Paris Attacks: One Woman’s First-Hand Account

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Nicole Pembrook explains her thoughts on the night of the mass shottings in Paris and how she believes the Black community should forge ahead.

Just like any Friday night, Nicole Pembrook left her bible study filled with the spirit, but there was one thing different on the night of November 13. After church service, Pembrook was greeted with a slew of text messages from friends demanding that she leave Paris and seek safety. Concerned, she went home, turned on the TV and then it hit her: Her city was under attack.

Pembrook lives in the suburbs of Le Vésinet, but she’s lived in the heart of Paris for the first 7 years of the 14 years she’s been in Europe. She's also the proud owner of Polished Hair Care, a salon nestled on the Champs-Elysees, an area Pembrooks touts as being “very touristy and possibly a target for another attack.”

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Now, 10 days post-attack, the California-native stands tall, and continues to put her best foot forward amongst the chaos. Here, she dishes on the night of the mass shootings and how she believes the Black community should forge ahead.

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ESSENCE.com: What was your initial reaction to hearing about the attacks in Paris?
Nicole Pembrook: “Oh my god! We need prayer!" I thanked God for my safety, because there was a time (in my younger years) when I was out on the scene in Paris. I thank God he protected me. I was just amazed, and shocked at how close to home it hit. The first thing I did was post a status on Facebook saying we were fine. I also checked in saying I was okay and that my children were okay. I think the Facebook check-in feature was very well done.

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ESSENCE.com: You were in Paris during the September 11 attack in New York, how did that affect you as an American living abroad? Did this recent attack in Paris affect you more than 9/11?
Pembrook: Yes, when 9/11 happened I had just moved to Paris. I didn’t know French, so I didn’t understand a lot of what was going on when I watched TV. But, because I’m an American, 9/11 hit closer to home for me. I grew up in America. But, this attack is Paris’ 9/11—anyone could’ve been killed. I often think, ‘what is the world going to be like in 20 years? What type of world my children will live in?’

ESSENCE.com: What is the black community saying about the Paris attack?
Pembrook: I think the biggest thing is shock. I don't know anybody personally that was affected by the attack. There are some people that are just paralyzed with fear with this being the second attack in Paris. We had the Charlie Hebdo shooting at the beginning of the year. This being the second one in the same year, I think the French people are just floored. They just can't believe that this is actually happening in their country, on their territory. This attack had so many innocent lives involved, so people are just afraid, and feel powerless more so than anything else.

ESSENCE: Has your business been affected?
Pembrook: We opened the salon the next day. It was very surreal. I had 5 cancellations—people were in fear of leaving their homes, and especially coming to a popular place like the Champs-Elysees. We tried to make the ambiance relaxing with jazz music and a lot of massages. I really tried to keep the energy positive, and away from the negativity because I had been up myself the night before. I just wanted people to disconnect from the television. Stop talking about it and have a time of peace even if it's only for an hour or so. I noticed on my way to work, and even on my ride home, that every time I stopped at a stoplight or pull up against somebody, people would automatically look into the next car. I think the attack has raised a little bit of paranoia and a lot of mental awareness about what's going on around us. People are looking around at the bus stops, just scoping out what's going on around them. It feels like back in the day in the hood where you got to watch everything that's going on around you.

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ESSENCE.com: And, this is everyone—not just the Black community?
Pembrook: Yes, it's everybody. But, I think Black Americans are used to tragedy and killings. I think our community has been somewhat numbed to stuff like this because we're so used to somebody's cousin getting shot, somebody's family member is on drugs, or these senseless killings in the States. I think we've become as an American community more callous to that. The French (Black) community is different because there are no guns here. The worst thing that can happen to you here is maybe you get pickpocketed by a gypsy. It's no real crime in Paris on the suburb areas. It's been pretty safe. I've been here for 14 years, and I've never felt uncomfortable walking [outside] late at night.

ESSENCE.com: How are you feeling overall?
Pembrook: I feel callous to everything. I talked to my co-workers the day after the attack, and they're like, "Are we going to go to work? Are we going to open?" I'm like, 'We got to keep moving, we got to keep going because if we stop working and stop living, then that's exactly what the terrorists want.' They want us to live in fear. They want us to not feel safe when we're coming out of our homes. I'm Christian. I walk in faith and I feel totally safe where I'm at with my own spirituality today. I just have to keep going for my children and for my family. I have a business, people count on me. I can't let somebody else's fight come in and change the way that I feel about my life.

ESSENCE.com: Have you heard any conversations about unifying Paris? What are people saying are the next steps?
Pembrook: There was a march, and people are coming together for the wake, but [recovering] is a process. The biggest issue for me, is that Paris is a melting pot, so many different cultures. Everyone has there own way of thinking, but its harder for them together, France has one of the largest atheist communities in Europe. I think it’s harder to come together. Everyone wants to make things smooth when it comes to injustice, but it’s hard to communicate with so many cultural differences.

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ESSENCE.com: What do you want the American black community to know about the Parisian black community?
Pembrook: No matter what, Blacks have commonalities where ever we are. One common mistake that black Europeans make is that we highlight the differences, but we don’t give each other a chance to see the similarities. We really need to learn how to understand each other. I love that People here (in Paris) are considered about the Black Lives Matter movement in the US. I just really look forward to Black communities everywhere uniting.

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