Born in England, living in Paris ... a writer tries to help her kids navigate a new world reality.
Waking up on Tuesday morning to hear of 22 people (many children!) losing their lives in the Manchester terror attack left me feeling devastated, and searching for my phone to check in on loved ones to see if they were all okay. It brought back that sick feeling that sadly I’m beginning to get used to since the rise in terrorist attacks over the last couple of years.
In January 2015, armed terrorists burst into the premises of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and shot dead members of the editorial team. Around the same time, there was a spate of shootings in the Paris area in which a policewoman was killed, a random jogger was injured, and four customers were shot dead in a kosher supermarket. My phone rang incessantly with family and friends concerned for my own family’s safety — we were all fine. Although horrified and incensed at these attacks, it didn’t really feel personal. On November 13, 2015 that all changed.
It was my son’s 17th birthday, and he was off to Lyon in southeast France to celebrate with his close friends. I was a bit reticent to let him go away for the weekend but I had faith that he would behave. This is probably one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. For back in Paris a series of simultaneous attacks had begun: three suicide bombs at the Stade de France during a football match, and in the area just next to my son’s high school where he likes to hang out, innocent people celebrating their birthdays with friends on café terraces were being gunned down. In total, 39 people of all ages and professions were randomly killed and many more seriously injured in six different restaurants. And this was just the beginning. Later that evening, 90 more were slaughtered in the Bataclan Theater while listening to a rock concert.
There was that sense of feeling under attack, as well as wondering what would happen next. Luckily I could account for my children, they were all home with me, bar the birthday boy, although I couldn’t help but think what happens if Lyon (the third biggest city in France) is next on the list. I had to erase it from my mind. Thanks to Facebook, I could see that my friends and their loved ones were safe, but then I thought of my English students in Paris. I have around 120 of them ages 18 to 22 and they love to go out. I’d have to wait until Monday.
The weekend was odd, the streets were empty with people inside glued to their TV screens. Those who did venture out went to the scenes of all the carnage to pay their respects. Monday arrived and thankfully my students were all in attendance, but they seemed haunted. Some had friends who were still missing, others knew people who had died. In one night that youthful power of feeling invincible had been totally destroyed. Some students wanted to talk, others wanted to sit in silence. They were rightly furious, and scared. I felt a huge responsibility to try and help them, but I’m no psychologist.
Prayers were not an option in a secular school, so we had a lesson on curse words — this is what every young person loves to learn in a new language but I’d always refused, firstly as it was inappropriate and also because I was pretty confident that they could master this vocabulary better than me. This might seem totally trite but it did help them to relax and find a smile (I did say psychology was not my thing!). Downstairs my colleague’s best friend was on the phone. Her son, Franck, was missing. Franck’s body, riddled with bullets, would remain unidentified for three days as it had been so badly disfigured. We all felt affected and totally helpless.
But time is a great healer and as the initial terror started to wear off, life got back to normal. A few more attempted attacks took place on individuals or small groups but were thwarted by the ever-vigilant armed services. Then on July 14, 2016, France’s national holiday, while I was out with my family looking at the spectacular fireworks next to the Eiffel Tower in Paris, families were being wiped out in the southern city of Nice. Eighty-six people of all ages perished that night, and 434 were injured when a truck deliberately rammed into them — from toddlers to grandparents who were just out celebrating and enjoying the sea air. It could so easily have happened in Paris, to me and my family. It was a new deadly tactic, a new horrific low.
That night the terrorists tried to instill a sense of fear, trying to let French citizens know that they could never feel safe. But what the terrorists didn’t realize is that when people feel their freedom, or their lives, are under attack they come back fighting. Not with weapons, but with love and compassion. The outpouring of love and support from around the world that France had got so used to receiving by now was staggering. People grew stronger. People rallied to help each other, as they had after the Paris attacks. They offered shelter to those who needed it, donated their blood without thinking, offered support to families whose lives had been destroyed. The aftermath of the attacks brought out the very best qualities in humanity.
Since this deadly night, despite a number of attempts, there has been one additional loss of an innocent life in France, but perhaps the most shocking was the 86-year-old priest who was stabbed to death while saying Mass in Normandy. Yet again individuals responded with respect for each other and our religions. Groups of Muslims gathered together outside churches to protect Catholics going to Mass. The message was loud and clear: terrorism will not divide us.
Sadly these attacks, although they encourage us to respond with kindness and love, do affect us. Paris is now littered with heavily armed police and soldiers, patrolling our streets and schools. Bags are constantly checked as we enter stores, places of entertainment, public buildings — in fact anywhere where people gather. When we hear a number of sirens there’s a thought of “Oh no, what’s happened next?” and yes, a full subway isn’t always inviting. But the impact on our children is petty devastating.
A prayer for the victims of Manchester
However hard we try to protect them from what’s going on, kids are observant. They see the military guns in the street, they have new “hide and seek” drills at school, where they have to hide from the principal and remain silent — no easy feat. My 9-year-old has probably been the most affected. He suffers from regular nightmares in which he sees me sacrificing myself for him. While I reassure him that I would not put us in a situation where I’d need to sacrifice myself, he’s not so sure — and he’s right, who knows? He jumps at loud noises, he sneaks into my bed during the night, and hates when I go out alone. All I can do is constantly reassure him and avoid watching the news with him. I’d love to tell him there’s more chance of us being knocked down by a bus, but he’d never leave the house!
It is depressing constantly trying to reassure others, my students, and my kids, that we’ll be okay and I do sometimes feel a huge sense of anger and powerlessness, and none more so than when I woke up yesterday to the news of what had happened in Manchester. After all the recent attacks in France and its neighboring countries, terrorists have now attacked my native England. They momentarily spread fear through a city where I studied for four years, where I would meet my future husband. But yet again, the people of Manchester have responded with extraordinary acts of kindness.
There have been stories of taxi drivers ferrying victims to the hospital or back home for free, money being raised for funeral costs, a woman ensuring the safety of over 50 lost and scared children, and homeless people running into danger to help those who were injured. And what’s even more impressive is that these acts of humanity have been rewarded with further acts of kindness, with more than $60,000 raised by strangers to help re-house these homeless helpers. This is what community is all about, this is what we must remember in times of despair.
Unfortunately, these acts of terror carried out by a few have an enormous impact on so many. But unwittingly they highlight the power of a unified humanity, joined together in combating evil, a fight that’s been going on since the birth of mankind and one that will no doubt ever end. Every time they attack, these terrorists remind us of the most important thing: the beauty of life, something that should never be taken for granted.