University News

Students abroad in Paris safe, but shaken

After terrorist attacks rock city, study abroad students seek normalcy in wake of tragedy

Staff Writer
Monday, November 16, 2015

About 50 students gathered on the Faunce steps Sunday afternoon to honor the victims of the Paris terrorist attacks that occurred Friday. Lukas Biton ’17, who hails from France, organized the event.

PARIS — After a Friday night babysitting shift, Maria Jose Herrera ’17 was walking through Saint Lazare, one of the busiest metro stations in Paris, when she received the call from a friend also studying abroad here: Explosions had shaken the outside of the city’s football stadium, and shootings had broken out in two districts. Head straight home, her friend said, and avoid public transit.

Herrera hailed an Uber and asked the driver what he knew. The driver turned up the radio, and a breathless man sobbed through the speaker: He had just fled gunfire in the Bataclan concert hall, just one of several night-life hotspots struck by explosives and machine guns that night in Paris. World leaders later tied the attacks, which had killed 132 people as of early Monday morning and wounded hundreds more, to the Islamic State.

In the Uber, Herrera tried to get in touch with a friend in Paris. She got home, called her mother and posted a single word, “safe,” to her Facebook account, hoping to preempt a cascade of concerned messages. She spent the rest of the night glued to her computer screen, following a live “megathread” on Reddit, waiting for answers on a story still without an end.

Meanwhile, Erin Reeser, the director of Brown’s study abroad program in Paris, sent an email to the 18 program participants, urging them to contact her immediately, avoid the streets and inform loved ones of their safety. Fifteen responded quickly, and Reeser repeatedly called the three unaccounted for, finding out later that all were safe.

“I was very panicked when none of them was responding,” Reeser said, calling the evening a “worst nightmare” for a study abroad program director. Still, Reeser was able to confirm the safety of all the students within about an hour of the news breaking, at which time the Office of International Programs assured all parents that students were safe.

Though no students were hurt, the intangible impacts of the bloodiest night in France since World War II have extended beyond Friday night’s tragedies, leaving students feeling shaken. Six of 18 students here spoke to The Herald Sunday night, relieved to be safe but unnerved by the unjust attacks that claimed lives in their temporary backyards.

Sabrina Lato, a Carthage College student enrolled in the University of Paris through Brown, lives around the corner from La Belle Equipe, a restaurant where almost 20 civilians died Friday. She was home when news of the attacks broke, finding out from a Guardian notification.

Receiving the notification “was disconcerting because it said breaking news and it was happening right next to me,” Lato said. “The title was ‘Shooting in eastern Paris,’ and I thought, ‘Wait a second. I’m in eastern Paris.’”

Like Herrera, Lato spent Friday night scouring news sources for information. She texted friends to stem feelings of discomfort, only falling asleep at 6 a.m., when seven of the eight known terrorists had been killed or detained and the death toll had stopped climbing steadily. Saturday, she left her apartment to go to the restaurant targeted right by her home.

“I knew I couldn’t let that become this place I was afraid to go,” she said.

Still, some students said frayed nerves gave them second thoughts about leaving their homes this weekend, though they intend to attend classes Monday.

“When I think about going out, I’m like, logically, I’m going to be fine, but when I think about what my route to anywhere would look like, that’s when a nervousness sinks in,” said Laura Valle-Gutierrez ’17.

Megan Grapengeter-Rudnick ’17, a former Herald opinions editor, was in Copenhagen when the attacks took place. She said she was consumed Friday night by shock, which morphed into fear Saturday when she contemplated flying back to Paris.

“The fact that I was so nervous to return home was such a foreign feeling to me that I totally broke down,” she said, adding that the flight home was the most “paranoid” of her life.

Cambria Chou-Freed ’17, who was in Amsterdam when the news broke, described sifting through a multitude of digital news sources, trying to piece together what was actually happening.

“It was pretty immediately clear that it was a terrorist attack, but it was so hard to process,” Chou-Freed wrote in a message to The Herald.

Chou-Freed and a friend “were reading updates faster than the news could sink in,” she wrote. “A cafe. No, a concert hall. No both. The stadium, too. Eight people reported dead, then 40, and rising and rising.”

Nikhil Kumar ’17 described a similar sensation, saying he and his friends “kept seeing death tolls that were climbing and climbing, and we became more incredulous.”

“There were false rumors that there were shootings at (a major metro stop) and the Louvre. It felt like every site in Paris was under attack, so it was just unfathomable,” he said.

Echoing concerns many students back at Brown have taken to Facebook to voice, Chou-Freed called the attacks “a mortality check moment and a this-stuff-happens-all-over-the-world reality check moment,” referring in particular to attacks in Beirut just the day before that killed about 50.

Noting that the Paris attacks received much more media attention and public displays of sympathy than those in Beirut, Chou-Freed wrote, “Both tragedies merit full attention and response.”

Over 3,000 miles away, about 50 Brown community members gathered in front of the Stephen Robert ’62 Campus Center Sunday afternoon to mourn. Lukas Biton ’17, who hails from France, kicked off the ceremony, speaking in both French and English to a crowd holding white and red candles. He condemned the attacks and praised the resilience of the French people.

Biton and Associate University Chaplain Michelle Dardashti, who spoke next, both made a point to acknowledge the lives lost in other cities wracked by terrorism this week.

Here in Paris, students are setting their sights on recapturing a sense of normalcy and talking through the nervousness Friday’s events instilled in them.

Stéphanie Ravillon, senior lecturer in French studies and resident director of the Paris program, invited students to her apartment Sunday afternoon to discuss the attacks. All students were also invited to the program office Monday night to meet with alums living in Paris. Reeser said she hopes these gatherings will offer students “informal” opportunities to discuss their experiences and feelings in a larger group setting.

Kumar said he has seen more people than expected in the center of the city since the attacks. Though he took some solace in seeing Parisians going about their daily lives Saturday and Sunday, he found even the comfort of seeing locals tinged with a certain sadness.

“I went out on the balcony of my host family’s apartment today and saw an old couple walking together,” Kumar said. “They looked so Parisian. But in their minds, I thought, they must be really sad.”

Shira Buchsbaum contributed reporting from Providence.


To stay up-to-date, subscribe to our daily newsletter.

  1. Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.

    • At Brown University, we deal with absurdities all the time. (Oh and Chris Paxson’s incompetence too.)

Comments are closed. If you have corrections to submit, you can email The Herald at