The day has come: I am finally getting ready to start my journey.
With recent events in Nice, France, and the long-term fallout from Turkey’s attempted coup unsettled, I am embarking with an uneasy feeling:
Europe appears to be under attack from multiple fronts. The aftershocks of Brexit are still reverberating across the continent, challenging European unity, which is already under strain due to the largest refugee crisis since WWII arriving on Europe’s shores. The Nice attack comes with previous Paris and Brussels terrorist attacks still fresh in people’s minds. A Pew Opinion poll, which shortly predates these recent events, revealed that for a substantial portion of Europeans, the question of refugees is increasingly mixed with fears of terrorism: in 8 out of 10 European countries surveyed, the majority of people indicated that they fear that more refugees will increase terrorism. Thhis increases the likelihood that these people won't welcome more refugee assistance: humans facing existential threats rarely extend empathy to the bearers of perceived danger.
Now political instability in Turkey, a NATO member, and a key partner for Europe, will threaten a sense of stability further. It remains to be seen how it will affect the EU-Turkey refugee agreement. With this agreement, the EU arranged to repatriate refugees back to Turkey, in exchange for granting Turkey greater access to the EU. Turkey hosts nearly 3 million Syrian refugees, many of whom hope to reach Europe. The deal is already under strain: to what degree Europe can ship refugees out without violating their own human rights law standards is questionable. Additionally, this would involve the build-up of a considerable bureaucracy, which would take time. Turkey’s gained perks, such as visa-free travel, require Turkey’s respect for democratic rights. Now, concerned observers fear that the coup will further Erdogan’s authoritarian tendencies. Without the promised benefits, Turkey is unlikely to acquiesce to the terms of the arrangement. Despite the uncertainty, for now Angela Markel insists the deal is still on.
As I get ready to pedal across parts of Europe, I am worried about how the sense of insecurity will affect the mood, and especially how that will translate into Europe’s reaction to the thousands of desperate people arriving in hopes of safe harbor.
Within this heavy context, I also wanted to take a moment, and reflect on the journey I am about to take. This will be the most ambitious personal research project yet. Per consequence, worries and insecurities often rear their heads.
This will be the longest journey I have cycled alone, and the first through countries, with which I am not familiar. Operating frequently within the framework of large institutions, I am embarking on a personal research project with much fewer resources: I was nervous about approaching experts and advocates and requesting their precious time for a mere blogger. Most difficult for me was asking for the support of strangers and friends to fund this endeavor: a humble person at the core, for me, asking for people’s attention and support feels deeply uncomfortable. The combination of risks and discomfort made for many a sleepless night.
My only remedy has been my resolve is to do my very best and remain as nuanced and curious as possible in my exploration.
So why do this journey then? Why push my personal, physical and professional boundaries in one project?
I feel tremendous empathy for the refugees, who are fleeing Syria and wars we appear to think less off: Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, South Sudan, and Nigeria (a country, where I visited camps of displaced people.)
But how the debate about the migrants will play out on Europe’s shores also feels personal: Growing up as a child of Polish migrants in Germany, I was impacted by the attitudes people held of migrants and diversity. As a child I internalized some of the negative attitudes towards non-Germans. Only with time, I disentangled the messiness, and fully embraced both the parts of German culture I loved together and parts of Polish culture, of which I am proud.
Perhaps my own status as a child of two cultures made me more sensitive to those of similar fates: in the years since, living in 5 European countries, and the U.S., much of my working life has focused on minority rights and institutional protections of human rights and social inclusion. I grew to value the commitment I saw across many European countries to the welfare state, human dignity, and democracy- including restraint and oversight of institutions such as the police. I grew to love the burgeoning multi-culturalism I did witness. The Brexit may have been inspired in part by animosity towards the Poles. Yet, now, in Germany, hardly anyone thinks of me as a migrant anymore.
In a paradox, in my living memory, Europe by force of globalization has grown simultaneously more accustomed to diversity and witnessed the rise of right-wing groups and mainstream xenophobia. Now, under strain, both appear more acute: “the refugee crisis has brought into sharp relief deep ideological divides over views of minorities and diversity.”
Through this journey, I hope to assess, how and to what extent this manifests across the various countries,
As I get ready to embark on this journey, I am deeply grateful for the support I have received to date! I have encountered wonderful feedback, and constructive and engaging criticism. People have volunteered their time and funds to help me do this. The list of people, to whom I feel indebted, is long.
I want to personally mention at least a few: I am incredibly grateful to Chuck Harney and the wonderful mechanics at The Bike Rack, who made sure my bike is in the best shape it could be as a gift of good will: it’s with pride I will wear the beautiful jersey on my travels. Thank you to Kip Radt and the fabulous Kip Radt photograhy for the fantastic video, which tells the story of this project better than my writing could. I am deeply grateful to Alyssum Pohl from Paddle On, blogger and conscientious explorer herself, who has been an incredible resource for courage and planning. Finally, I want to thank the many members of the wonderful Humanity in Action network, which has opened doors to experts and advocates in the many cities.
As I embark, I will try to the degree possible write at least short updates. Stay tuned!