How a Polish activist created the Civil March for Aleppo

In December 2016, a group of Europeans -- sick and tired of helplessly watching the war in Syria online -- set off to march from Berlin to Aleppo. Recently, the initiative was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Ada Petriczko
Ada Petriczko NewsMavens, Poland
How a Polish activist created the Civil March for Aleppo - NewsMavens
Anna Alboth. Eastnews.pl

Why this story matters:

The Syrian civil war had been going on for 6 years when Anna Alboth, Polish journalist and activist, wrote on Facebook: “What if we all just go there?”. The idea was simple: to walk into the directions of the bombs, instead of turning away from them.

It turned out that she was not alone. Three weeks later, several hundred people joined her in Berlin to show solidarity with Syrians and raise awareness. For the next 8.5 months, they walked every day, sometimes 40 km a day, in snow and extreme heat. On the way, they spoke to as many people as possible about peace. They also documented the crisis as they went, e.g. the hidden graveyards of the refugees on Lesbos.

To an anonymous American professor, who has nominated the initiative for the most prestigious peace award in the world, the march was a refutal of what science knows about compassion. The professor has researched the psychology of human aid for 60 years and believed that compassion declines as the number of victims grows. It is much easier to feel empathy for a single person than an entire nation. The march defied his beliefs.

More than anything else, however, The Civil March For Aleppo proved the power of grassroots activism and the value of low threshold of participation.

The march was apolitical and inclusive of people from all belief systems. Participants were even invited to join just for a few hours or a day, which made it possible for anyone to take part and show solidarity.

Still, many questioned the purport of the initiative. What tangible benefit did it bring to the refugees? The war is still going on, they argued. Is there a point in giving hope when you have nothing else to give? And how can you measure the amount of people that the march motivated to changing their worldview and undertaking real action, instead of just hashtag activism?

Alboth was also criticized as a mother. Some had a problem with the fact that her two daughters stayed in Berlin with her husband. Others disparaged the fact that from time to time, the girls walked with Anna. In Poland, where the traditional model of the family prevails, a mother who prioritizes something over her children still causes controversy. Even if that “something” is peace.

If Alboth was a man, would she have faced similar accusations?

In a recent feature, she commented on this:

“There were people who told me bluntly that I'm stupid for walking to Aleppo with my daughters. That war is no place for children. "I know and that's why we’re doing it," I replied. "Because there are too many children in this war."

Details from the story:

  • The Civil March For Aleppo began on December 26, 2016 in Berlin. It lasted 232 days and finished on August 14, 2017 at the Syrian Border in Lebanon. The marchers walked the inverted Balkan Route undertaken by the majority of refugees from the Middle East.
  • 3,500 marchers from 62 countries took part. The biggest group came from Poland. The Poles claimed that it was their way of overcoming the shame they felt when their government refused to welcome refugees from Syria.
  • Only five people walked the entire way, including Anna Alboth.
  • The marchers slept in schools, churches, mosques and community buildings.
  • It was the largest initivative for Syria worldwide organized by non-Syrians.
  • In June 2018, it was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. However, the organizers hope that they will not receive the award, because they believe that there are other initiatives more worthy of it.
  • In a Facebook post, they wrote: "The war and suffering in Syria are still continuing. Over half a million people have died in the conflict in Syria since its outbreak in 2011. (…) Over 5.6 million people have fled Syria since 2011, seeking safety in Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan and beyond. The humanitarian impact of the Syria crisis remains deep and far-reaching, with the population exposed to significant protection risks. As per the 2018 HNO, some 13.1 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance.”
  • Hence, the organizers have asked people to support the following organizations: Syrian Civil Defence -- the White Helmets, Syrian Network for Human Rights, SOS Mediterranee, Mosaik Support Center, Lesvos Solidarity -- Pikpa, Syrian Child Protection Network, Shami Syrian CSOs Coalition, Malaak.
  • Anna Alboth engaged in helping refugees before she created the march. The Alboth family welcomed refugees in their Berlin home -- one of whom stayed with them for two years. They invited three single men (from Syria, Afghanistan and Montenegro), because that is the group that find it the hardest to receive shelter. Alboth also collected sleeping bags and other necessary commodities for refugees in Berlin.
  • Together with her husband Thomas, Anna Alboth runs a blog and authored a book "Family Without Borders”.
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