When crisis strikes while studying abroad: A retelling of the Charlie Hebdo attack

The French satirical news office Charlie Hebdo was attacked on Jan. 7, 2015 by two gunman. Twelve people were killed. The attack was carried out in retaliation for satirical images that were drawn by people at this office, depicting the Muslim prophet Mohammad. America Silva ’16, who is studying abroad in Aix-en-Provence, France, tells the Wheel of her experiences in a culture seized by terror.

Wheel: When I heard about the Charlie Hebdo attacks in France on the news in Argentina, I immediately thought about you and if you were okay. What were you doing and where were you when you heard of the news?

Silva: I was in Paris five days before “Charlie” happened. My J-Term class spent New Year’s there and then, after being in France for a little bit, we headed to Morocco. When we heard of the attacks, our class was extremely surprised. We all thought, ‘But we were just there.’ It just doesn’t set right, that a place that you were just in was violated, and what could have happened if we were still there? Where would we be?


W: Did you follow the news immediately following the attack? What happened to your trip that you were currently on?

S: I wasn’t keeping up with news during the time that the attacks occurred, but our professor gave us all the information and assured us the trip would continue. However, there was another J-Term group that would head to Paris a couple of days after the attacks, and my school actually delayed their trip and eventually canceled their stay in Paris.


W: What was going on in your mind when all of this was happening and new details of the attack were being released?

S: Personally, it was a reality check. Yes, studying abroad is amazing, and to know that not a lot of people do it makes me feel even more unique because I have a different perspective of the world. But when something like this happens, and you’re close to the situation, it helps you to realize that not everything is all pretty and colorful. People, in whatever country, have issues with their government.


W: What kind of issues are you referring to? How do people respond to these issues?

S: They may experience oppression, live in poverty, unable to express their religion, etc. unfortunately there are times that people decide to act in malicious ways because they think that’s the ‘real’ way to be heard, and it’s extremely unfortunate because you have innocent victims.


W: Did it ever cross your mind that something horrific could possibly happen to you while you were abroad?

S: Well, a few days later we found out about an attack in Turkey. A female suicide bomber blew herself up in Sultanahmet, and the location happens to be one of Istanbul’s biggest historic tourist attractions. At that point, I’ll admit, my heart began to beat a little faster. ‘What was happening to the world,’ I thought. I was nervous to travel to Turkey afterwards, especially because all the details about the attacks were still developing. Of course, thoughts about being a victim pass through your head. My class was headed towards that location; could it happen again? Would I actually experience such a trauma? The mind can definitely wander and begin to panic.


W: How did your study abroad directors or professors address the news of the attack in France? Did he issue any warnings?

S: After my professor talked to us, who also happens to be the president of my school in France, he assured us he would make sure we were all safe and by no means put us at risk. He had a few phone calls with his colleagues as well as with a former Ambassador to the U.S and talked about the incident and questioned whether or not we should continue with our plan, or go to plan B, which would include Madrid instead. Nevertheless, our professor believed we should never give into fear, and, although it was a sensitive situation, looking back now, I agree with him.


W: Why do you think the woman in Turkey did what she did? What do you think about your study abroad professor’s decision?

S: The woman who decided to end her life and take the life of a police officer had an agenda: Create fear among the nation. If we changed our plans, and other tourists left the country or canceled their future stay in Turkey, we give in to that woman’s agenda. She would win.


W: How did your family back in the United States react to the attacks in Paris when they knew you were studying abroad in France?

S: My family, especially my mom, kept asking me if I was okay, and some of them thought I was near both attacks. Thankfully I wasn’t, but I received a lot of support from my mom, who is also a believer of not giving into fear to these groups or people who want to do harm to the world. She simply advised me to be highly alert, and listen to all my instincts. At the end of the day, we can’t control certain situations, if we’re meant to be present at an exact moment, I can assure you, we will be there, and it’s out of our hands.


W: Any ending thoughts you would like to convey to those reading this interview and possibly thinking about studying abroad?

S: We were all very happy we were able to continue our trip exactly as planned, and it was good to have these discussions as a class and understand the ideas, and the people behind these situations and how the media presents the topic and the people involved. By no means have these experiences caused a negative view on my study abroad or the countries that were victims, but simply enhance the scope of life abroad and understand the issues and the struggles that other citizens have. History is occurring all around me every day, and I want to make sure I don’t miss it.


The best thing about going abroad is that you will be out of your comfort zone which forces you to grow personally, spiritually, and mentally. Although horrible things happen in this world that are out of our control, we must be resilient and make the best decisions for ourselves without compromising our safety. Studying abroad is a great opportunity to learn about a new part of the world and learn about ourselves, but also to experience events that happen outside of the Unites States and see how the world reacts to them, as in the case with the Charlie Hebdo attacks and the suicide bomber in Turkey. If something happens while you are abroad let your family know that you are okay and do not let fear inhibit the rest of your decisions you make while you are abroad.

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