Attacks sent one New York writer back home to Beaverton

by: Submitted photo Olga Kharif

Olga Kharif was a new American citizen living in Manhattan when the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City slapped her into a new kind of awareness.

An 18-year-old immigrant when she came with her parents directly to Portland from Moscow, Russia, nine years earlier, Kharif graduated from Portland State University, found work in local newspapers and, after graduate school at Northwestern University in Chicago, worked her way into a reporting job with a big magazine publisher in Manhattan.

'I definitely felt that what happened on 9/11 was very personal,' she recalled last week, as the 10-year anniversary of the attacks drew near. 'I never experienced anything quite so traumatic. This was one of the really bad things that happened to me, and it definitely reshaped my priorities.'

Admitting that she was 'extremely focused' on her career - and still is - this was a wake-up call for her. It was the phone calls, in fact, that drove that point home.

'I think the event sort of made me appreciate my family and my friends more,' she said, explaining that it was a little overwhelming to be reminded, in the middle of this crisis, 'that I have so many true friends. A big city can be pretty lonely, and it was wonderful to know so many people cared for me.'

The only child of a university professor father and a patent lawyer mom, the American part of Kharif's story began in 1992.

'My family and I moved from Russia 19 years ago,' said Kharif, who still has a tiny hint of a Russian accent when she speaks - though she has almost erased it completely. 'I spent much of the first year here studying English and working as a nanny.'

In 1998, she graduated from PSU and began an internship at the Times Newspapers. A few months later, she was offered a job as editor of the Sherwood Gazette, the position she held when she was accepted to grad school at Northwestern, which led to study abroad, in London, political reporting and an internship in Washington, D.C., followed by an internship at the same company where she still works (though there have been ownership and name changes over the last 12 years). She asked that the name of her company not be named.

In November 2000, she began a position as a technology writer for the magazine.

'I lived and worked in Manhattan,' she said - 'in Midtown, sort of in the center of Manhattan, about 40 blocks from the World Trade Center.'

But that 40 blocks didn't seem like much when the towers were hit by a pair of jet planes.

'On 9/11, I got stuck on the subway going to work,' said Kharif. 'And we sat in the tunnel for 90 minutes, and we didn't know what was going on.'

That didn't change until she finally got off the train and to her office.

'When we got in, everybody was watching the television. That's when I found out what was going on,' she said.

They also told her that her parents had been frantically calling for her. They had looked up various numbers for her company 'and started dialing everybody randomly, trying to find out where I was.'

The atmosphere in the city from that day on was strange, Kharif recalled. On Sept. 12, a bomb threat was phoned into her office, and from her office on the 11th floor, 'we ran down the stairs' and into the street, which was flooded with people all doing the same. 'We went to Central Park,' she said, 'and we decided to stay there because it was as far away as we could get, being in New York, from all the buildings.'

In those early days after the attacks, there were armed guards on every corner, she said, and people were buying up all the food in the local stores.

'It felt like the city was under siege.'

Even before the attacks, admitted Kharif, she'd been questioning whether the big city was really for her. 'But this basically put things in perspective for me, and I realized the importance of being with my family.'

She talked to her boss and shared her concerns, that she had been thinking about going back to Oregon. He urged her to wait a while and let things calm down a bit. She waited, but not too long. A little more than a month later, she got the OK to leave the city - and to keep her job.

'It seemed like all my friends in New York at the time, they all moved away in the months right after 9/11,' she said.

'After 9/11 happened, I was scared and my parents were scared, and my gut reaction was to move right away,' she said. 'But I stayed another month, a month and a half, and I was fortunate enough to keep my job.'

Clearly, she was a valued employee, an observation that makes her uncomfortable.

'So, I just telecommuted,' said Kharif.

There is a good deal of travel connected to her job, which still involves writing about technology.

Today, she works in an office in downtown Portland, and her boss is in San Francisco. She travels to the Bay Area a couple of times a year, she goes to conferences around the Northwest. 'Occasionally, I go to New York,' she said.

'I've become all geeky now,' she chuckled. 'I write about telecommunications, and specifically, my stories relate to wireless technology, so I write about smartphones and things like that.'

And though her folks still live in the Cedar Hills area, Kharif six years ago purchased her own home in Aloha and has created a completely different kind of life than the one she was living 10 years ago. But she still remembers.

'It's still fresh in my memory,' she said. 'And I just feel really glad that we've not had any incidents like that since.'

In 1998, while she was still working for the Times papers, she and her family passed the citizenship test and were sworn in as U.S. citizens. It was a very big deal for all three of them, she said.

'I love this country, and I appreciate everything it's done for me. It welcomed me and my family.'