24 March 2017

We are all the lady in the hijab

12 years ago, I was living in Dublin and my then boyfriend (now husband) was still living in London. We talked every morning. I'd be sitting at my desk in the Microsoft offices where I worked, and he'd be sitting on public transport running late for work, which was located just off Russell Square.

Yes. Every morning. Some things don't change no matter how many years pass.

This one morning, we were chatting as he got off the train to switch to the next one and he said that he had to dash as the train line was closed for some reason and he was going to head out, walk in the direction of the office and hopefully catch a bus if he could beat the crowds swarming out of the station.

Within minutes, my screen was full of the news about the tube being blown up, and shortly after there was the news about a bus being blown up in Russell Square. I still recall the physical nature of the fear that washed over me when I heard the news about the bus. I started to ring his mobile, on repeat, over and over and over again.

I couldn't get through to his mobile. Or his office. The logical part of my brain knew that the networks had been shut down but logic doesn't play a part in fear. I had told my colleagues what had happened and Seamus* across the partition was repeatedly trying the lines too, trying to locate his three younger siblings who were living in London.

Logic also tells you the odds are that the person you are worrying about is highly unlikely to be affected.

Despite our boss being appalled by our, and I quote, "unnecessary hysteria", no work got done. Seamus got a phone call from one sister. Then the other. They were both fine. He joked that his baby brother was probably so busy rubber necking it wouldn't occur to him to check in.

And then Nick called. He could only speak briefly, but he was okay, he was in the office, he never got on a bus.

I cried. Noisy, messy, relieved tears. I felt a bit embarrassed by worrying about him so much as if thinking that he could have been hurt in the bombings was somehow presumptuous. My boss said dismissively 'I knew it would be nothing'. I remember feeling ashamed for worrying.

The day kept going, the news out of London getting progressively worse. Emails started flying around, my friends and former colleagues in London reporting in safe and sharing news of friends that had been on the affected trains. One fellow had got off one bombed train and in a state of shock walked for two hours home because his shirt need a change due to the dust in the tunnel, before thinking to call his wife. Each of those stories made us feel that we'd got away with it, that on this most dreadful of days, none of ours had been hurt.

Then Seamus got a call from one of his sisters, his brother was in hospital. He'd been on one of the bombed trains, had gone through a window but from what was understood, the body of the person he'd been behind had largely protected him from super serious injury. He was hurt but alive.

All of a sudden, logic didn't matter. It was serious. It was very real. Out of the millions of people in London, someone we were connected to was hurt.

And all of a sudden, every single one of us in that office, whether they had family or not in London, were Seamus. 52 people killed, over 700 injured and one of them was Seamus' little brother.

It wasn't logical. But it was real. We hadn't been worrying for nothing.

Every single one of the people that were killed or injured in this week's terror attack in London are someone to somebody. They have family or friends who will be heartbroken. Some will be thankful it wasn't worse. Some of the affected will wish it had been.  Some will be living in limbo while they wait to see how injuries resolve. And for everybody that wasn't injured, there are hundreds, thousands of people who will have been frantically trying to get hold of family and friends in London to check they are okay.

Logic telling them that they are probably fine. But logic is not always reality.

Those that witnessed the event, they will be desperate to speak to family and friends to reassure them, to talk through the trauma they just witnessed.  Some might be in shock and just trying to get home. That is why there is a man in the photo walking with his dog. That is why there is a Muslim lady on her phone. That is why there are people standing by seemingly just watching, shocked.

Accidents and terror attacks have one thing in common. They take people going about the ordinary day completely by surprise.  One day it's a sunny day and you're crossing a bridge, or you are running late for a meeting, seeing the sights - nothing more and nothing less. And then boom. Your world and the world around you is changed.

We process things differently. But the one thing that we all crave when something horrific happens is human connection. And whether that's by holding the hand of an injured person, calling your partner, facebooking your mum, or taking the dog and hightailing it home to where you feel safe, we can't judge those reactions unless we are there and know the complete story.

And out of the 7 billion plus people on the planet, there were only a couple of hundred people on the bridge. Even less who will have seen it actually happen. Even less who would have been able to process what they were observing at the time.
Westminster Bridge.
Photo by Doug via Flickrpool

But every single person on that bridge matters to somebody. Somebody who logically knows they are highly unlikely to have been caught up in it. Some of the those somebodies will have been wrong.

So we, sitting at our screens are not the people to be judging the people we see in photographs. Or who are being interviewed. We can not begin to imagine how we will react in any given situation unless we were there.

Putting aside the fact that Pauline Hanson clearly doesn't know that hashtags don't have spaces, preaching hate or trying to push people into making this a general 'muslim' problem does nothing but make you an accomplice of ISIL. You do their work for them by spreading hatred. You do their work for them by isolating your fellow citizens on the basis of religion. You do their work by alienating their youth and having them live in fear.

ISIL is not Islam.

ISIL is not every Muslim.

But everyone of us is Seamus.

Everyone of us is the lady in the hijab.

We are ordinary people who will be desperate to connect with the people we love when the world makes no sense, no sense at all.

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*Seamus is not his real name.