24 hours after my country announced (neither for the first time, nor the last I’m afraid) that 10 refugee families pose such a dramatic threat to the lives of 38 million Poles that we cannot cope with it, I got fed by a refugee woman who fled Syria. I was also welcomed by a group of warm-hearted Austrians, one slightly disconcerted city mayor and an Iraqi family. It happened in a little town, somewhere not far from Vienna and there were no dramatic twists of events to feed your imagination. However, we celebrate anger, malice and brutal force far to often, so I wanted to give you my account of two days spent on Civil March for Aleppo, when we went back to walk with them through Austria. It is a simple story of human kindness, about crazy heroes and simple acts that mean so much. I am not going to try to convince you to join Civil March for Aleppo (at least not this time). I just want to remind you that people are often generous, open-minded and magnanimous. I hope you’ll smile at least once.
Ulchriskirchen is a small town I don’t know anything about. At least I didn’t, when we walked through a snowy countryside of Niederösterreich with a bunch of people from all around Europe. It was Saturday and we were walking slowly, stopping to build snowmen, drinking sweet, warm tea and talking about the question of the day — proposed in the morning and subject to discussion in the evening. That Saturday it was about non-violent ways of responding to violence — a fascinating subject to be honest. The town, as many little towns do, had an old church, a couple of shops, and S-Bahn to Vienna leaving every hour or so. Citizens of Ulrichskirchen knew almost as little about our group as we did about the town. And yet, once they learned about the Civil March walking through their village, they offered help. And help they did. We have been greeted, offered a warm place to sleep in a very nice sports hall with a spacious bathroom and a washing machine.
To digress only a little: Peace marches are quite impractical in one regard: White flags get dirty all the time and washing them on the way through Europe is a tricky task! But back to Ulrichskirchen — it’s not a fairy-tale, don’t get me wrong, there were people who opposed bringing in a bunch of crazy people, walking through Europe, to demand peace for Syria. There were those who just minded their own business on that day, and yet — there were also those who said “We are going to invite them here. Period.” or something along these lines (in German). As a result a group of primary school teachers and other community members, together with their families, prepared a dinner for us. A dinner that seemed like a feast. They’ve made traditional Austrian salads I’ve only eaten once in my life (in a park in Rome prepared by an Austrian friend). They’ve prepared three brownies, two more chocolate cakes, and a divine Apfelstrudel. They even brought us mulled wine. But that is not all. Two families that had been forced to flee their countries of origin (respectively Syria and Iraq) decided to join us and brought food with them as well. They prepared the best hummus I’ve eaten in my life and plenty more of other delicious things.
Why do I bother with enumerating different dishes and talking about food so much, you may ask. Because when you are walking outside for hours; when it’s cold; when you’re far away from home and you are a guest in a foreign country — being offered a plate of warm food is the best thing that can happen. It’s very basic response to your basic needs and it’s the most humane and sympathetic thing you can do for a traveler. We were complete strangers to them. We were people showing up on a last-minute notice, marching for a goal which is sometimes hard to grasp. And they came to welcome us, they listened, they asked and they hugged us. And we were grateful. As heart-warming as this particular welcome has been, it is what the Marchers encounter along the way. People in small towns and bigger cities embrace the idea of peace and the March. They embrace and welcome the travelers and show them these simple acts of kindness and solidarity. There is a real Europe of welcoming, good people that is still out there, no matter what the news programme says. Which is why the evening in Ulchriskirchen was … as ordinary as they get on a pacifist marches through Europe.
I’ve talked to a young woman who is an artist, a writer, a teacher and is one of the volunteers for a German course created by this community for the refugees they took in. She told me how happy she was to meet new people joining their community and moving into the town.
I’ve talked to an elderly lady who took in a young refugee boy and come over to support us. She didn’t speak English but she wanted to be part of the evening anyway.
I’ve talked to a Turkish boy who studies robotics, did his Erasmus in Poland and now is finishing his internship in Vienna. He wanted to show his support for the idea. I also talked to his tutor who is a great fan of couchsurfing and had visited Poland not that long ago before we met. He brought back home tales of how Poland had taken in so many refugees from Ukraine that we cannot afford accepting anybody else. Let me assure you, the rest was not silence.
I’ve talked to a Peruvian young man who has lived there for the past couple of month and who came to greet us with his little boy and his wife. He was passionate, he was angry about the injustice in the world, and yet he was there discussing the future of Europe and South America. I think he was curious about the marchers and that he wanted to meet other revolutionary minds that are hungrier and faster then most. I’m also not sure if he found any that night.
I’ve talked to a woman who came with her husband and their little daughter, whose school we were staying in that night. Poor girl was unlucky enough to be seated next to me, a person with with knowledge of German allowing me to ask for time and say where I’m from. I’ve actually failed to ask her name because I was slightly worried the 8-year-old might have asked something back and leave me speechless. Poor thing… Her parents told us first-hand a story of Austrian presidential elections, repeated over and over with so many blunders, that OSCE actually placed their observers to make sure they were not in danger of making any more mistakes. They voted six times, to finally choose a (green) president, that brought so much hope to many people yearning for an open Europe. So just imagine: so much voting, so much time lost (almost a year) and guess whose picture hangs proudly on a wall in the main hall of the school. Yup. The previous president.
The little town of Ulchrischirchen has a very special place. The citizens call it a peace pyramid, which is a very generous name (at least so far) because the monument itself does not impress the viewer with its size. It does, however, have a fascinating story. Sometime, somewhere, amidst the terrors of the World War, a young wounded Austrian soldier lay in a hole in a ground dug up by an explosion. Fearful and desperate he prayed to God for survival and promised that, should he make it home intact, he would build a monument, for peace. The boy became a man, and a man became a priest who served in Ulchriskirchen for almost 50 years. Together with some young people from the village they gathered stones (in a region where they are not that easy to be found) and built a pyramid, to be an homage and a wish for a peaceful future. The place they chose was not a coincidence either. Overlooking the village, a minute away from a very pleasant viewing point with Vienna in sight, the spot has also another meaning. In 1805 in a battle of Wagram, that is close by, Napoleon fought the Austrians. The battle, as they usually are, was messy and fatal for many. The numerous wounded were cared for in a castle in Ulchriskirchen, and the dead were buried on top of a hill. Together. The French along with the Austrians, finally and tragically resting in peace.
As of early 2017, the pyramid stands slightly taller now. It is mostly thanks to Wolfgang, one of the teachers, who by the way probably destroyed his own garden in order to bring us some stones so we could participate in building this monument of peace. We happily accepted the offer and carried the rocks to this one special spot, on top of the hill, where people have been thinking about peace and war for over two centuries.
So this is my story. It’s just a little stone in that pyramid we could build together. In big cities, in small towns and in a march joining them all. Wiser because of our turbulent past, and hopeful for the future. We are all human.
For more information about Civil March for Aleppo go to www.civilmarch.org.