Learning Experiences, Adventure and a Close Brush with Terrorism: A Student Exchange in France

It was the evening of Friday, November 13th, 2015 and I was walking home with some friends from a movie. We were excited because we were on the way home to book our first trip together to Paris! We would leave in just two weeks.  Then it started! Endless Facebook messages of panic, international phone calls filled with worry, and then frantic knocking on my apartment door: there had been several terrorist attacks in Paris! Everyone was hysterical! What do we do? My first reaction was to notify my family and friends that I was safe. My parents’ reaction was for me to be on the first flight back home to Canada, but I told them that I wanted to stay and I ensured them that should the situation become more severe, I would decide to come home.

In the days that followed, my friends and I were obviously a bit cautious, but we never felt afraid of our Muslim friends and community members. After the attacks there were ceremonies to commemorate the lives lost and to also show the continued respect of Islam. We did, however, try to get full refunds for our trip to Paris, but that was unsuccessful.  After much debate and contemplation we ventured to Paris. Our families were not happy with this decision, but we had a professor who gave us a lecture that we should not be afraid of these terrorists, because then they win. We cannot put our lives on hold for them.

We were excited and nervous all at the same time. There was security everywhere in Paris. We had to get our bags and coats checked throughout the whole trip. I had never experienced anything like it before. It was nothing compared to airport security; from shopping centers to grocery stores and restaurants, it was unavoidable. Although the high security was there to ensure safety, it did make us all feel anxious and aware that there was just a huge attack here; however, amidst the high security and the heavy air, we never felt unsafe and we never heard utters of xenophobia. The weekend trip to Paris ended up being a lot of fun and we created lasting memories.

Now let me put this story into some context of why I was in France.

In late 2015 and the majority of 2016, I was fortunate to spend my third year of university on exchange through Acadia studying at l’Univeristé François-Rabelais, which is located in the lovely city of Tours, France. The city is situated about an hour south of Paris by high-speed train.  It has a population of approximately 150,000, situated in the Loire Valley, which is filled with enchanting chateaux’s, luxurious biking paths, and supple vineyards.

Exchange students have the opportunity of taking certain courses which are catered to learning about French culture. One of the courses I took was about French society, and a major topic we discussed was about France’s religious system. We learned about France’s laicity system (laïcité in French) which involves the separation of church from state. There is no religious instruction at school or any religious symbols in educational and governmental spaces.  France’s laic society involves not showing any large religious symbols in the public, but rather keeping them for religious establishments and homes. It also supports religious freedom, meaning that citizens have the right to practice the religion they wish.

From my perspective of living in France for one year, I found that the French are a very accepting and respectful society to all religions. There is a harmonic mosaic of multiculturalism in the country. As I previously wrote, despite the horrible attacks in Paris there was a band of support for Muslims.

This example made me think of the current political climate in the United States of America, which is trying to scare everyone from Muslims, especially with the President’s short-lived travel ban on seven predominantly Islamic countries. This rhetoric is obviously not healthy and not one that promotes peace and security, rather the reverse.

There is an extreme conservative party in France, which is led by Marine Le Pen, a supporter of the current establishment in the U.S. and whose rhetoric influenced the culprit of the recent mass shooting in a Quebec City mosque on Sunday, January 29th, 2017.

My exchange taught me that it is possible for all people, regardless of their religious beliefs, to get along and work in harmony. We must all respect one and others beliefs, as long as they encourage love and peace for all.

There are extremists in every religion. Not just in Islam. Imagine basing the recent attack in Quebec City as a case for stating that all Christians are extremists and must be stopped. That would be absurd. Yes, there is definitely a problem with religious extremists, but religion can also bring a lot of good. By preventing people who are seeking asylum into a safe country there is nothing being accomplished, but allowing the extremists to win by making us scared of them and letting them control our daily lives and media reports.

My experience on exchange taught me a lot about the world. I was exposed to more multiculturalism than at home and I grew from this. The only way to grow is to surround yourself with people who are not like you. A well-rounded person is not scared or afraid of differences, but embraces diversity and the wealth that it brings. Travelling and discovering more about this world is truly a passion of mine that I will follow for the rest of my life. I encourage every person to travel as much as they can, and to not allow fear-mongering leaders to deter you from doing so.

The biggest lesson I learned on exchange is that although the world is filled with so many differences, the common factor is that at the core human beings start out all being good people. We are all born with an innocent mind, but it is our surroundings and teachings that may change this goodness.

Shortly after the Paris attacks the numbers had been confirmed that 120 people were killed and there were 369 people injured. The world mourned for these people and Paris. It truly was a global affair. Despite this horrific event, the world goes round. Everyone eventually went back to their routines and slowly, but surely we began to stop thinking about the attacks on a daily basis. Living through a terrorist attack is an unforgettable event, but it will not change my perspective on the Islam religion. Those were terrorists and not Muslims.

Overall, I am truly grateful to have had the experience of being on exchange and I highly recommend it to all students. You will be so happy you did so! It is definitely the highlight of my undergraduate experience. I look forward to more adventures in France someday soon, perhaps to further my studies, because one year was simply not enough for me!