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Thursday, July 31, 2014

Then and Now

The official start of 'Cycling to Syria' was one year ago today. By 0821 in the morning-- the time I am writing this-- I had been cycling for some 30 minutes. I was pedaling hard after spending three weeks in Montecchio Precalcino with Sabina and her family. They had risen early to see me off, and there had been a little 'cutting the ribbon' ceremony, and Sabina had given me half of the ribbon to put on my bike to carry all the way to Syria. I had tied the green ribbon to my headtube, and it flapped noisily in the wind.

Roberto and Sabina one year ago today, in Montecchio Precalcino, just before I cycled away

By the end of that first day I'd cycled some 120 kilometers and felt that I'd overdone it, and the next day I cycled another 140 kilometers just to make sure I'd overdone it. I made my way back to Milan, then into Switzerland and through San Gottardo Pass in the Alps. I cycled towards Paris to meet a friend-- Brad-- who was going to cycle with me, but as it turned out, we never hooked up. I cycled on to Antwerp to meet another friend who I thought might like to go as far as Istanbul with me, but she had other plans. When I left Antwerp, finally heading towards Syria instead of away from it, I reconsidered what I was doing.

The seed of the idea had come to me when I'd been in Antakya, near the Syrian border several months earlier. I had wanted to do something to help Syrian refugees who had fled to Turkey because of the war, but I had been on the road and on my way to Palestine and Egypt. Once in Egypt I'd been stranded for a few months, and I had no idea where to go or what to do next. A friend in the US helped me to get back to Milan, but it was only when my friend in Antwerp agreed that we could cycle to Istanbul that I thought of making a cycling trip all the way back to the Syrian border to raise money for victims of the war there.

I was excited. I had a new plan-- a goal to work towards-- a raison d' etre. When Brad also agreed to cycle with me, I envisioned a fulfilling journey by bike back to Turkey, with a group that had grown to four people, and with the added benefit of raising money for a good cause.

But after a month cycling to Antwerp, waiting there for another month, and then heading into Germany alone and without having raised any money at all for Syria, I felt that I was on a mission of futility. I was still pushing forward-- hope and vitality are antidotes to despair-- but I was cycling to Syria at this point mainly because I had nowhere else to go.

Then I met Elke...


Though I stopped cycling last October, I hadn't given up on 'Cyling to Syria'. I thought it might be better to organize things a bit now that I was off the road. I thought it might be better to get more people involved-- people who were interested in raising money for the victims of a war, and people who were interested in cycling for that purpose. As it turned out, now that I was stationary and stable, people found me, most notably Lien.

Lien is a Belgian student who has decided to take a break from school and take on the bigger challenge of cycling across Europe and all the way to the Syrian border to raise money for Syria Relief and Development ( She has already cycled most of the way from Belgium to Valencia, and we cycled together for a couple of days in Belgium. Lien has become the driving force behind 'Cycling to Syria', and because it has become something new over the past 10 months, we've re-named it 'Syricipede.' We now have a website:
and a much better fundraising platform:
If you take a look, you will see that we have already raised over $1000, and you will see the others who have joined our fundraising team. You will also see that a friend of Lien's-- Lore-- has been the driving force behind the fundraising.

Me and Lien, after cycling from Liege to Aachen

Lien's enthusiasm has attracted others who have their own strengths and a team has been built that can really achieve something. Cynics were my biggest obstacle when I walked for peace to the Middle East, and after being unable to deliver the petitions I had carried for over 6000 kilometers, and after I had failed to raise any money or real interest on my cycling journey to Syria, I was beginning to feel a little cynical myself. But Lien helped to change that. 

The plan hasn't materialized quite as well as we had hoped though. We'll be starting Syricipede in two days, on August 2nd, from Brussels, but without the interest of the media despite our efforts to publicize things. Three of us will cycle out of Brussels towards Cologne on the first leg of the journey-- Lien and an intrepid world-trekking cyclist named Sirapon, from Thailand, will join me-- but after Cologne there may be a huge gap in the relay. Again, despite our efforts, we've got no one at this point to cycle from Cologne to Slovenia. But no matter. In Slovenia Lien and her fundraising friend Lore will pick up the trail and cycle all the way through the Balkans, into Turkey, and right to the Syrian border. In the meantime, I'll be providing all the support I can from Germany, fundraising, tracking their progress, reporting it, and arranging hosts.

Tomorrow I take the train with my bike to Brussels, and the next day the journey to Syria will begin again. Lien, Lore, and Sirapon will be the cyclists now, and dozens of people will help them along the way, and by helping them they'll also be helping people in desperate, unimaginable need.

And Lien will be carrying the green ribbon that Sabina gave me one year ago in Montecchio Precalcino.

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