Local French ex-pats reflect on Nov. 13 terrorist attacks

Erik Rochard, a native of France, is the former owner of Café de Paris, a French restaurant in Columbia that closed last year.
Erik Rochard, a native of France, is the former owner of Café de Paris, a French restaurant in Columbia that closed last year. (2007 file photo)

Erik Rochard first got wind of the Nov. 13 terrorist attacks in Paris while he was at work, and his mind immediately turned to his home country and loved ones there.

"It was hard to concentrate because I was hoping none of my good friends or family members would be among the people killed or injured," he recalled.


Rochard, a native of France and the former owner of Café de Paris, a French restaurant in Columbia that closed last year, thought of his three daughters, who were reuniting in Paris that week. For about two hours, he wasn't sure where they were, or if they were safe.

"The worst was the powerless feeling," he said. "You can't do anything about it."

To Rochard's relief, he soon learned that the three were OK, and had taken a train to Lille, a city in the north near the Belgian border.

He wasn't the only one anxiously awaiting news on Friday, when 132 people were killed by attackers wielding automatic weapons and wearing suicide bombs, for which the militant group Islamic State of Iraq and Syria has taken credit.

When Julie Della-Maria first learned of the terror attacks in Paris, she immediately thought of her brother, who lives near where one of the attacks took place, and then the vast distance between him and her native France, and where she lives now in Sykesville, right across the Howard County line in Carroll County. They were able to connect the next day, to her great relief. Her brother was safe, but deeply affected.

"He was in shock, describing the aftermath — people screaming, hurt, terror, terrorized — you are not ready to have a terrorist war on your sidewalk," she said. "War is a concept for most people. And it should always stay a concept, not happen while you buy your baguettes or when you walk your dog."

Baltimore City Police, including K-9 units, were slightly more visible than usual outside M&T Bank Stadium for the Ravens' game against the Jaguars on Sunday in the aftermath of terrorist attacks in Paris on Friday.

Even having heard his voice and knowing he is safe, Della-Maria said it's still hard to be so far away from her brother, her city, and her country at a time like this.

"It's a very helpless feeling that I think each and every ex-pat is experiencing now, to be far from them," she said, "far from their loved ones."

Hélène Taylor, the owner of the French Twist Café in Sykesville, where Della-Maria is the director of marketing, is another Parisian living abroad, whose entire family — her uncle, cousins, brother and father — still live in her home city. She also waited with her anxieties Friday night until her family confirmed they were safe.

"We were really worried about our families," Taylor said. "I didn't hear from my dad until 3 a.m. … But everybody is fine. Julie, her family and her friends are fine, so we can breathe."

Social media was a great help, according to Taylor, who gave Facebook a lot of praise for its Safety Check feature, which allowed many of her loved ones to let her know they were OK.

In Howard County, expressions of shock and sorrow filled the web over the weekend, as people learned of Friday's attack.

Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman posted condolences Friday night on Facebook.

"Free people around the world are shocked and saddened tonight by more senseless acts of terrorism," Kittleman wrote. "Please pray for the people of Paris and let us resolve ourselves to do all we can to stand up against violence and terrorism wherever it occurs. Let the sadness and anger we feel bind us together with one voice to speak out against cowardly and heinous acts like these."


As news spread of the deadly Paris attacks, some in Baltimore quickly reached out to friends, while others remained glued to TV screens for updates. Local universities, meanwhile, scrambled to contact students in study-abroad programs.

Even as they mourned the deaths of those killed in Friday's attacks, local ex-pats said they hold out hope that the response will be appropriate and in line with France's values.

"I just think of the French people who are still living on the edge a little bit and all the Muslim people who had absolutely nothing to do with it," Taylor said. "I saw a lot of posts on Facebook of Muslim people holding up signs saying, 'Not in my name,' and it is not. It is not in their name, and I think it's so important that we make a difference between Islam and these extremists."

"Islam is a very pacific religion," said Rochard. "I have a lot of friends who are practicing, and I have a lot of respect for them.

"People like [the terrorists]," he added, "are not spiritual. They are machines."

"We're scared and we are hoping that people don't confuse what these terrorists do with Islam, because it's not a representation of Islam," Shahan Rizvi, president of the Howard County Muslim Council, said Tuesday. "I love this county and the fact that we choose civility here. I would hate for people to see these things happening and associate this with Islam."

Rochard, Taylor and Della-Maria are worried about the future, are praying for loved ones and the innocent, but are mainly thankful for all those who were spared, and the support they have received here in their adoptive country as Parisians abroad.

"Our customers were amazing. A lot of my customers called to make sure that everybody in my family and Julie's family were fine, because they know us here. A lot, a lot of people came to just pay respects," Taylor said. "American people were very, very nice and very understanding."

"People have been very compassionate, very worried," said Rochard. He said he had heard on French radio about an effort to encourage Parisians to go out for food or a drink at bistros on Wednesday, as a signal of their resilience.

"This is really a major happening in the life of everybody, it's been touching everybody, putting everybody on edge and scaring everybody, so we have to deal with that. We have to show them we're not afraid of living as usual."

Lisa Philip contributed to this story.