When Islamic extremists attacked the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris on January 7th, the world responded with a mix of sympathy, grief, anger, and outcries against what appeared to be an attack on a fundamental democratic freedom. There has been no shortage of news coverage on the event in recent days, but the voices you may not have heard yet are those of college students studying abroad in France.
University of Texas student Sam Hays arrived in Paris on Jan. 6th, and woke the next morning to tragic news about the killings at Charlie Hebdo. At this point, the attackers were still at large and their car had been recovered in the same arrondissement as Sam’s residence. Sam, an international relations and journalism student, described his shock as the news began to set in: “This wasn’t a dream, however surreal it may have felt. It was actually happening.”
As news of the attacks began to surface and circulate throughout the city, Grand Valley State University senior Miguel Perez was working at his internship site in the city. His colleagues were angry, sad, and deeply disturbed by what they heard.
“It’s something that no one expects would happen for exercising your freedom of speech,” he said.
In the hours and day that followed, Miguel and Sam watched as the streets of Paris were flooded with demonstrators waving pens, holding signs, wearing t-shirts. “Je suis Charlie” was everywhere.
Describing the scene, Sam said, “My French is not perfect, but passing through the different bubbles of conversation on the Metro or in the streets, I could hear the words ‘Charlie Hebdo’ being passed around like a canteen among parched throats. People needed to talk about it; they needed to try and make sense of it, and in doing so it helped them pacify their anxieties.”
On Jan. 9, barely two days since the initial attacks, a Jewish supermarket was in the midst of a hostage siege and Wheaton College junior Anna Morris was en route to her new study abroad home in Paris. It wasn’t until she got internet access later that evening that Anna realized just how close she was to the attacks. She even had a friend who heard the gunshots from the supermarket.
In a matter of hours, Anna had gone from reading about Paris in the news to living smack dab in the middle of an event making headlines and history.
As an international relations and French double major with extensive journalism experience, the flurry of news and commentary revolving around the Paris attack is certainly of interest to Anna. “There are a lot of challenging and thought provoking conversations going on about free speech here,” Anna said. “As an American and journalist, I defend free speech and respect it, but I also can acknowledge that we need to steward our liberties responsibly. There is divided opinion about the way that Charlie Hebdo has stewarded this responsibility.”
In the week since she arrived in Paris, Anna has undoubtedly had a different beginning to her study abroad experience than she initially expected, but one that she, and other students like Sam and Miguel, will surely be talking about for years to come.