The 13 Rice students studying abroad in Paris were safe following the Nov. 13 attacks in the city left over 130 individuals dead and injured nearly 400 more, according to Associate Dean of Undergraduates Don Ostdiek. The Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attacks that rocked the city’s 2.2 million inhabitants, including Martel College junior Beatriz Mesta and Will Rice College junior Megan Moore.
The Islamic State also claimed responsibility for bombings in Beirut, Lebanon that took the lives of about 40 individuals one day prior. Rice does not have a study abroad program in Beirut due to pre-existing security concerns, Ostdiek said.
Mesta and Moore are enrolled in a semester-long program through Sweet Briar College. The students live with French families close to the site of some of the attacks.
When Moore and Mesta first heard about the attacks, they assumed they were isolated incidents. Moore was on a trip to Rome, Italy, during the attacks. It wasn’t until a friend connected to the hotel Internet several hours after the attacks that they learned there had been shootings in Paris.
“Honestly, we didn’t understand what was going on,” Moore said. “We all connected to the Internet and started receiving tons and tons of messages from people in the U.S. asking if we were okay and it was really frightening. We didn’t know what was going on. No one knew what was going on.”
Mesta had gotten off the metro to meet with friends at a karaoke bar relatively far from where the attacks happened when she received a message from a friend asking if she was okay.
“[She said] there were three people dead in the 11th [arrondissement] near my house,” Mesta said. “I thought it was a bar fight or something, so I didn’t pay much attention to it.”
When Mesta met her friends, they began receiving calls and messages from the U.S. asking if they were okay. Unsettled, Mesta checked the news: Paris had been attacked three times. They quickly decided to go somewhere private.
“We didn’t know the gravity of the situation,” Mesta said. “We didn’t know how bad it really was. We just knew we had a bad vibe.”
Fearful of public transportation, Mesta and two of her friends called an Uber to take them home. The driver told them that he could not drive into the 11th arrondissement, so Mesta stayed the night at a friend’s house.
Le Petit Cambodge, a local restaurant, was attacked minutes before Mesta’s 24-year-old host sister arrived for a friend’s birthday party. She was running late, but her friends had already arrived. One of her host sister’s friends was killed in the attacks, and two others were severely injured and lost limbs. Mesta said her host sister is struggling with the loss.
“She feels guilty for not having been there,” Mesta said. “I guess you go through the mentality of ‘Why me and not them?’”
For Mesta and Moore, the attacks were, quite literally, close to home.
“I was scared to go back to my house,” Mesta said. “The Bataclan, the concert hall where there were hostages, was 600 meters from my house.”
Moore’s home was also close to one of the attacks.
“One of the [attackers] who tried to blow himself up was about two, three minutes from where I live,” Moore said. “It’s very different hearing about it in the news and actually knowing where those places are, knowing you walk past there.”
The normally bustling streets were all but deserted the day after the attacks.
“Everything was empty,” Mesta said. “It was a complete ghost town in the middle of the afternoon.”
Although the city is returning to normal, Moore said, people are more anxious now. Even the sounds of children playing can cause alarm.
“Sometimes in the street there will be kids playing and one will scream with happiness,” Moore said. “They’re just playing, but people tense up or get ready to run suddenly because there’s fear that something else will happen.”
Mesta said she observed the same anxiety on the metro, where she used to listen to music or read a book on her commute without fear.
“Now, everyone sits in silence,” Mesta said. “A suitcase fell next to me and everybody jumped to their feet.”
Despite the tension and fear in the city, the students have continued their lives as normally as possible in defiance of the terror attacks. Mesta and Moore’s classes met on Monday and Mesta went out with friends the Thursday after the attacks to the bars near her house.
“You hear the phrase everywhere, ‘We can’t let them win,” Mesta said.
When Mesta picked up one of the seven-year-old boys she babysits from his school the following Tuesday, he showed her a drawing he made that stuck with Mesta.
“He drew the concert hall and red everywhere,” Mesta said. “It hit me really hard because little kids have to live through this and he understands what’s happening.”
Mesta said that despite his age, he understood what had happened.
“It was very innocent, and I think that’s how we all feel, like little kids,” Mesta said. “Why are they killing? No one really understands.”
Although life in the city has changed and international students in other programs left the city following the attacks, Mesta plans to stay for the duration of the program.
“I have to remember why I’m here,” Mesta said. “I want to improve my French, expand my knowledge, immerse myself in the culture. And this is part of expanding my knowledge.”
Moore said she decided to stay as well.
“I didn’t want to leave,” Moore said. “This is my city right here, and I want to be in Paris.”