Survival Tips Abroad: When caught in a civil protest

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Students traveling during their Rome semester found themselves in the midst of a demonstration in Paris, France. Photo courtesy of CBS News.

The long weekends afforded to University of Dallas students studying in Rome are a great way to make the most of your time in Europe. Since you have freedom to travel — almost — anywhere in the EU, you have complete control over where you go, what you see and how you spend your time. 

The catch, however, is that you are on your own when it comes to making plans — and handling those plans if they fall through. Bus delays and COVID-19 restrictions are easy to deal with, but what happens when the community around you gets completely disrupted? How do you keep yourself safe in such a situation? When traveling with my friends last weekend, we had to confront this challenge head on as we were almost caught in the center of a riot.

Our group went to Paris, France from Thursday evening to late Sunday afternoon. On Saturday, our group decided to split up for the day and then meet up back in Paris for dinner later that evening.  While the rest of the group remained in Paris to explore more of the city, my friend Isabela Prezotto de Lima, junior biology major, and I went to Versailles to tour the palace. 

Earlier that day, the group had told us of a protest starting outside of the famous Louvre art museum, but we dismissed it as an isolated incident. While taking the metro back to Paris, we heard people shouting “Libertas” in the metro station, and several of the main lines shut down. 

Upon reaching the surface, it became evident that things were serious; there were police vehicles and sirens everywhere, and officers in riot gear were marching down the street. This all culminated in us heading towards a large crowd, where we saw “firecrackers” go off and what appeared to be a large cloud of smoke slowly heading our way. It took a woman on a bike riding towards us shouting “gas” to realize that police were using tear gas on the protestors. We then ran from the ensuing chaos. 

After another hour or so of speed-walking through the city, we found an open metro line that we then took back to our Airbnb where we met up with the rest of the group shortly afterwards. 

These types of situations can come up at any point with no warning. Though neither of us were hurt, it was still incredibly stressful trying to find a way out while avoiding areas of conflict. Though I am not expert, here are some general pieces of advice I can give for those who end up in a similar situation:

  1. Pay Attention to the News: Try to have a general idea of current events in the area you are traveling, especially around politics or controversies. Pay attention to any activity, no matter how minimal it may seem. We originally dismissed the protest at the Louvre as a minor event, but it ended up spreading to our area through the metro all the way to downtown. Always take the cautious side should there be any sign of trouble.
  2. Get Away From the Area: Before you think of any specifics for getting back to your Airbnb or hotel, make sure to get as far away from the incident as possible. Protests and riots can get out of hand very quickly, so putting as much distance between you and potential danger is the most important thing. If you see or are near smoke or tear gas, try to cover your face and eyes. A medical facemask can be good for this. 
  3. Know Important Locations: While traveling through a foreign country, it is extremely important to know the location of certain spots in the city you’re in that can help in emergency situations. Police stations, hospitals, the American Embassy and five-star hotels are all great places to go if you need a quick way to get out of a rough spot. Also be aware of metro stations, bus stops and streets where taxis usually congregate.
  4. Make Sure Someone Has a Working Phone: If you are in a group, at least one person — but preferably more — should have a phone that has data and can access the internet while abroad. Some phone plans will not provide that, so make sure you know what your phone can and cannot do while traveling. Someone should also try to bring a portable charger for when phones have low battery. Turning the brightness down can help save battery if you need to. 
  5. Do Not Draw Attention to Yourself: Politics in any nation is going to be complicated, and you will not know for certain how a political group will feel about Americans being in their country or the U.S.’ actions in the world. As such, when getting away from something like a protest, do not make yourself a target as an obvious tourist. Leave the flashy clothes at home, avoid displaying American symbols, and quietly speak English amongst your group. If someone approaches you, try to say you don’t speak the native language using a phrase from another country  — If you’re in France, you could say “non parlo francese” which means “I do not speak French” in Italian —  or just ignore them. And in general, if locals try to ask you about how you feel about America’s political situation, do not engage and just walk away — and I’m saying this as a politics major. The less attention you have drawn to yourself, the better. 
  6. Have a backup plan: As I said before, these types of events are unpredictable. Chances are, your original plan for getting to and/or leaving somewhere may be derailed should something like a riot unfold, so be prepared to switch gears and go with another option. If the metro is closed, find a bus. If no buses are available, go with a taxi. And if all else fails, walking is always an option. The other part of our group couldn’t find an open metro at first, so they walked for about an hour before finding a bus stop to take them back. 

Traveling abroad is an incredible opportunity to see the world and experience the richness that other countries have to offer. But do not let your dream vacation idea interfere with reality. The world is also dangerous, and you need to be prepared should something like the riot in Paris appear where you are. 

Make the best of your time abroad, but be safe as you do so. It will make the Rome semester all the more impactful and memorable.

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