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Americans in Geneva struggle to come to terms with attacks

The United States has stepped up security at its diplomatic mission to the United Nations in Geneva

(Keystone)

The large American community in Geneva is in a state of shock and confusion following Tuesday's catastrophic events. In addition to feeling like potential targets themselves, many are deeply concerned about the fate of friends and relatives in New York and Washington.

Geneva counts some 5,000 US nationals among its residents, and many of them fear that someone they know could be under the rubble of the twin towers of the World Trade Center.

"We're in a state of disbelief. We're deeply saddened that there's been loss of life among people some of us know," says Dr Robert Spencer, president of the American International Club and director of Geneva's Webster University.

"It'll be a long time before the American community absorbs the full impact of what's happened," Spencer told swissinfo. As a first step, a memorial service was held at St Pierre's Cathedral, even though many attending remained uncertain of whether friends or relatives had fallen victim to the tragedy.

The American Women's Club of Geneva, for example, has expressed concern that a large number of its 900 members have returned home for the holidays, and their whereabouts are not yet known.

Providing emotional support

The American International Club has cancelled its scheduled events, feeling them to be inappropriate at such a traumatic time. Instead, the club, which in less trying times organises social events, is looking for a way to provide emotional and psychological support to the American community.

"We are lucky in that Geneva is well-equipped in the psychological counselling professions. We need to make our members aware of that," Spencer says, adding that the American churches in Geneva will also have a big role to play.

Many are turning to the American Episcopal Church for support. Father Nicholas Porter told swissinfo he had been inundated with telephone calls since news of the attacks first broke.

"They want to express their grief and find out how they can pray for those who've died and for those would could carry out such a horrific act," he said.

Another focal point of the American community is the International School, which has around 600 US students. The school's atmosphere was described as subdued.

Campus principal Tony Gorton told swissinfo that extra security personnel had been deployed at the school on Wednesday, largely to reassure parents.

Many students absent

Even so, significantly fewer children turned up for school. For those present, a special assembly was held, at which a minute's silence was observed. Efforts are being made to get the children to express their feelings to counsellors.

"We won't know how the life of the school has been affected until things in New York and Washington become clearer," Gorton says.

The principal pointed out that it is not just the American community that has been affected by the catastrophe. People of all nationalities are concerned about the fate of loved-ones.

"We haven't addressed it as an American problem. We are talking about a blow to humanity," Gorton says.

Tuesday's events brought home the United States' vulnerability to terrorist attacks.

"Any American abroad feels vulnerable at a time like this, but I've been impressed by the fact that people are more concerned about the safety of their friends and family in the United States right now, than about their own personal safety," Robert Spencer says.

by Roy Probert


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