French exchange student reflects on Paris attacks

Horrified, the world watched in awe as news of the tragedy spread: A series of coordinated attacks carried out by members of the reviled ‘Islamic’ State had left more than 100dead in Paris, with hundreds more wounded. In a city that had suffered a brutal assault on the offices of satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo mere months before, once again, blood flowed through the streets, let loose by the gunfire of extremists.

Sonoma State University students received a mass email sent from President Ruben Armiñana a day after the attack. The email expressed sympathy for the family of California State University, Long Beach student Nohemi Gonzalez, who lost her life that Novembernight. Graphic incidents like this seem to unfold regularly throughout the world, especially in war-torn regions of Africa, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia.  Even though the recent attacks in Paris occurred on Western soil, many Westerners may still feel an apathetic disconnect to such events.

The opposite couldn’t be more true for Sonoma Stateforeign exchange student Camille Chèze. As a French native who is pursuing a master’s degree in linguistics, Chèze, 21, had previously studied in Paris for three years, and is familiar with each location that was struck in last month’s attacks. She was a frequent attendee of the Bataclan theater, where 89 people were mercilessly gunned down by militants.

In addition, when two of the militants opened fire on the restaurant La Belle Équipe, Chèze’s 21-year-old friend Mathilde Loeillet was among those who were seriously injured, being shot four times in the arm and chest. Loeillet was finally released from the hospital on Dec. 4., but will no longer be able to see the faces of many of her friends, as a number of them had their lives stolen away by the militants that night.

“As soon as I learned what happened, I immediately thought about all of my friends in Paris,” said Chèze, describing her initial reaction. “I called everyone to make sure that everyone was okay.” Chèze also said that she was immensely relieved each time she saw Facebook reporting a loved one as “safe.”

Facebook users saw masses of profile pictures changed to the colors of the French flag in response to the events of Nov. 13. Cynics may see this as another superficial Facebook trend, but Chèze doesn’t agree with this perspective. “I think it’s good to do this,” she said. “Of course I did it, because as a French person I feel very close to what happened and very concerned.”

When asked how she felt about non-French people changing their profile pictures, Chèze stated “I think it’s good to be supportive,” and expressed regret for how tragic events in other parts of the world were largely forgotten in the public eye that week, drowned out by outcry towards the Paris attacks.  “I always think about what happened in Beirut and what happened in Bamako,” said Chèze. “People tend to forget about it If there was another way to support the other countries, I would’ve done that too. They shouldn’t be left behind, they should be supported as well, in the same way.”

Chèze emphasized that the international community should be more supportive of those who are seeking safety from such violence. In the wake of the Paris attacks, a fiery debate erupted in the United States about whether to accept refugees fleeing from their homes in the Middle East.

Some even suggested that Christian refugees should be accepted while Muslims are left to fend for themselves, to which Chèze responded, “This is the silliest thing. Now more than ever, we should understand what they live through everyday,” said Chèze. “I just want to remind people that it’s not the refugees fault.”

The war raging across Syria and Iraq does seem to be making odd bedfellows. Many of the Iran-supported militias fighting against ISIS are also being assisted by the United States. The Free Syrian Army, an American-supported coalition of rebel groups seeking to overthrow the Syrian regime, often works with the Al-Qaeda affiliate known as Al-Nusra Front.

The Russian Federation has also pledged to assist France, a NATO member, in the campaign against ISIS. Shortly after the attacks in Paris, the French Air Force launched a number of airstrikes against the Caliphate in retaliation.

Chèze described this response as “brash,” and expressed doubts about how much “bombing each other back and forth” would solve in the long run. Despite this, she noted that France should work to encourage cooperation against ISIS, and agreed that all nations involved in the conflict should rise above their self-interests in seeking to bring about an end to the war.

Chèze had interesting words to share about her personal experiences on the day of the Paris attacks.

“When I was feeling very bad, all my American friends wanted to do was make me think about something else. I was sad but I didn’t want to think about something else,” she said. “I wanted to mourn for my country, and they didn’t acknowledge that. They just wanted to make me feel better, but I thought this was a betrayal.” Chèze also attended a rally for France on the Sonoma State campus three days after the attack, but was disappointed with the sparse turnout. However, she noted that this was probably due to more to ineffective planning than American insensitivity.

Chèze did have the chance to attend a better-coordinated rally on Nov. 15., when hundreds of people, many of them French citizens, gathered outside San Francisco City Hall. “It felt good to be surrounded by French people,” said Chèze.

Whereas Chèze felt that many of her American friends didn’t understand what she was going through, she was glad to be with those who were as deeply affected as herself. “It was good to be with French people and to hear our national anthem.It was very emotional.”

On Nov. 18., Lobos held their semi-weekly open mic night, which was deemed “International Night” and featured multiple acts from foreign exchange students. Chèvez and her friend Mylène Pce, who is also from France, sang classic French songs that night. One of these tunes was “Aux Champs Elysées” by Joe Dassin, a song about people being in love in Paris, which Chèvez claims is known to every French person.

"It was a very strong symbol,” said Chèvez, “Our response to the terrorists is that we’re going to still sing. Spreading love in dark times is what we should do.”

What should Sonoma State students’ response be to such horrendous atrocities? What lesson can be drawn from them, and what solidarity can be found in a world so divided?