How an Assyrian American brought the Pentagon Memorial to Life

Updated: Sep 11, 2018

The Pentagon Memorial, located just southwest of The Pentagon in Arlington County, Virginia, is a permanent outdoor memorial honoring the 184 victims who died when American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into the five-sided building on September 11, 2001. The unique design was selected from 1,126 memorial proposals from around the world.

The Pentagon Memorial in Washington, D.C.

An everlasting tribute

The park contains 184 illuminated benches, one for each of the victims, arranged according to their year of birth and ranging from 1930 to 1998—meaning the youngest victim was just three years old. The wall along the edge of the memorial begins at the height of three inches and rises to 71 inches, a representation of the ages of the youngest and oldest victims of the attack.

Each individual bench is engraved with the name of a victim. Benches representing the 125 victims that were inside the Pentagon during the attack are arranged so those reading the names will face the Pentagon’s south facade, where the plane hit, while the 59 benches dedicated to victims aboard the plane are arranged so that those reading the engraved name are facing skyward along the path that the plane traveled.

Beneath each memorial bench is a shallow lighted pool of flowing water. If the victim’s family members were also killed in the attack, their names are listed in the reflecting pool. Dozens of maple trees are planted on the memorial grounds. The architects hoped that their work would create the space for contemplation, which they say is an act of paying respects.

Construction for the memorial began in June 2006, but the memorial wasn’t unveiled until September 11, 2008. The Huffington Post described the memorial, “Their hauntingly understated, modern design transforms a site of immense grief into a transcendent sanctuary for holy memories of the dearly departed. It’s not representational but evocative. And that’s power.”

Over 20,000 people attended the dedication ceremony. Former President George W. Bush spoke at the Pentagon Memorial at the ceremony. In his remarks, he referred to Adm. Michael G. Mullen, USN, Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff; former Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld; James J. Laychak, President and Chairman of the Pentagon Memorial Fund; architects Julie Beckman and Keith Kaseman, who designed the memorial—and Abe Yousif, an Assyrian-American from Illinois who brought the design into being.

An unlikely partner

The benches were forged in a Missouri foundry and finished outside Chicago by Bucthel Metal Finishing, a metal-working business owned by Iraqi-Assyrian immigrant Abe Yousif. His work on the Pentagon Memorial put him in the national spotlight at the height of the Iraq War.

Yousif and his team were responsible for custom-polishing each of the 184 stainless steel castings, and transforming them into uniform memorial benches. Each bench required nearly 100 hours of grinding, welding, and polishing. Once each of the benches were complete, Yousif and his men affixed each of them with an etched nameplate corresponding to one of the lives lost that day.

Yousif landed the major contract through his partnership with Metaltek International, but it wasn’t his first high-profile job. He has made custom handrails for Michael Jordan, statues for the Country Music Awards, and even bunny icons for the Playboy Mansion. His work can be found all over the United States.

But the Pentagon Memorial was unlike any other job, Yousif says. The weight of the responsibility could not have been clearer, as he faced his own memories of tragedy and loss as an Assyrian. “I felt that if I could make the benches perfect, it would help others to heal. If we made the metal shine brilliantly, they will feel hope. I wanted people to run their fingers along the steel and find something affirming and redeeming on a site now scarred by sadness and death.”

For Yousif and his employees who worked on the memorial, all of them immigrants, the project was an opportunity to create something permanent in the heart of their adopted country. But for Yousif, it was also a reminder of how he got here, and of all the people and places he left behind.

No stranger to tragedy

Abe Yousif, founder of Bucthel Metal Finishing

Abe Yousif was born in northern Iraq, not far from the city of Dohuk, known to Assyrians as Nohadra. His father was an apple farmer.

He studied economics at Baghdad University, where he remembers Saddam Hussein making two separate visits to lecture the students and explain that they were needed for the Iraqi Army. Yousif was drafted into the army and served for a total of 18 months following his graduation. But a few months before Iraq went to war with Iran, Yousif left Iraq for Jordan, and has never returned.

Yousif arrived in Chicago, where he worked two jobs—making school supplies in a factory and parking cars at a valet in the city—saving to one day start his own company. In 1985, he founded Bucthel Metal Finishing, giving it a name similar to an oil company he remembered from Iraq. By the time of the September 11, 2001 attack, Bucthel had more than 40 employees.

Like all Americans, Yousif mourned the victims of the September 11 attacks. Though he wanted justice for their murders, he did not expect the attacks to lead to the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq. “None of the people involved were Iraq,” he said in a 2007 interview with the Washington Post. “We weren’t part of this at all.”

Even so, he remained hopeful that it would bring positive change for the Iraqi people, as it meant the end of Saddam Hussein. He sheepishly admits he imagined that Iraq would be transformed into Dubai, and says he could not have foreseen the horrors that followed.

The Iraq that Yousif remembers, despite its hardships, is very different than the one the world has come to know since 2003. Since that time, the number of Assyrians has dropped from approximately 1.5 million to a mere 300,000. “We didn’t know if our neighbor was Sunni or Shiite,” Yousif says of his life in Iraq. “We all lived together.”

Despite the violence that has persisted in Iraq, he still has hope for the country’s future. “The Iraqis don’t give up. They will rebuild.”

He adds, “I don’t know any other people in the world who have endured what the Assyrians have been through and not only survived but thrived, if even in their own ways. The Assyrians will continue to do what they always do—endure.”