Kenya mall bombing hits close to home for some

Categories: Around the Diocese

Oct. 11, 2013, edition
By Kristi Anderson

While Kathy Peterson was asleep in her Waite Park home, two of her loved ones were trapped inside a stairwell in an upscale shopping area in Nairobi, Kenya, held hostage there during a Sept. 21 terrorist attack that claimed the lives of nearly 70 people.

Peterson, a parishioner of St. Joseph in Waite Park, had close relatives who were in the Westgate Mall during the bombing. She was asked not to post any information on social media sites and did not wish to disclose their names for this interview for security reasons.

“It was a shock when we got the phone call that [our relatives] were OK,” she said. “Because of the time difference, we hadn’t yet seen or heard the news so we didn’t even have the thought that they wouldn’t be OK, or that they would be anywhere near the scene.”

According to Peterson, her relatives are currently living and working in a rural setting in the mountains, about two hours from Nairobi. Ironically, they were visiting friends in Nairobi who had invited them to brunch at the Westgate Mall the day of the bombing.

The phone call was brief and it wasn’t until three days later that they were able to Skype with their relatives to learn more details.

No digital hugs

“You can’t reach through the computer and give them a hug like you want to,” Peterson said. “It hasn’t sunk in for them yet. We are trying to be sensitive to what they might need but my guess is that the reality of this won’t hit them until months down the road.”

The couple was forced into a stairwell with many people, including a British nurse who tended to the needs of some of the injured. Peterson spent a lot of time looking through online pictures and reading news stories to help her process what her relatives had been through.

“There is one picture that we came across a number of times of a woman being pushed in a grocery shopping cart,” Peterson said. “Our [relative] was pushing that cart. That’s when reality set in for me.”

Eventually, the couple was evacuated through a grocery store.

“My [relatives] are in Kenya to do good things,” she said. “God provided for them and they are safe.”

Peterson was also worried about parishioners from their twinned parish, St. Michael in St. Cloud, who were part of the St. Cloud diocesan delegation in Homa Bay during this same time.

“I found out later they were safe,” said Peterson.

Students affected

In a blog post on their website, St. John’s Preparatory School, Collegeville, states that two of their students were “personally affected by the tragic recent events in Kenya. These students have lost family members, including an uncle and a grandfather, and close friends and neighbors in the terrorist attack at the Westgate Mall in Nairobi. In any event such as this, but especially when it occurs so far away, it is easy to feel helpless or like there is little that can be done. We can, however, support our students and their families with our prayers and our love.”

Students at the College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University were also affected.

“The most immediate impact of the Westgate Mall attack for us at CSB/SJU,” said peace studies assistant professor Ron Pagnucco, “is that we have cancelled the Kenya May term 2014. Our May term is conducted in cooperation with Catholic Relief Services and the Catholic University of Eastern Africa, and while in reality there is not much likelihood that we would be hurt from an al Shabab terrorist attack. Al Shabab has made a pledge to continue terrorist attacks so our school obviously cannot take that risk.”

Reminder of 9/11

Peterson shared that her relatives have begun using language like “Before Nairobi” and “Since Nairobi,” similar to how Americans now refer to 9/11.

Kathy Knoblach is part of the sister parish relationship between St. Paul Parish, Sauk Centre, and the Migori Parish in Kenya. She, too, drew a parallel to the American experience of 9/11 with that of the Kenya bombing.

“Even though our sister parish is a good six to eight hours away from Nairobi, depending on roads and weather,” she said, “they know something tragic happened in their own country. It creates that same feeling of uneasiness we had after 9/11.”

Father Jeff Ethen, pastor at St. Leonard Parish, Pelican Rapids, was in New York during 9/11.

“Not a day goes by that I don’t think about it,” he said. “I look at life — and the world — a little differently. Unless you are directly affected by the randomness of sudden death, you can’t prepare yourself for it, or truly understand it.”

He said the best thing anyone can do to offer support is to be patient with those directly affected and to pray.

“We are all children of God and that tugs at you during a tragedy,” Father Ethen said. “That certainly helps us to offer prayerful support and empathy. When we have a personal connection with a tragic event like this, it pulls us back from the numbness and indifference that we experience every day.

“We have to understand that those lives touched have been by horrific events are now on a different trajectory,” he continued. “There can still be joy and happiness, but their lives will never be on the same path again.”