Our French daughters were still sleeping when I panicked.
They knew nothing of the crisis in Paris until they read my Facebook messages.
From Noémie Michelon: “OMG, just woke up so afraid this morning saw your message … and run to the TV. I go to bed so early because of the baby and haven’t heard of the attack before. I’m checking if all my friends are giving me news (thanks Facebook for that). I’m shocked, afraid, sad, and desperate (frown emoticon). Can’t believe the world we’re living in. Don’t trust our society and so angry about that.”
And later from Sandra Wins: “When I read your text this morning, I didn’t know what you were talking about. I was already sleeping on the evening when all this happened. So I rushed in front of my TV and discovered the horror. For the moment, I’m just speechless. I just have the feeling we will never win the war against terrorism. We will never feel safe again. All my thoughts go for the Parisian people.”
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I call Sandra and Noémie our French daughters because each of them lived with us for nearly a year as exchange students while attending Bullard High School. Sandra came to us in 1998 and Noémie in 2003.
They are two of nearly two dozen students from all over the world we have hosted privately or through AFS foreign exchange over more than three decades. They came from more than a dozen countries on four continents. We have climbed the La Tour Eiffel with Sandra and her family and watched Le Tour de France with Noémie and her family. We have shared tears of joy with their parents and slept in their childhood bedrooms among their stuffed animals.
So when something awful happens around the world in one of their countries, it’s personal. We are worried about our kids.
Through the years, people have asked us why we host these “strangers.”
My husband says it best: “This connects us all around the world. We are a universe of humanity. AFS helps us connect with that humanity. These are dangerous times, undefinable times.”
By undefinable, he means that the sight of a bloody Paris is beyond us.
How do we have this kind of hatred in the world when we have had so much wonderful connection with kids all over the world? That is not to say we always agreed. When we first talked with our exchange students, we didn’t always agree politically, but we learned from each other.
We are not alone, far from it. We are part of a huge network of host parents Valleywide who feel the same.
I couldn’t wait to check in with Anne Gallagher of Fresno, a former host mother of two French daughters, who has traveled to France multiple times and taught herself to speak very passable French. When she heard of the tragedy, she immediately messaged her two French daughters, who lived with her and attended Central High School. She hasn’t heard yet, but she got a Facebook response from one friend so far that says, “We’re OK.”
She also received novel “I’m safe” notifications on Facebook set up by the French through their cellphones, which she has never seen before. There appears to be a system for checking in.
Gallagher wrote this to her loved ones: “Je cherche des nouvelles. Vos sante bien mes amis, et aussi la famille? Mes prieres et les prieres des tous les gens ici sont avec tous. Je t’embrasse tres forte.”
The automatic translation in English: “I’m looking for some news. Your health well my friends, and also the family? My prayers and the prayers of all the people here are with all. I kiss you very strong.”
“I imagine they are feeling shell-shocked like we were after 9/11,” Anne said. She quickly got a defensive edge to her voice. She often has to do that in this country when people discover her affection for the French.
“I hope people understand the magnitude of this and what France is to us,” she said. “We wouldn’t be a country if it weren’t for France, and a lot of people don’t get that. They are one of our biggest allies ever. A lot of people have the wrong idea. They are really brave. Officials are telling the people of Paris to stay inside, and yet there were hundreds of people who took to the streets and started going to the stadium in a march of solidarity. I think they will react intelligently and bravely.”
When an American military man sent a hostile Facebook message to her about the French attacks, she was patient, saying his feelings were understandable.
And then she sent him a photo of a giant American flag stretched out by the French military in front of the Eiffel Tower after 9/11. “This is what the French did for us,” she wrote. He deleted her post.
Anne reminded me that it was because of times like this that she joined AFS, hoping she could make a difference. The group was founded after World War I by volunteer ambulance drivers, funded by Americans, who tended to the wounded. Foreign exchange between the next generation was their hope for peace.
Appropriately, about a dozen AFS students in the Valley gathered together in a library near Modesto on Saturday. Each brought photos and a presentation telling other exchange students and their host families in the Valley all about their countries. They brought food representing their countries to share for their own dinner together.
On the way home, two boys, Sebastian Vesper from Hamburg and Lorenz Mai from Dresden, Germany, said the students were all very quiet about the news in France.
Lorenz said, “We are all really shocked. We are all sad.” The refugee issue in his city is causing big problems, and people are demonstrating. At first the refugees were only coming from countries at war. Now, people are coming who are not in need.
Sebastian, who attends Clovis West High School, said, “It mostly scares me because it is just so close to Germany. It’s horrible, like a nightmare. I feel like that can happen all over Europe. I am so shocked about it.”
Driving the boys back to town was another former host mother, Marie Edwards of Fresno, who just visited Paris in April. She said this is about more than being a host mother: “This could be any city.”
These victims could be anyone’s kids.
Gail Marshall is associate editor for the Opinion pages: 559-441-6680