador (Canada), and the stories of many others who had similar experiences, would ultimately be told in the award winning Broadway musical Come From Away. It’s surreal to have a Tony-nominated actor-singer sharing my story onstage. My character, “Kevin T” is portrayed by actor Chad Kimball, comically referred to as the “gay lumberjack.”
The people of Gander said, “We just do good deeds and cherish the memories.” They wouldn’t let us pay them back for their kindness, so I launched the Pay it Forward 9/11 initiative in 2002, an annual day to do good deeds to strangers, as a way to honor the fallen on 9/11 and the heroes and volunteers of that terrible day. This year, I handed out $50 bills to strangers across NYC on the train, ones who didn’t have their heads down buried in their phone.
In September 2016, I felt a spiritual calling to focus on compassion for immigrants and refugees. This was two months before the last Presidential election.
Seven months later, in May 2017, I found myself standing in front of the Church of St. Francis Xavier in Chelsea, at 16th and 6th Avenue. Hanging on the fence was a vinyl banner that read, “Immigrants and Refugees Welcome.” I was stunned, never seeing such a bold sign on any church in my hometown of Austin, Texas. I took this as a sign this needed to be my new church home. However, I couldn’t commute here every Sunday from Texas. So, four days later I rented an apartment and moved to New York City.
I joined an accompaniment program in which members of my church visit detainees held at the US Immigration Detention Center (jail) in Elizabeth, New Jersey. It’s cold, metal warehouse near Newark airport. Inside, I was assigned to speak with a man named Sam, an asylum seeker from Nigeria. With his life in danger and no protection from police, he was forced to flee, leaving behind his wife and four children.
He had no family or friends in the US. After seven months in jail, with no sunlight or access to fresh air, a US Immigration judge granted his request for asylum based on religious persecution. With the help of a pro bono attorney, he was granted freedom, and five months ago, his wife and four young children were reunited at JFK airport. Acting like the people of Gander did for me, I organized a team of volunteers to welcome them to a free, fully furnished apartment in New Jersey.
My 9/11 experience in Gander changed my life for the better. I’m committed to telling my story so that we might reconsider how we treat strangers, have compassion for millions of immigrants and refugees across the world.
House of Anansi Press published Kevin Tuerff’s memoir in 2018. As an author, he delivers public speeches on “The Ripple Effects of Compassion.” Read more at ChannelofPeaceBook.com. Proceeds are donated to refugee advocacy and resettlement charities. Tuerff is CEO of NYC-based Brokering Goodness, Inc.