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A tree for Nohemi: Family and friends mark year since Long Beach student’s death in Paris attack

Niran Jayasiri helps shovel dirt around a Chinese pistachio tree dedicated at Cal State Long Beach on Sunday in memory of Nohemi Gonzalez, a student who was the only American killed in the Paris terror attack one year ago to the day.
(Stuart Palley / For The Times)

Family and friends who gathered at Cal State Long Beach on Sunday grew emotional as they remembered the life of Nohemi Gonzalez, the only American killed in the Paris terror attacks last November.

A year had passed since the 23-year-old’s death while studying abroad at the Strate School of Design in Paris. She was one of 130 people killed in the bombing and shooting rampage on Nov. 13, 2015.

“I have no words for the big loss that I have in my life,” her mother, Beatriz Gonzalez, said. “She was my baby, my little girl.”

On Sunday, more than 50 people gathered at the Duncan Anderson Design Department gallery, where Nohemi’s work and photos of her were showcased.

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Nohemi, who was studying industrial design, had worked as a teaching assistant and a shop technician in the Department of Design. In May, she received her bachelor’s degree posthumously.

Outside of the gallery, attendees wrote messages on a sign that read, “Nohemi Gonzalez a year of remembrance.” Nearby, inside a display case, was a photo of Nohemi beside a model Eiffel Tower.

Gonzalez grew teary-eyed as she spoke about her daughter.

“I feel happy that many people remember her, and it’s really nice for the people in the community to know she’s being remembered as a good student, an amazing person and a beautiful spirit,” Gonzalez said.

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France marked the first anniversary of the Paris terror attacks with commemoration ceremonies of their own and plaques bearing the names of the 130 victims, including Nohemi’s.

Niran Jayasiri, 30, had been studying abroad with Nohemi in Paris. The night of the attacks, he had been out with her and other friends at a bistro.

The group had taken their drinks outside, and it was there that Jayasiri heard what he first thought were firecrackers. Then, he saw the gunman and he ran. It wasn’t until later that he would learn Nohemi had died.

Jayasiri described Nohemi as someone who would help everyone without hesitation. She took care of others and was a happy person, he said.

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“When you have somebody like that in your group of friends and you suddenly don’t see them anymore, you notice it really well,” he said. “It’s not an easy thing to cope with.”

As he looked around at the friends who had gathered Sunday, Jayasiri felt mixed emotions.

“In a way, I’m glad a lot of people showed up to pay respect to her. But, at least for me, when I see my friends, everything comes back. All the feelings that I had when the incident actually happened all come rushing back,” he said. “We were a group of people that were tightly knit. Not seeing her in the group is difficult.”

After family members shared their memories of Nohemi, whom they affectionately called ‘Mimi,’ attendees went outside, where a Chinese pistachio tree had been planted in her memory.

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“What we love about this tree is, first of all, it’s unique. There’s no other tree quite like it around the area,” said Martin Herman, chair of the department. “It also turns a brilliant red around this time, which is Nohemi’s favorite color, and we very much like the idea of there being a transformation around this very special date, to remind us of her and of her life, her colorful spirit.”

Eventually, the department will design a plaque and add a bench as well, Herman said.

Gonzalez shoveled up the first scoop of dirt, dropping it into the hole around the tree. One by one, faculty, students and family stepped forward to fill the hole.

“We have this tree now to remember all the legacy, effort and goodness and everything that she gave us,” Gonzalez said. One day, Gonzalez said, she might sprinkle some of her daughter’s ashes at the tree.

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“If I put a little bit of Mimi right here, then it’s like she’s still here in this beautiful place,” Gonzalez said.

brittny.mejia@latimes.com

Twitter: @brittny_mejia

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