When I woke up this morning, the first thing I heard was "there was a terrorist bombing."
"Where?" I asked.
Though concerned, I don't think my emotions could even remotely compare to those of a parent whose kid is currently studying, interning, or otherwise living abroad in Belgium. Especially when combined with the attacks in Istanbul and Paris earlier in the year, I wouldn't blame any parent (or grandparent, sibling, aunt, or uncle) for worrying about the safety of their loved ones abroad.
I have a responsibility as a parent to prepare them for anything that happens. I can’t prevent it. I have to equip them with common sense.
In light of the recent terrorist activity in Europe, however, I think it's about time that the Go Overseas team addressed some of the concerns parents are feeling right now. To help us out, we called a few of our own parents -- one of whom worked in the State Department / military for nearly 30 years and, on top of being a parent, has decades of professional experience dealing with political crises and conflict abroad.
Read on to hear their thoughts on parent's rising concerns about terrorism and study abroad, as well as their advice on how to cope, prepare, and manage expectations.
You're Worried, That's Normal.
Parents worry. How could you not? No matter what's going on in the world, parents will always be concerned over their kids safety when studying, interning, or living abroad.
Of course, actual conflict abroad can spark a whole different kind of parental worry that lesser seeming threats, like pickpockets and kids being irresponsible, don't. From all of the parents we spoke with today, however, they all brought up the same response: attacks can happen anywhere. They felt that their kids are no more safe from terrorism in the U.S. than they are in Europe.
Terri Gable is the mom of our PR Director, Mandi, and her younger sister, Kimmy Schmitt recently studied abroad in London in January 2016. Terri says that she "get(s) defensive when people ask why I let my daughter study abroad. How can I not let her? I feel attacks can happen anywhere. You can't shelter yourself from everything that could possibly go wrong."
Lori, the mom of our Partner Success Director, Anna Morris, and her younger sister, Carolyn, a senior in high school who's interested in studying abroad in Germany says that, though scary, terrorist threats won't prevent her from letting Carolyn study abroad. "I have a responsibility as a parent to prepare them for anything that happens. I can’t prevent it. I have to equip them with common sense."
As a parent, your kids expect you to worry. You expect you to worry. Worrying, to an extent, is healthy. But it's equally important to have realistic concerns and try to mitigate them as much as possible through knowledge and planning. Which brings us to some of the more practical advice our parents gave us.
Have a Plan Before Your Child Goes Overseas
When I asked my mom, Kathy Beck, about her advice to other parents, she said "worry is never productive. Planning can be."
Chip Beck, who has worked directly with evacuating American citizens from conflict zones abroad, spoke up with details on what that plan should look like. That plan should include:
1. Registering on the State Department's website
Most universities and study abroad programs require this, but regardless, you should make sure that your student has registered themselves on the State Department's Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP). It takes a matter of minute and, once registered, the State Department will have you on their list of Americans to look for and check in with should anything (like a terrorist attack or natural disaster) go wrong.
They can also set you up with alerts that the state department sends out to all Americans in that country (e.g. warning of a demonstration). If the United States decides that they need to evacuate all citizens, they'll make sure to get your son / daughter out.
2. Keeping a photocopy of their passport on hand
In case of an emergency (besides just terrorist threats, actually), it's a good idea for parents to have a photocopy of their child's passport on hand -- or their passport number at the least. It's helpful if you ever need to track them down (or if the passport gets stolen).
3. Staying in touch constantly
This could be as simple as a quick text / email updates every time your loved one abroad changes locations. When I travel, I'll simply text "On the bus to Madrid - Jessie". Even that little piece of contact can be huge in keeping my family back home calm while giving them essential information in case something really does happen.
4. Teaching them to be aware of their surroundings
Those signs that say "if you see something suspicious, say something," exist for a reason. Seriously, make sure that your child understands that if they see something out of place or suspicious looking, they should tell someone or get out of there. Make sure they're always aware of their surroundings.
5. Making sure they know the local emergency number
This piece of advice came from Terri: make sure your child knows the local version of "911" (most guidebooks have it in the opening flap) and memorize it. Have your child put it in their phone once they arrive in country.
6. Remaining up to date on current events -- both of you
One of the best things you can do is keep a pulse on the current situation in your son / daughter's host country. Both of you should be reading news on that country and staying up to date on current events. If the local government is worried about an attack happening and they publish that announcement, you'll want to read that.
7. Think about travel insurance
Travel insurance covers more than just medical incidents. It'll also help travelers if they need an emergency evacuation or in the very, very, unlikely event that you need to ship a loved one's remains home. Providers like WorldNomads can help with this.
Understand the Political Climate and Know Your Geography
When I was studying abroad in Senegal, another girl on my program received a worried phone call from her grandmother one day. She had heard about some attacks in Somalia and wanted to make sure the girl was OK.
"Grandma, Somalia is on the other side of the continent. I'm in Senegal. I'm fine," she reminded her.
Though, mostly, it's an endearing "oh grandma" kind of story, it's was a good reminder that our friends and family didn't fully understand where we were. Senegal is, arguably, the most politically stable country in Africa. One that had never had a coup d'etat in its 50+ years of independence and has largely been a poster child for what post-colonial Africa could be.
As a parent, it's important to get to know your child's host country almost as well as they will. Learn where it is on the map. Read about its current events in the news. Learn as much as you can about the culture there and its history. Then, encourage your kid to do the same.
Cheesy as the saying might be, it's true. Knowledge is power. And knowledge can also disseminate unfounded fears.
If Something Does Happen...
In the case that something does happen while your child is abroad, there are a few steps you can take directly after the fact:
Don't immediately panic and try to get in touch
In 2013, I was traveling in Kenya and Uganda around the time of the Westgate Mall shootings. Fortunately, by that time I was in Bwindi national park in Uganda and unaffected. Since I had been following my family's plan and sending my parents updates whenever I changed locations, they also knew that. They weren't panicked.
This is where your understanding of where your child is and what's going on in that country comes in handy. "I knew enough about Nairobi to know that you were really safe from terrorist threats in the middle of Bwindi. Actual Gorillas though... that was another matter," my dad, Chip, recalls.
If your son / daughter is close to the center of activity, however, you should still try not to panic (I know, I know, easier said than done). Wait until you can get ahold of them and keep calm until you get an update.
Be supportive and hear them out
Your child might be shook up after these events. Stay strong for them and be supportive. Listen to them and their concerns and again, remind them to stay put and listen to the advice that the American embassy is giving its citizens. For example, Americans in Brussels are being advised to stay in their apartments, where the threat of terrorism is quite low, and to avoid going out.
Also try to resist the urge to book them on the next flight home. Instead, talk to them. Hear them out. Take it one day at a time and pay very close attention to the news and any announcements from the embassy.
If you can't get ahold of them, know who to contact
If your child is on an organized program, like a study abroad program, you'll likely already have a contact at the program provider's U.S. office or through their university. Both third party providers and universities are equipped with protocol to get in touch with students' emergency contacts in the case of a terrorist attack or other large disaster. They're also prepared to have parents call them. If you haven't heard from your kids yet, they should be able to give you a status update.
If your child isn't on an organized program and there isn't a point of contact (e.g. if they're working as an au pair, teaching, or taking a gap year independently), you can contact the U.S. State Department's citizen service.
Keeping them at home in the Midwest does not necessarily make anyone safe. I would still support any study abroad.
Say that "I have a son / daughter in [insert city here], I can't get in touch with them. Here's their name, here's their passport number, do you have any other information on them?" The embassy there will be looking for lists of Americans in the areas affected by attacks.
Keep in mind, if your son / daughter is far from the attacks -- for example, they were in Lyon and not Paris -- I'd actually suggest that you don't call the State Department in the direct aftermath. They're going to be overwhelmed and stretched dealing with this crisis. It's worthwhile to be patient and keep in mind our next point:
Remember that cell and internet services might be down
Do you remember how during 9/11 no one could get a call in or out of New York? In any time of chaos, the internet and phone services are often interrupted. If you can't get through, don't panic. This alone doesn't necessarily mean they're not OK.
Wait it out, and in the meantime, try and get in contact with other parents of students on the program for emotional support. As they told us constantly in the Peace Corps, "no news is good news."
Don't Let Your Fears Hold Your Kids Back
Before we ended the calls with our parents, we asked them if the recent events would keep them from letting any of us study, travel, or live abroad.
"Not at all," said Kathy, "It's a recipe for creating more fears. And besides, the same thing could have easily happened at Reagan Airport [our home airport]. In fact, being in D.C., we're just as much a target as Brussels or Paris."
"Look at how many attacks are going on at schools here in the U.S," Chip reminds us, "yet, we don't see parents going and pulling their kids out of school. Parents need to educate themselves about the real risks. Be informed." Lori made a similar connection, "besides, I'd be a terrible homeschool teacher," she laughed.
"The defiance in me says I don't want [the terrorists] to win," says Terri Gable, "I don't want them to dictate how we live. The fear will never be gone, but you have to keep going... I didn't get to study abroad, so I feel like I would be depriving [my daughter] if I didn't let her study abroad." Young adults have so much to gain from studying, interning, or spending meaningful time abroad.
The gain outweighs the fear. It's a risk, but one that has to be taken.
As Lori says, "We could have a bombing at the Mall of America, so keeping them at home in the Midwest does not necessarily make anyone safe. I would still support any study abroad -- I mean, I wouldn’t go to any country where there’s an active threat, but staying home does not make us safe."
Not every parent is a Chip, a Lori, or a Terri, though. If you are now questioning your child's decision to study, intern, or live abroad as a result of current events, that's normal. Just, let your kids be part of the planning and the decision to study or go overseas. Don't do it for them. While your opinions and concerns should absolutely be addressed, you should still allow for your kid to have a say in things.
Secondly, own your hesitations, but recognize why your child is going abroad in the first place. As Terri says, "am I 100% comfortable? Absolutely not. But the gain outweighs the fear. It's a risk, but one that has to be taken."
Chip also brings up one last good point: don't let fear stop you, but within reason. Check the State Departments travelers alerts and stay up to date on current events. If the situation is getting hot to the point where you might want to avoid a particular destination, they'll send out a notice about it. Be smart, not scared.
Are you a parent? Is your child abroad? What are your feelings about travel and the rising threat of terrorism?Photo Credits: Feature image, map, Istanbul, and guy on bridge.