There I was standing in solidarity amongst my French friends as we gathered together to mourn a tragedy. For me, it was an attack on Paris and on humanity, but for them it had the added element of being an attack on home. We all felt a sense of loss, but the drive, the history and the emotion behind it varied. No one’s emotions are ever less than another’s, but they are, by nature, inherently different. I was standing in the crowd. It was an almost out of body experience. I was part of the moment but a bystander as well. I glanced around. Thousands had gathered. A sea of voices surrounded me, but they were speaking a language I only know pieces of. Sometimes when I spend time with my French friends, I jokingly remind them to speak in english (side note-very rarely is this necessary…they are all incredibly thoughtful in this way, always opting for their second language so I can speak my first). This day, however, was not a day for them to make adjustments for me. It was a day for me to just be. I could pick up words here and there, but only a few. Someone sang a beautiful rendition of the French national anthem. People sang with her.I didn’t know the tune or the words. But somehow that was ok. I was just being. Being a part of a moment that was far bigger than any individual. Bigger than any country. It was a moment where the world was coming together, I thought. Coming together in response to an attack that was meant to tear us apart.
A year ago I think that moment would have been very different for me. A year ago I did not personally know anyone from France. Today I do. I know amazing, incredible women who, like me, have left their homes on a grand adventure to Australia. What brought us to Australia may be different, and we each have unique personalities, histories and stories, but it is these very differences, and the celebration of them that brings such a richness to every shared moment between us. Today I know people from France. I have friends who spent the day contacting everyone they could to see if their friends and family had survived. I can’t even begin to imagine what that felt like.
When I found out about the attacks, I suddenly felt homesick. Overwhelmingly homesick. I just wanted to be back with my family. Then came a pang of guilt. I’m wishing to return home to the safety of my country and family and yet I think about how my friends here must feel. Their home is not a place of safety at the moment. A rush of emotion takes me back to the feeling I had after 9/11. You can never truly compare two tragedies. They were entirely different. But then again, in their most basic sense, they are entirely the same in that they both compromised peoples’ sense of security. There was an immediate loss of safety following 9/11. That day, no American felt truly safe. We fought off fear, we stayed strong, and we persevered, but in that moment, home was not safe. I can’t speak for anyone but myself, but the feeling after November 13th is similar to me. The world was attacked, humanity was attacked, and for the French specifically, their home was attacked. Fear will be fought off, the people will stay strong, and they will persevere, but this day will never be forgotten- nor should it be.
While I say the moment would be different had I not known anyone from the country, I don’t think it would be any less impactful. I don’t think you have to be directly affected to experience the devastation of an event of this magnitude. This attack was coordinated. It was meticulously planned and expertly carried out. It was disastrous. And, sadly, it is not unique. Terrorism and terrorist attacks seem to be more and more commonplace. This attack was in Paris. There was another in Beirut. The attacks could be anywhere. It becomes less and less about the where, what and how and more about the who and why. No, not even who to blame…who are they attacking? And why?
Say what you will about the president of the United States, but this quote rang true to me:
“This is an attack not just on Paris, it’s an attack not just on the people of France, but this is an attack on all of humanity and the universal values that we share.”
They aren’t just attacking France or Beirut, they are attacking the the values people hold most dear. The bombs and gunfire struck Paris, but the aftershock has hit the entire world. And the response from the world in the wake o this travesty was overwhelming. Around the globe, landmarks, buildings, media, and Facebook profiles lit up in support of France. In support of the people. In support of peace.
So on Monday, November 16th, Melbourne organized a peaceful gathering for the French community and supporters. Federation square was set up, guards were in place (just in case) and the French community (as well as official representatives) came together to mourn for the lives lost, not just in France, but around the world. One by one speakers shared their thoughts on the tragedy. Some highlighted the loss of life, others detailed the events, but the all-encompassing message of the night was clear: We will not live our lives in fear. We are one world united.
After the speakers, John Lennon’s song “Imagine” played…and for a few minutes, we all just listened. For me, the lyrics rang truer than any other time I’ve heard them.
“Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace…
You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will live as one”
As the official part of the program ended, one of the most poignant moments of the night began. The community joined hands forming a circle and slowly, one by one, people walked to the center and laid down tokens, flowers, candles, shirts and photos in remembrance of the lives lost.
Aside from the gentle music in the background, the only sound in the entirety of Federation Square (a city center spot normally abuzz with daily happenings) was the soft clapping as people laid down their offerings. For a moment, time stood still. It was one of the most moving experiences I have ever been a part of.
By the reactions of those walking through the circle, you knew who had lost a loved one. There was one man in particular who broke down completely. I don’t know his story (he was interviewed so maybe at some point it will be released) but in that moment, the details of his story didn’t matter. We all knew. We all felt it. And it was heart breaking.
The emotional crescendo of the evening was when a man walked into the center of the circle and lifted high a shirt with #notafraid written on it. I can’t remember if the symbol above the words was the Eiffel tower or the French flag, but in that moment the words spoke louder than any image. The crowd erupted in cheers. It was the loudest moment of the night, and a beautiful end to the evening.
Overall, to me, it was an experience that was respectful to the community, mournful of the loss felt by all, and yet it was permeated by this sense of strength and unity. In that moment, we were one people. Race, religion and country were all secondary to the one thing we all share: a sense of humanity.
** Disclaimer– The views expressed in this post are mine and mine alone. I don’t pretend to know or explain how this event impacts anyone but myself. All pictures were shared with permission from my lovely French friends.**