For the second time this year, Paris is the scene of multiple terrorist attacks: 137 people lost their lives and 352 are severely wounded.
The random killing of innocent people is wrong no matter the country, the victims’ nationalities or the invoked cause.
But when those tragic events happen to your home country while
you’re living abroad, how does it affect you?
Whether it was New-York in 2001, Madrid in 2004, London in 2005,
Mumbai in 2008 or – more recently this year in 2015 – Kenya in April, Tunisia and Kuwait in June, Bangkok in August, Istanbul in September and Beirut just one day before Paris, we, as expats, may have witnessed from afar highly traumatic events occurring in our home countries.
When the horror you witness on TV occurs in a city where you once lived in, where you worked, where you still have family and friends, how do you feel?
Based on my own experience and the account of other fellow expatriates, here are some of the contradictory feelings we attempt to reconcile in our hearts.
Contradiction #1 – You feel both connected and disconnected from the whole situation
You know the places where the shootings occurred, you understand the language spoken on the news by the victims telling their stories. You’re familiar with the Parliament where the president gives a solemn speech, the journalists
and the different radio or TV channels covering the events. You recognize the noise of the emergency sirens, the signs on the police cars, the uniforms of the special forces.
You’re in touch with your loved ones back home. They tell you firsthand what they witnessed. You worry for their safety.
Perhaps you can even feel their current unrest when they have to go outside for grocery shopping or take the tube to work because you’ve been in a similar situation. I personally remember the anxiety and fear I experienced in 1995 when I lived in Paris and when I was in the RER while a bomb exploded a few metro stations away. A series of terrorist acts ensued during several months feeding a constant feeling of insecurity and distrust.
Because of your ‘insider’ view, your local friends or colleagues turn to you as ‘the expert’. They ask your opinion and wonder whether the same could happen to their country.
At the same time, you’re so far away that you cannot help but feel some kind of disconnection. When the attacks happened on Friday night, it was Saturday morning in Australia.
When the nation stops for one minute of silence at noon, it may be the middle of the night in your host country.
When 3 days of mourning are decreed, life goes on unchanged where you live.
Somehow the whole situation seems totally unreal: your brain knows it happened, yet your senses can’t fully grasp it.
Contradiction #2 – Wanting to be one with your nation and your family / relieved to be away from the horror
In those difficult moments, you’d like to be with your loved ones, reunited to talk about the trauma, supporting and comforting each other.
You have this longing to be a part of the prayers, to light a candle along with the thousands of others, to walk in silence in the middle of the crowd, to mourn the victims together. You’d love to be part of the incredible solidarity that changes the normal way people relate to each other: opening their doors to strangers for the night (#porteouverte) or taxi drivers offering free rides for example.
Instead you’re glued to your screen trying to make sense of it all – so far away. Mostly alone.
The best you can do is to change your profile picture on Facebook with a French flag. To feel a bit closer?
If you don’t fear for your life in your host country, you feel guilty to have a sense of relief. You’re far away from the danger. You don’t need to put up with the stress of constant fear for your life.
Contradiction #3 – None of your family or friends is amongst the victims / People from your host country are killed or wounded
As soon as the news comes out, you rush to the phone or you reach out on social media eager to make sure your relatives and friends are safe.
But the terrorist attacks aren’t targeted at particular people. They are meant to kill… anyone.
By a very improbable course of events, during the Paris attacks, a young woman native from the town I’m living in at the end of the world (Hobart in Tasmania!) was wounded by multiple gunshots in the hip. She went to school with the brother of my daughter’s friend.
There’s a pervasive sense of responsibility and powerlessness creeping in.
How is it that I’m feeling safe in my host country but that my home country can’t offer the same protection and wreaks havoc in that family instead?
Contradiction #4 – You feel supported when your country gets so much compassion all around the
world / You’re embarrassed that others didn’t get so much attention
When the news of the Paris attacks broke all around the world, it created a shockwave and sparked a huge movement of solidarity.
In many cities, monuments were highlighted in blue, white and red.
Demonstrations were organized in support of the victims. I got numerous messages of support from friends, neighbours, colleagues.
This momentum warms your heart when you live abroad.
But you can’t help thinking: what if this happened in another country where these kind of attacks are more frequent and not even reported in the news?
On October 31st, only two weeks before the Paris attacks, I attended a Halloween party. I met another expatriate, a 53 year-old Afghan man. He was extremely worried: in a bombing that happened the day before, two of his children living in Pakistan were reported missing. He was anxiously waiting for some more news on the phone.
None of us had heard about this event.
Contradiction #5 You’re identifying with your country / You don’t recognize it any longer
As you see the sorrow, the despair and the chaos in your country, you ache.
It’s as if your home country was a part of yourself: a limb, a leg, an arm. How many times have I heard from fellow French citizens: ‘My France is hurting…’
Your country of origin is part of your identity.
As the days unfold, survivors tell their stories of horror, fright and desolation.
The police investigation is carried out.
Videos show scenes of war. People are required to stay at home. Streets are deserted, mass transport is interrupted, schools are closed.
Retaliation is promised. Airstrikes are carried out.
In front of the parliament, the Prime Minister announces the death of one presumed leader of the attacks. The MP’s clap.
You can’t help but think
An eye for an eye will leave the whole world blind
This country, your country, you hardly recognize it.
Is this really supposed to be a part of you?
Is this your country, the one you identify with?
Holding the tension of these contradictory feelings is disorienting and exhausting.
But you’re not the only one wrestling with those contradictions. Many of us seek to reconcile them.
You’re not going crazy.
The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.
In those challenging times, how do you feel? Let’s have this conversation.
Credit music Piano Society