While staying in a hotel just 50 meters from the initial terrorist attacks on Charlie Hebdo offices, students at Manhattan College who studied abroad this winter break in Paris found themselves in the middle of the action that drew international attention and support.
“It was cool to see that France was putting on a united front,” student Shannon Butler said of witnessing the aftermath and response to the terrorist attacks. “They basically said, ‘We’re not a weak country. We love Paris. We love this city.’ It was just really overwhelming.”
The students arrived in Paris and just days later the Paris offices of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo were attacked by Islamic extremists. The attack came after the magazine published images of the Prophet Muhammad in a cartoon. This initial attack was followed by a string of police standoffs and hostage situations that totaled in 14 casualties across Paris and the surrounding region. The events spurred international conversation on freedom of speech and marches around Paris in support of the victims, with the rallying cry of “Je Suis Charlie,” or “We are Charlie.”
As soon as the study abroad office at the college learned of the news of the first attack, Director Nonie Wagner and Coordinator Elly Mons contacted parents, students studying in Paris and their chaperones, Andrew Skotnicki, Ph.D., and Brother Robert Berger about the situation.
“At the end of the day, our first and foremost concern is the safety of our students,” Mons said.
At the time of the first attack, the group was on an excursion and did not receive word of the attacks until that night, when the group had returned to their hotel and were able to access the internet.
“It was a long 48 hours on the phone. We don’t sleep if we need to,” Mons said of getting in touch with the group and their parents. Mons said she wanted to make sure that “everybody is ok, that they’re communicating.”
Mons and Wagner also monitored the U.S. State Department website for travel alerts and were in contact with the U.S. embassy in Paris as well as Skotnicki and Berger. There were no travel alerts for Americans in Paris at the time so Mons and Wagner did not bring the group back to the U.S.
“There was never anything like that,” Mons said. “We take [the State Department’s] cue.”
Wagner also said that the fact that chaperones had previous experience with leading study abroad groups made the decision to keep the group in Paris easier.
Students on the trip also kept open lines of communication with family in the U.S. as to their situation and their safety.
“My mother would text me every single day,” Butler said. “She kept her eyes glued to the TV. She didn’t sleep that whole first night.”
Student Samantha Corrado called the experience of being in Paris at the time of the attacks “unnerving” but said that she kept in communication with her family and that they encouraged her to be calm.
“They just told me to stay safe and be alert,” Corrado said. “They were definitely worried and they definitely had faith that I would be OK.”
What proved most difficult for the students in Paris was balancing the information they were receiving from numerous sources at home.
“Everyone was getting information from their parents,” Corrado said. “It’s not like we could turn on a French news station and understand what was going on.”
“The American news kind of blew everything out of proportion,” Butler said. “What I was living was totally different than what [her mother] was watching.”
Students and faculty said that daily life continued as normal due to an increased security presence in Paris. The itinerary of the trip was not seriously impacted by the events.
“After that week, it really calmed down and it was pretty smooth sailing,” Corrado said.
Berger said that he felt safe in the city in the days following the attacks due to heightened security.
The days following the attacks were also filled with marches and peaceful protests in and around the city of Paris, which the students got to witness firsthand.
“The rally happened the Sunday after the shooting and it was crazy,” Butler said. “That was right in front of our hotel.
“It took us four hours to walk a mile,” she said. “It was a madhouse.”
“We witnessed the mass of outpouring in terms of solidarity,” Berger said of the marches.
Wagner, who is also a professor of French at the college, said that “they had an unusual opportunity to witness such a moment. Not what happened but what followed.”
Mons said she hoped the students could take the trip as a learning moment for traveling and experiencing a different culture.
“They got to see a culture come together at a very difficult time,” Mons said. “When you’re traveling and looking toward other cultures, consider countries and cultures on their own terms.”