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(No) Heroes

Our Walkers, the people who did the second Walk of Shame, did not aspire to be heroes. The inspired decision to ‘go on the Walk’ is more nuanced. They did not fall into the trap of ‘trying to be with them at their level’ because our Walkers understand the reality of people on the move – they realise how privileged they (the Walkers) are to be just visitors. They did not aspire to be journalists nor to hand out food or other necessities. Other NGOs do all that. All our Walkers want to do is meet people on the move: to listen, chat, and find common ground. Each Walker connects in their own way to create meetings person to person, without the distance that our political unjust inequality appears to create in between us. We are all humans. Hence the goal #rehumanisation.

They do not go as heroes but as humans. Some of our Walkers were scared of the reaction from people back home: would they judge us for trying to be heroes? That’s why most of the Walkers prefer to be anonymous. Even though this anonymity makes it harder to share their (Walkers and people in the move) stories.

Anna doesn’t mind sharing her name. She has been volunteering with refugees for many years, writing her own blog. She loves to engage more people to take the step, the ‘leap’ we might even call it, to start caring.

“The heroism is in humility,” Anna said. When asked, she explained how courageous it is to be vulnerable and open. She told me about one of the other Walkers, F, who met people on the move for the first time. He has been working with homeless people, many of whom are immigrants. But people who are still moving, in the struggle of arriving in a safe country, are just another category. He decided, within a day, to join the Walk of Shame after reading one of Anna’s articles. “He had such a beautiful attitude. It was his first experience with people on the move and he yearned to gain insight into their reality. He was new, which was refreshing for me: he was like a brand new baby, he had all kinds of questions and emotions. I saw something amazing happening inside him. He was super humble and humbled at the same time. F started questioning his own life.”

When F was back home, he could not sleep in his own bed for two nights. “How can I be in this bed?” he asked. He started comparing his own life, his fate, with that of people on the move. That can be a crazy mindfuck. Last year, when I contacted the project Walk of Shame. I also experienced these feelings but from afar distance; from behind my laptop I cared, I felt guilty and ashamed and found it onerous to close the computer and watch a movie on Netflix. I found it impossible to decide: “This is enough input, enough bad news.” How can I care about something trivial, like buying a new bed for my child, while others sleep on the ground?”

So, our Walker F was still going through this existential crisis while meeting and living with people on the move for six full days. After never really thinking about it deeply before, it must have been a shock. He knew about immigration, sure, but this time he was making friends with them. And keeping in touch with some of the people on the move. That touched him the most.

After the Walk, a huge wave of sadness hit F. “Before this, I was kind of a happy guy,” he said, “but now I know. Before I didn’t know. I choose not to be oblivious anymore. Now I know and can not go back. And it hurts. I suffer.”

Anna and Zied

Anna adds: “The brave thing he did was, he let himself be touched deeply.” She explains why it is actually so hard to do. “When you are open, you can get hurt. It makes you vulnerable. I spent two full days with Zied, my new friend who is still on the move. We knew him already but after spending time together, the bond gets deeper, so it can also hurt more. It was so painful to see him going back to that camp, after we said our goodbyes. He’s a young man with so much to give. He’s a philosopher and a historian, he knows so much more about the history of Europe than any of us, and he is still learning. He brings such wealth. One day he will write a book, I told him that. But now he is stuck in the camp and we care about him. It’s okay to be sad though. It’s part of the experience.”

Adil, another good friend – on the move – told us about the time he went on the Game when he, again, got caught at the border of Serbia-Romania. This time he was even sent to prison. The man who helped him to cross the border, by car, was not a ruthless people-smuggler but a priest, a friend who tried to help him, for free. Adil had met this priest when he got kicked out from the refugee camp in Sarajevo. The priest took him in. Together, they planned to go to Italy. Sadly, Adil got transferred back to Slovenia and thrown in jail. The volunteers in the Walk of Shame project worried as they could not reach him. Then, after 10 days Adil suddenly turned up again, released from jail. The priest, however, had spent two months in jail, accused of being a smuggler. After being released, he got in touch with Adil again and gave him money. When asked how he felt being in prison, the priest said: “These people are my mission.” He was not upset. He considered his jail time an opportunity.

Anna tells me he would love to meet him. “I recognise his attitude,” she said. “His openness feels religious and even reminds me of Gandhi. You know, when Gandhi lost his shoe on a train, he threw off his other shoe as well.The logic behind it is that whoever finds the one shoe, may find the second one too… It’s indeed an example of true selflessness.” The priest in prison makes me think about Mandela. After he was locked up for 27 years, he did not hold onto his anger towards his enemies. Instead, he was more convinced that non-violence was the only way forward. Staying open, despite the harm done.

The real heroes are the people who dare to be open, like F, especially the victims, people who experienced pain, who suffered injustice, yet succeed to remain open. People who do not start to hate as a result. That’s heroic. Amongst the flood of migrants, there may be many. Most (if not all) of them suffered incredible trauma but some, like Adil or Tawab in camp Moria in Lesbos, may have found a source of hope and even love. After finding hope and love, they pay it forward by giving, caring, and shining. All this pain did not close them up. If that’s possible, why are so many of us Europeans closed up? Did we suffer too? Or do we need a proper look beyond our closed world? I deeply wish something will break down more of our walls.

I’m reminded of that border patrol officer who pushed back Adil. The officer was gracious and polite. He apologised for his boss who was shouting at them, saying “he’s a bit crazy.” Adil translated what was being said to the rest of his group. The officer told Adil: “I understand, it’s a hard life and you have been walking for a long time, but it’s our job to protect the borders.”’ The officers didn’t check Adil and his group fully this time and the man said: “We can’t help you, only God can.” He meant it as an excuse, almost sounding like he apologised. When Adil showed him a bottle of his dirty drinking water, the man said: “It looks like the second world war.” The officer understood he was in this awful situation playing his role, unwillingly perhaps. He couldn’t show mercy by letting them enter. And, after Adil told him that he was exhausted as this was the tenth time he tried to cross a border the man replied: “God tests the person he loves the most.” He was a religious man, orthodox Christian. He promised Adil: “You will have your chance, but when, only God knows.” What I hear in this anecdote are two people playing their parts: guard and so-called ‘illegal migrant’, while creating a relationship where one comforts the other, apologises and creates hope. He was friendly towards Adil, stepping outside of this role he was meant to play. He was not fully hiding behind his ‘guard’ mask, but showed his humanity. The guard was open to meet on a human level.

This openness might be scary, it makes you feel vulnerable, because by caring you may get hurt. And that’s why openness makes you a hero.

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