Kenyan Calvin students respond to Nairobi terrorist attack

Last Saturday’s terrorist attack at Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya left at least 61 civilians dead and has had reverberations across the world. Calvin students from Kenya have felt the effects of the attack.

Rosslyn Academy is an international Christian school with 640 students. For many students who attend the school, Westgate Mall is a popular destination for weekends outings.

“Westgate Mall is the mall that we all hang out at,” said Ji Eun Lee, a Calvin sophomore who is a missionary kid who grew up in Nairobi. “At least every other weekend we would be there.”

“It’s like coming home and hearing on the news that Mall of America has been overrun by terrorists who are shooting people indiscriminately,” said Joella Ranaivoson, a recent Calvin graduate who grew up in Nairobi and attended Rosslyn Academy. “That’s the kind of madness that it was for four days while the police tried to get control of Westgate.”

In addition to local students, the mall is also significant for the international community living in Nairobi.

“The Westgate [shootings] especially affect the expatriate communities in Nairobi (of which there are many), because places like Westgate are frequented by expatriates, as well as national Kenyans,” explained Ranaivoson.

Grace Thuo, a sophomore at Calvin, was born and raised in Kenya. Westgate Mall was a frequent hangout place for her family and friends. So when Thuo heard news about the attacks, she promptly called her family.

“When I wake up the first thing I do is check Facebook, and that’s what happened — that’s how I found out about it the first thing Saturday morning,” Thuo said. “My first reaction was to call my family, because we always used to hang out there — that was our weekend spot — and that’s where my brother goes to when he’s out of school, so I was having a panic attack.”

Thuo’s family was unharmed by the shootings, but news of the tragedy still hit home.

“I started reading the news and everything was really surreal,” Thuo said. “It didn’t seem like that could happen to a place like that. It just seemed like it was so put together when we were there, it was such a happy place. And so it didn’t really seem like it was happening. The whole Saturday was really hard.”

At least two students from Rosslyn Academy were personally affected by the mall attack and lost immediate family members.

“A girl was going there to celebrate her birthday with middle school friends,” Thuo said. “She got shot in the arm, and her dad got shot and died at the scene.”

“There was another boy who suffered from a shrapnel wound and thermal wounds, his mother passed away from the grenades,” Lee added.

But even more students could have been victims of the attack.

“There was a high school retreat happening the same weekend,” Lee said. “The fact that there was this high school retreat happening at this time was just a miracle, because there could have been so many more students. My sister could have been there.”

Thuo’s brother, who attends school in Kenya, has a friend who was in the mall during the shootings.

“His friend was actually in the mall, but he managed to escape,” Thuo said. “But the things he saw, he couldn’t even talk about it.”

Despite the ongoing threat and hostage situation, the people of Kenya came together to support the Kenyan soldiers during the four-day standoff.

“The way that the Kenyan people really pulled together was really cool to see,” Thuo said. “I saw pictures of this one restaurant called Mediterraneo, and they were taking pizza to the soldiers, and there were these other women who were taking hot tea to the soldiers as well. So many people were giving blood, so many students from Rosslyn were giving blood. That was really cool to see, but it was also really heartbreaking.”

The lack of attention and a unified response to the Nairobi attacks from the Christian community at Calvin was concerning for Lee.

“I think the whole situation sheds light on me and it rebukes me as I came into this realizing that this is not personal for others, and that others were not personally affected, but I want you to respect it and I want you to care as a Christian community especially to have a brotherly concern towards us,” she said.

“But that makes me think of other things happening such as in Pakistan that also deserve attention and realizing that if it doesn’t affect us personally it is hard to give attention to the matter. It rebukes me to pray about these things and be more attuned to these things and it makes me rethink this whole idea of a Christian community. It is supposed to affect us in the same personal way that it has affected me, [since] we claim we are brothers and sisters in Christ.”

Ranaivoson agreed.

“Two suicide bombers killed 75 people outside a church in Peshawar, Pakistan on Sunday,” she said. “Again, we have students here who were raised in Pakistan, who have family and friends there, who are dealing with this grief without the support of their community. We need to acknowledge this loss and stand with them in their grief. Kenya and Pakistan.”