Retracing a Pilgrimage


After Christmas, Activists March Toward Crisis in Pursuit of Hope
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#CivilMarchforAleppo begins in Berlin (via Facebook)

The original refugee story of the holiday season was the nativity, with the migration of a young family in search of a place of sanctuary. Today's holiday refugee story begins with a similar quest to a destination unknown, but it started the day after Christmas, not in a ramshackle manger by the roadside in Bethlehem but at a retired airport in Berlin. A group of activists gathered at Templehof Airport to start a similarly perilous journey--a pilgrimage to the ancient city of Aleppo, marching back into a biblical land overtaken by humanitarian crisis.

The inspiration for the #CivilMarchForAleppo started with Anna Alboth, a Polish journalist living in Berlin. She thought retracing the refugee path would help bring some peace to the communities who have lived without a day of peace for the past five years. The plan, which has been organized in collaboration with humanitarian groups over several weeks, is to spend the next few months crossing through the Czech Republic, Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, Macedonia, Greece, and--if they make it that far--Turkey. On foot. It's wholly unclear how far they will make it, given that of the hundreds who have signed up, the organizers know many will be unable to devote more than just a few days to the effort.

Their manifesto declares:

We’ve been taught submission to war. We’ve been taught to be afraid of the powerful who pull the strings. We’ve been persuaded to take sides with “the good” and blame “the bad”, to accept the division of people into the better and the worse, the ones who can sleep safely in their own beds and the ones who have to flee for their lives....

But we refuse to take it anymore. We’ve just withdrawn our consent.

What are they setting out to accomplish exactly? For now, the point is to demonstrate solidarity with those who journeyed the opposite way. For the hundreds of thousands of refugees who have stepped over the carnage of loved ones, traipsed through the detritus of a civilization sabotaged by militarism and oppression, there's no turning back. "People like me in safe countries can't take it any more, and we see this as a chance to transform things," Alboth told the BBC.

The mission seems suicidal and naive, perhaps, but it’s one physical articulation of the idea that no matter who we are or where we live, our lives are comprised of tangled, intersecting paths--some of our choosing, and others impressed upon us. The march “back” to Aleppo fuses thse two journeys: it's a path of choice for activists seeking to raise consciousness about the people being slaughtered with impunity in a faraway place. Yet it’s a path the volunteers felt obligated to take, somehow, knowing that their own privileged circumstances are a product of the fortune of being born on the right side of the born, that only some accident of grace will they never be forced to go before those impossibly distant frontlines.

The march isn't completely spontaneous. They have researched the legal exigencies and the risks of traversing so many borders and possibly facing conflict zones. They're aware that they may be eyed warily by authorities who suspect that the march represents some clandestine agenda. But they also know that in Aleppo, people are dying by the dozen every day, and an untold number are being displaced by various forces as the Syrian military crushes the remaining rebel strongholds. And although whatever humanitarian response they can encourage through the march may not get there in time to protect many of the remaining survivors, as the Daily Beast reports, activists still living in the city have welcomed the gesture, after months of feeling abandoned by the rest of the “international commmunity.”

And despite the looming threats, the Civil March still gathered enough online crowdfunding, media support and willing participants to begin with a group of several hundred activists, willing to take the first step this week and keep going for as long as they can.

Alboth also noted that the decision to set out from one of Europe's massive hubs for refugees, Templehof Airport, is symbolic: "The day and the site are not accidental--Tempelhof is the largest refugee camp in Germany and December 26 is a symbolic holy day."

Packed with rows of cluttered cubicles and bunk beds, the encampment, now housing thousands of migrants, was set up like an emergency field hospital within one of the richest and most orderly cities in the world, as if the war spontaneously reemerged around them right after they landed in Germany. En route to resettlement somewhere on the continent, they waited patiently for months, penned into makeshift "cabins" in an airport developed by the Nazi regime during the 1930s, as Germany marched toward a reign of terror across the rest of Europe and beyond--the war that engendered our current postcolonial world order.

The explosion of refugees from the Global South today is a reverberation of that earlier geopolitical crisis. And yet the aftershocks of this global tectonic upheaval take on a diferent tone. We live amidst spheres of war and peace that so seldom cross, the occasional clash between the two can be both profoundly enlightening and disturbingly traumatic for both sides. In fact, it's often the most peaceful "host" countries that responds with the most hostility to the refugees who arrive at their doorstep.

Ironically, just days before the Civil March began, the camp was raided by German security forces in response to another tragic Christmas story that had just transpired: a truck had careened through a famous Christmas street market in Berlin, cutting a murderous path through a perennial scene of European Christmas cheer. The authorities instantly descended on Templehof in search of the suspects, further stoking anti-migrant hostility across Europe as the German government seeks to shutter the camp permanently.

So the Civil March to Aleppo was launched from Templehof at the same moment that the refugees who had been living there were being displaced and besiegeed once again. one group of refugees on the run, again, crossing paths with another group of sojouners, marching toward the very place that so many others have fled.

All refugee stories are a product of this strange blend of destiny and fate, prompting us to ask how much we control the roads we travel, when all our journeys in every direction propel us forward into the unknown. On the night of the nativity, the lost migrants followed the north star. For the activists marching today into the shadow of war, only a glimmer of conscience lights the path before them.

--December 28, 2016

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