Claude Khalife: My experience in Paris opened my eyes to Syrian refugees’ struggles

The United States and much of Western Europe are currently gripped with fear – fear of bombs, bullets, Syrian refugees and Muslims in general. Posts on my Facebook feed tell me that I, too, should fear radicalized young men slipping across borders under the guise of needing humanitarian relief.

But there’s another type of fear out there. This type of terror is one with which the refugees are all too familiar, and which I and the entire city of Paris experienced almost three weeks ago, when explosions and gunfights rocked the center of the French capital.

This week, President Barack Obama visited the Bataclan theatre, where 90 people were killed on Nov. 13, to pay his respects. Already, it feels like the attack happened long ago. But conversations about what happened in Paris are far from over.

As one of the students in the GW Paris exchange program, my semester thus far had been idyllic. It was as close to a stereotype of the typical study abroad program as possible: lazy days spent on the beach, weekend trips by train, cheap wine and croissants.

Yet this slow, tranquil pace of life was shattered as I holed up in my friend’s apartment in the 13th arrondissement on that Friday night last month, watching news reports of the attacks spill in as the sirens screeching outside turned the headlines into a depressing reality. In the first hour or so after shootings and explosions were reported at multiple venues, the media became susceptible to the uncertainty the entire city was experiencing. Rumors of new shootings in various other parts of the city came and went almost instantaneously, and it seemed at times as if Paris was on the precipice of descending into an all-out war.

An all-out war, of course, is exactly what millions of Syrians have been fleeing since 2011. These families are escaping a constant, grinding terror – one so vast that they are willing to endure the most brutal of voyages through unwelcoming countries in order to find some semblance of safety.

While for a few brief hours I felt a type of fear that I’d never experienced back home, that night in Paris brought the agonizing plight of Syrians into sharp focus. I realized that there is simply no way for the overwhelming majority of Westerners – myself included – to even begin to comprehend the catastrophe that has enveloped Syria’s people over these past five years.

The morning after the attacks, I walked through a city that felt like it was drowning in pain. The sky was dismal and gray, matching the drawn, pinched faces of passersby. A blanket of uneasy silence had settled onto the city, and the few Parisians who braved the streets hurried by soundlessly. They only acknowledged the attacks with furtive glances, or suspicious gazes tossed toward one another as they hurried past.

Instantly, it reminded me of the faces of the Syrian families who escaped to my grandmother’s village in Lebanon – mothers who clutched their children’s hands tightly as they walked through the narrow streets. They were the faces of those who knew fear like they knew their sister or brother, who woke up in the morning with the feeling and kept it heavy in their hearts all day.

Yet to imply that someone knows fear on such an intimate basis does not mean they are cowards. After the attacks in Paris, impromptu memorials were placed across the city. At the site of the Bataclan attacks, the sidewalk filled with flowers and written wishes for peace, in defiance of those who sought to obliterate them. As I headed to the airport two days later, a Parisian man on the metro strummed a guitar as he walked through the train car, urging unity in the face of such horrors. The car lit up with smiles.

And the victims of the Syrian civil war are showing an even deeper bravery. Young and old, male and female, they are continuing to endure unimaginable circumstances in their quest for shelter.

I fear for these victims, more so than I ever feared for myself on the night of the attacks. I fear for these people, who have found Europe’s borders and been greeted with police dogs and searches, and for the Syrians and Somalis who are encamped at the Italian border a few kilometers from where I sit typing this, unable to move.

I feel guilty that the two Somalis I sat with on a train ride from Florence to Nice were detained by border guards the minute the train crossed the border, while I simply walked by with a flash of my American passport. I fear demagogues like some Republican presidential candidates, who have said American Muslims should be registered in databases, and I fear even more for those who listen to their vitriol.

I fear for my Muslim friends in France, who must contend with the rise of the fascist Front National Party. I feared for myself the day after the attacks simply because I look Arab. I fear that in the United States, we will not take in these families.

Claude Khalife, a junior majoring in international affairs, is a Hatchet columnist. Want to respond to this piece? Submit a letter to the editor.

The Hatchet has disabled comments on our website. Learn more.