From the moment I stepped off the train and into Utrecht, I immediately wondered, “Is this place even real? Is this really the place I’ll be living for the next six months?” Every day here has followed a similar pattern. How lucky am I, that I get to study and live in such a peaceful utopia? No city has ever made me feel more welcome, so at home and so happy every day. My lowest days are greeted with unexpected bike rides home with a friend after class, a little peek of sunshine on the canal after a rainy week or the sweet feeling of cozying up in a small cafe. Memories are made on bikes, over pancakes, dancing at student nights at Club Poema and chats with coffee at De Ontdekking. I consider it to be the most beautiful city in the Netherlands, nay, in Europe.
“Nothing bad happens here, it’s completely safe,” my friends and I say as we complain about our home country. But, on Monday about 10:35 a.m., something unbelievable happened. A gunman opened fire on a tram at 24 Oktoberplein, killing three people and injuring many more. The perpetrator was on the run for most of the day, sending the city into a threat level five lockdown. Monday went from being a normal day of classes and dinner with friends to being locked in my room, jumping when I heard something at the door and desperately refreshing the news for any updates. I was worried about my friends who were stuck in the city center, for friends who didn’t respond to my texts right away and for the people who were shot at the scene. Rumors of bomb threats and the gunman driving around shooting people plagued everyone’s day as we locked ourselves inside, curtains drawn. The shooting happened on the other side of the city, but being a small, tight-knit community, the fear and tragedy were keenly felt by everyone. My heart broke and continues to break for this city I love and consider to be my home.
When you study abroad, you’re keenly aware of bad things happening to Americans in other countries. We fear what is unknown to us and we fear being vulnerable. I try and live my life with as few fears as possible, to not let worries deter me from experiencing life. “Bad things happen in the United States, not in the Netherlands,” was my mentality. Like many who study abroad, I romanticized Europe and Utrecht as if it were Disneyland, a place where dreams come true and tulips grow through the cracks in the sidewalk. I read the news less because I didn’t want to ruin the high I’ve been riding on for months. The attack Monday was a wake-up call for me and I’m sure for many others. I’m not living in a dream and I can’t take this place for granted. Utrecht is not a vacuum, safe from the hatred and problems plaguing the world. It exists on the same plane as all the bad, and I cannot use it to hide. I saw Dutch tolerance crack and quaint city walls shook. I’m scared, I’m angry and I’m desperately sad for the victims.
You may hear people saying, “This is not who we are,” but this is who we are. This world is filled with hatred, with killing machines and people who do horrible things. But while we are hatred, we are also love. The community rushed to support each other immediately, from checking in on their loved ones, bringing cake to first responders and to the memorial that has been set up at the site. Even before this tragedy, the people of Utrecht have welcomed me into their city with open arms, and I am reminded that I belong here every day. Dutch students have taken me in, despite my loud American voice, friendly waiters at my favorite cafes ask me about my day, and I’m greeted with smiles from complete strangers that I ride by on my bike. Utrecht is a city of people who love and support each other. The city has a rich history and a strong tradition of education. It’s a beautiful place to live, and I fall more in love every morning I wake up.
It’s hard to put everything I feel into words, but if you take away anything from this, please remember the three lives that were lost, the three people who were severely injured, the four that were injured in the chaos and their families. Also remember those killed in Christchurch, New Zealand. As a world, all of our fates are interwoven, no matter how far away we are. It’s naive, but I hope that we can come out better and stronger from these events and learn to love each other. Lobby for gun reform, pray for Utrecht and pray for New Zealand, but most of all, never forget.
Contact Sunny Sichi at [email protected].