The Faces Behind Vigils


Hector Sanchez Castaneda
Isla Vista Beat Reporter
Photo by Mathew Burciaga, Executive Managing Editor

Vigils are open events where people are invited to go and speak their mind or hear others in response to something that occurred around the world — usually where lives were lost. Sometimes homemade signs or candles are brought to show support and uniformity among the attendees. But, are they effective?

Two recent events, the terrorist attacks in Paris on Nov. 13, 2015 and in Colorado at a Planned Parenthood clinic on Nov. 27, 2015, moved UCSB students to organize and demonstrate solidarity with those in need. Behind these vigils are individuals trying to cope with everything while providing a space for others to share their feelings. Leilani Leila Riahi and Candice Albane Julia Farel are two students who took on the challenge last year of holding a vigil.

Riahi, a fourth year psychology major and co-president of the UCSB Women’s Ensemble Theatre Troupe (WETT), was on her way to an airport to return to UCSB after spending Thanksgiving with family when she logged on to Facebook and read the news that Planned Parenthood had been attacked. She began to question why the media was not calling the assailant a terrorist and feared that they would begin to justify him for being mentally ill. Frustration seized her as she read more on the attack.

“I was still in the car … when I turned to my sister and said, ‘We need to have a vigil at UCSB … We need to honor the lives lost and stand in solidarity with Planned Parenthoods everywhere.’” Riahi said.

“I then group messaged the Board members of WETT — we put on the Vagina Monologues every year — and asked them what they thought about the vigil,” Riahi said. “They loved the idea and said they would help out any way they could.”

Two weeks before Riahi took on organizing the vigil, another student undertook the same challenge. Fourth year political science and English double major and Education Abroad Program student from France Candice Farel received the news of the Paris attack when a friend posted “explosion in Paris” in a group conversation. At first, the group dispelled the news as something small, but when the myriad of notifications started to stream into everyone’s smartphones, they knew something was wrong.

Farel and her friends gathered at Kohl’s Cafe — where the owners are French — and started to watch the news on her computer for hours, horror-stricken as the terror unfolded in their home-country.

“I was feeling so lucky but also so selfish of being here in California when the attacks [were] going on, so I needed to do something, but I didn’t really know why,” Farel said. “I couldn’t stay here watching the news in California doing nothing …”

When Farel shared her thoughts, her friends agreed that they needed to do something. What started as an intimate silent gathering in Farel’s backyard evolved into a vigil on the streets of IV.

“So we did it all together,” Farel said. “We bought candles, we bought a flat sheet and paintings to paint a French flag and to allow people that [came] to write down their thoughts to send it to the Paris memorial.”

The gathering was not aided by any group or organization on campus. It was a sudden demonstration by students in need of a space to have their feelings and angst expressed.

“That was a powerful moment — that kind of moment that only [happens] when you can feel everyone’s breath, everyone’s being here in that moment just sharing compassion,” Farel said. “And I actually think it helped a lot of us.”

When asked about the hostility toward Syrian refugees after the attack, Farel said she does not agree with the idea that they impose a danger.

“[T]hinking of the attacks [as] the fault of the Syrian refugees is ridiculous,” Farel said. “Those [people] are fleeing things worst than the Paris attacks that happen everyday where they live.”

She said that creating a rift between Syrian refugees and Muslims is one of ISIS’s main goals as a terrorist organization. She also shared her disappointment at the recent increased support of the French far-right political party National Front. The party is known for its hard stance against immigration. Farel expressed her disappointment in the party’s strong performance in the first round of French regional elections in early December 2015, claiming that the success of anti-refugee rhetoric in elections plays into the hands of groups like ISIS. Ultimately, the National Front ended up losing after the second round of elections the following week.

Fast-forward two weeks, and Riahi finds herself in need of a similar gathering. She met with friends and colleagues in Cajé Cafe and started to plan. Pardall Center ended up serving as the hosting location, and with help from Santa Barbara Planned Parenthood, they put together a space of reflection. To Riahi, the vigil was necessary for the community.

“It is a place where judgment does not exist and different styles of processing the events that occurred and expressing how they are affecting oneself are encouraged and loved,” Riahi said. “It’s a place where we can heal together and feel like a community of like-minded individuals supports us as people and supports what we stand for.”

When asked if the vigil helped, she said, “I think it made us feel close and protected. I think it made us feel inspired.”

To Riahi, Planned Parenthood is an important part of her life. “I need to defend this organization because it is an extension of who I am as a person,” she said. “It is an extension of being a woman and being a human being. It is my duty to defend an organization that is a part of me. It is my duty to defend an organization that is for men and women both.”

When asked what she would say if she had a chance to speak to Congress in defence of Planned Parenthood, Riahi said she would emphasize the equality the organization brings to the table by giving women access to something otherwise unavailable.

“Planned Parenthood helps us to be safe,” Riahi said. “It gives women the resources to liberate themselves and live in health and maturity. It is justice. It is reproductive justice, but it is also justice to defend our right to our own bodies.”

UCSB houses a diverse body of individuals driven to make a change. Behind every vigil is a person with strong ideologies and a strong need for justice. The next time tragedy strikes, there is a high chance students will spearhead another event like this because after all, coping with something is always easier with like-minded individuals providing support. The only question is, when will we need to gather again?

Hector is from Ensenada, Mexico, and is currently a sophomore majoring in English. After beginning as a staff writer his first year, Hector became Isla Vista Beat reporter. If he isn't reading a book or re-watching episodes of Breaking Bad, he's probably writing about Isla Vista.