UB students and faculty affected by Paris attacks

Students studying abroad in Paris share experiences


Alicia Stepniewska was at the Louis Vuitton Foundation Friday night in Paris, France when she learned the city was under attack. Every minute brought more panic and fear as she was informed that shootings and explosions had left people dead in the streets.

“Never in my life do I want to experience this type of situation again where I have to confirm to my family and friends that I am alive,” Stepniewska, a sophomore accounting major studying abroad, said in an email. “And it is absolutely horrific to know that some family members and friends of the people in Paris did not receive that confirmation from their loved ones.”

At least 132 people were killed in several terror attacks which occurred around 9:30 p.m. in Paris on Friday. The Islamic State, or ISIS, has claimed responsibility for the attacks. Stepniewska is one of four UB students studying abroad in Paris – two of them were in Ireland for the weekend during the time of the attacks. Another two students were studying in the south of France. All six of them are safe and unharmed.

UB released a statement Saturday morning regarding the attack.

“With the rest of the world, the University at Buffalo community is shocked and saddened by the senseless violence that occurred last night in Paris,” the statement said. “Our thoughts are with all of those who have been affected by these terrible events.”

Fifteen minutes after the first attack, Stepniewska’s program director, Celine Garelli from SUNY Oswego, told the students to go home immediately and call their friends and families to tell them they were OK.

Stepniewska’s friend who lives near the site of the tragedy said the streets looked like a war zone with bullets and bloody footprints on the ground.

At 1:27 a.m. in Paris, SUNY Oswego – where the Paris study abroad program is based out of – emailed the students asking them to confirm they were safe. Stepniewska said she emailed her UB adviser at 3 a.m. to say she was safe and received a response after 4 a.m. She then received an email from the assistant director of UB Study Abroad at 5:30 a.m. saying she is glad the students were safe.

Stepniewska said UB’s delay to contact her and other students, compared to SUNY Oswego, is understandable since the attack happened at the time when people in New York were on their way home from work and hadn’t heard of the attack yet.

“But an emergency can happen at any time, as this situation has shown us, so I hope that if study abroad staff didn’t have access to emergency contact numbers outside of the office before that now they will,” Stepniewska said. “At least a statement should have been sent or said to all the parents telling them what the school has planned for a worst case scenario.”

UB released a statement that all UB students studying in France had been contacted and were safe at 10:52 a.m. Eastern time Saturday morning. The UB Study Abroad was not immediately available.

Program directors advised the students to stay in their dorms for the rest of the week unless they are going to class. Stepniewska said she has had trouble sleeping since the attacks.

Kendall Spaulding, a senior English major, is studying abroad in Grenoble, France, about three and a half hours from Paris. Spaulding was at a party with his friends when he hard about the attack.

“It felt odd to be at a party with everyone drinking and having a good time,” Spaulding said. “People were being killed and held hostage not too far from us.”

“Nobody wakes up in the morning and thinks something like this would happen,” Spaulding said.

Spaulding said that although he is not French, living in the country has given him a sense of solidarity.

“I feel for those who’ve lost loved ones,” Spaulding said.

For those who were in Buffalo during the attacks, the biggest concern was not hearing from friends and family abroad right away.

O’Brien Welsh, a senior political science major, knows at least 10 people in Paris during the time of the attacks but couldn’t get in contact with any of them until Saturday morning.

Welsh was on his way to dinner when he received a BBC News update of the attacks on his phone.

“I saw that 18 had died in Paris but I put my phone away and said I’ll look at it later,” Welsh said. “Then I received another update minutes later and over 100 people were dead so I knew it wasn’t some small attack.”

One of Welsh’s friends planned to go to the restaurant where one of the shootings took place an hour before the attack, but didn’t because it was too early to go out. He later realized he could have been a part of that fateful incident.

“It was 3 a.m. and I hadn’t heard from them or seen that they were active on Facebook,” Welsh said. “I wondered if they were sleeping or maybe there was too much chaos for them to check in. As a result I couldn’t sleep that night.”

Others weren’t as fortunate to hear that everyone was safe.

Two of John-Jacques Thomas’ son’s friends were killed during the attack.

Thomas is a UB distinguished professor and chair of the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures. He received his Ph.D. at the Sorbonne University of Paris and visits the city twice a year. Although he was in Buffalo, he was worried about his family overseas.

His cousin and his family live in Rue de Charonne where the attacks occurred. Through email and phone calls, he heard that all of his family and friends were safe.

Thomas has given thought to the attack itself.

“What is surprising is that the terrorist events have not taken place in the ‘international’ and tourist part of Paris … but in a peaceful neighborhood, in a middle- to low-class area,” Thomas said. “In fact then an area familiar to the possible terrorists and their drivers.”

Thomas suggests the terrorists had completed “dry runs” beforehand.

He said French people believe the main attack was planned to take place at the stadium where the French-Germany soccer game was held. But since President of France Francois Hollandewas in attendance, there was tighter security. Three bombs went off outside the stadium.

While dealing with the aftermath of the terror attacks, Stepniewska wants people to know that she and other students have support from someone in Paris at all times.

“[Garelli] is very important to our wellbeing here. She is the one that reacted immediately and made sure everyone was OK, which is what is most important,” Stepniewska said.

Stepniewska said Garelli’s presence was calming. She invited the students to her house the day after the attack to eat cookies and drink tea while talking about what happened.

Sunday evening, Stepniewska and other students visited the Place de la Republique and the Bataclan concert hall where the attacks took place. She said it was quiet and solemn.

Candles, flowers and artwork filled the streets as people sang a French song with the lyrics, “We only have love.”

“Everyone was very emotional and yet because there were so many people there, they were showing that they are not afraid to leave their house and showed they are one with the victims and their families and with all the Parisians,” Stepniewska said.

Stepniewska said through this tragedy, she has also experienced “all the good in people.”

She said Uber drivers drove through the sceneto make sure people got home safe. Taxi drivers gave people free rides and Parisians opened their homes to people from the streets.

Brian Windschitl contributed reporting to this story.

Editor’s note: Kendall Spaulding was a Spectrum staff writer in the fall of 2014.

Gabriela Julia is the senior news editor and can be reached at gabriela.julia@ubspectrum.com. Follow her on Twitter at @gabrielaajulia.