It was a regular day at work on Patriot’s Day for Hamza Syed. Working in his office in the suburban town of Burlington, Mass., life was going at its typical Monday pace. About 18 miles away, in Copley Square, thousands of people had gathered to cheer on runners participating in the 117th Boston Marathon.
“There have been two explosions at the Boston Marathon,” the news broke out. The whole office was in shock, gathering around computer and television screens to find out what was going on.
In the panic, 25 year old Hamza had only one thought: “my friends are at the Marathon.”
Hamza’s college friends, Azeem Khan and Armughan Syed had been training for months for the 26 mile race course.
Azeem Khan had registered for the Marathon as an Elite runner and had been practicing since Christmas 2012. Khan, who was in Boston since 2008 for his undergraduate and post-graduate degrees, was applying to medical schools.
“I thought I might be leaving Boston after all this time, so now’s the time to actually do it,” Khan said. “It was like a bucket list thing.”
He needed $4,000 for the American Liver Foundation, and reached out to his friends.
Armughan asked him “are there any more spots? I want to run with you.” Armughan attended Boston University with Azeem, and like him, had always wanted to run the marathon.
Armughan, who lives in Los Angeles flew in just for the Marathon.
“It’s a rite of passage,” Armughan said. “For me Boston is home in many ways. I spent my college years here. This was one thing I had to do.”
Azeem had been practicing for 16 weeks, and Armughan for 12. They were running five to six times a week for over seven miles.
“Painful, it was painful,” Armughan said. “I never run more than 13 miles, so it was hard. I can tell you, though, there’s nothing like the Boston Marathon.”
Hamza frantically dialed the numbers of his friends. He was worried for them, and Armughan’s wife who would have been there to see him at the finish line. He couldn’t get in touch with Armughan. He got into his car, turned the news on the radio and drove to find his friends.
“I didn’t think about anything until they were safe at my house,” Hamza said. “We kept hearing about bombs at different locations.”
He received worried calls from Armughan’s dad and family, hoping he was safe. Listening to mixed reports on the radio, Hamza had a tense car-ride.
The area had been cordoned off when he reached a few blocks away from Copley Square.
“Being in Fenway, on the marathon course, it became real very fast,” Hamza said.
Azeem was at mile 23, right by Coolidge Corner, when he first heard that there was something wrong.
“They stopped us by the time I was near Park Drive and Beacon Street at mile 24,” Azeem said. “I started getting frantic phone calls.”
Azeem, who was running with his phone had been getting motivational messages throughout the entire race. He says that he began to get texts like “I hope you are okay?!” or “Are you near the finish line?”
“None of it made sense at first…the officers, no one was acting out of the normal so people thought it was a kitchen explosion, and everyone was joking about it,” Azeem says. “Then all of a sudden, people started blasting their radios about an explosion that had happened, injury numbers, people saying My family’s at the finish line, I can’t get in touch with them, phone networks were down.”
Tears began streaming down faces as runners and supporters did not know what to do.
“There were adults crying everywhere on the side,” Azeem said.
“The army officials had quarantined us to the side, and they had told us they were going to put us on buses to a safe area.” Azeem said. “My brother ended up finding me by chance, so we got to an apartment right by Boston University’s campus.”
In the confusion, Azeem tried contacting Armughan. He could not get through.
Parking his car near Buswell Street, Hamza tried to find his friend Armughan and his wife. He had spoken to Azeem and knew he was safe, but he was scared for his other friend.
“This is the first time I’ve experienced anything close to this,” Hamza said. “I was so used to the safety.”
Hamza, who lives in Newton, Mass. grew up seeing the Boston Marathon. He remembered the streets being full of life and color, but as he looked for his friend, the streets were completely deserted with bomb squads everywhere, the complete opposite of his childhood memories of the Marathon.
“We grew up here,” Hamza said. “Boston is the only home that I’ve known.”
In all his time in Boston, there was never a time he felt unsafe, he said.
That day, Hamza worried for Boston. He asked the police and the information tables for the whereabouts of his friend. He breathed a sigh of huge relief when he found out that Armughan and his wife were safe.
“The police kept things under control,” Hamza said. “Armughan ended up being at the church in Boston College.
“I was at Boston College, where the chapel is, 0.7 miles away from the finish line,” Armughan said. “People thought they were closing the race because we were too slow, some people started crying.”
Armughan said it felt surreal.
“Nothing ever happens in Boston,” he said. “I was staying at the Westin Hotel and was in the square the night before. It was transformed.”
It was a bombing.
Along with millions of other Muslims that day, the runners too had one thought on their mind: “Please don’t let it be a Muslim.”
“My initial reaction was here we go again,” Hamza said. “I’ve been through the discomfort of being a Muslim after 9/11…the radical ideology became the undeserved guilt of many. My brother, mother and father said that too, are we going to go through 9/11 again?”
Hamza was only in the eighth grade when 9/11 happened and remembers the backlash. Up until college, he said he was uncomfortable in his own skin.
“Not that there was direct discrimination, but there was a sense of something going on, someone speaking out against Muslim. It makes you uneasy,” Hamza said. “Just the national media, sensationalist headlines looking for a story that shapes perception of the people. As the one Muslim in the room, it makes you feel uncomfortable, you feel like you have to explain yourself, even if people understand or not, it becomes a sort of obligation.”
Azeem, who grew up in New Jersey, went to high school in New York and attended university in Boston said that the thought crossed his mind too.
“It’s not politically correct to think that way, but it was one of the first things that crossed my head,” Azeem said. “Going to the airport is a lot harder if you’re Muslim. I was thinking don’t be a brown dude, don’t have a name like Ahmed.”
Armughan said it was a question of integration.
“If you’re praying and are still friendly to people,” Armughan said. “Being Muslim doesn’t mean being in a bubble, isolating yourself. You are part of the fabric of community and have the same vision of society, so you’re on the same page. That’s how I lived my time in Boston.”
Hamza has faith in Boston.
“Boston is my home and the people are intelligent, open and understanding,” Hamza said. “Initially things are going to become tougher again, but it’s Boston. This place is so diverse and accepting and will not think of the action of few as representative of an entire community.”