Cycling to Syria – Back in the Saddle!

In 2016 I embarked on the somewhat ambitious target of cycling from London to Syria, reporting on the refugee ‘crisis’ from the saddle of my bicycle. In 46 days, I got as far as Vienna, before rushing back to work on Foiled at the Edinburgh Festival. It was a busy summer!

I always said that I’d carry on the cycle some day. Well, some day has arrived. Continue reading Cycling to Syria – Back in the Saddle!

On the walls of Zollamtsstrasse refugee camp

Our journey along the storm-swollen Danube threads through castle-and-schnapps country into Austria. The further we cycle on this ride across the continent, the more we see how urgently Europe needs a plan, not only to cope with the influx of refugees from the Middle East and Africa, but to deal with widening social divisions that have little to do with migration. Continue reading On the walls of Zollamtsstrasse refugee camp

From containers to computers: the challenges of refugee integration in Germany

Since leaving London at the beginning of May, we’ve cycled about a thousand kilometres through England, France and Belgium, talking to residents and refugees about how their lives have been changed by migration.

It felt like France and Belgium (the less said about the UK the better) are socially and politically unable or unwilling to accept refugees wholeheartedly, but are trapped by international conventions into providing shelter and survival.

The result is an embarrassment for everyone: refugees packed away into buildings, containers or tents on the outskirts of towns and villages, with some eking out an uncertain existence in the asylum system for a decade or longer. Continue reading From containers to computers: the challenges of refugee integration in Germany

#34: Grandhotel Cosmopolis

Boutiques serve coffee and fine art, grafitti scratches the medieval walls and students sit cross-legged on the cobbled squares, drinking Radler and slurping ice creams. After another thunderstorm, we see a young man in a wet suit surfing the engorged canals.

Augsburg is exactly the sort of place you’d expect to find the Grandhotel Cosmopolis, where guests arrive with or without asylum. Continue reading #34: Grandhotel Cosmopolis

#25 Heidelberg Helps

Heidelberg feels less a town and more a university campus. Arriving from the industry laden north, we’re suddenly in the land of bicycles, scrubbed smiles and yoga mats. Heidelberg has a population of 150,000, a third of which are students. In the summer, they’re replaced man-for-man by tourists, gaggling in the cobbled streets, selfying under the Schloss and monkeying around with the Heidelberg baboon.
Continue reading #25 Heidelberg Helps

They Want Me to Fly Like a Bird: Travels in the Belgian Asylum System

A four year old sits on a double bunk bed, his legs tucked under, assiduously scrubbing his remote controlled car with a nail brush. His older brother is crosslegged in front of a small television, watching Japanese cartoons dubbed into Dutch. His father, ginger beard framing blue eyes, offers us tea.

We’re squatting on small square stools around a small square table in the small square room that father and his two sons temporarily call home.

Continue reading They Want Me to Fly Like a Bird: Travels in the Belgian Asylum System

Story of the Day #28: Refugee Hospitality

Hospitality is a funny game. After stopping at a roadside fruit and veg stand, we set up our Campingaz kitchen in Weissach town square. As C boils some eggs, a young man approaches. In broken German he asks us, ‘Why you cook here? I have kitchen. Come.’
Continue reading Story of the Day #28: Refugee Hospitality

Story of the Day #24: Industrial Germany

The stench should have been a clue. I couldn’t work out whether it was a really foul cesspit, or a really good cheese. Whatever it was, it was strong and it was wafting into our tent.

In the photographs, our camping spot under trees on the banks of the Rhine, water lapping feet away from our… feet, will look romantic. The reality was suffocating, as the effluent sloshed the sulphuric assault past the feeble defences of two lines of canvas.

The signs were clear. After a week of deer frolicking, river burbling, bird tweeting Teuton we were about to enter Industrial Deutschland.

And about time too. So far, I’d seen no evidence that Germans did anything to justify their reputation as Europe’s most productive nation other than their consumption of a prodigious amount of baked goods and ice cream.

The change was immediate and well coordinated, like when the school bell goes to end playtime and everyone starts belching noxious fumes into the air.

The only thing that I knew about Worms was that a treaty had been signed there in the eighteenth century. I assumed, therefore, that modernity had yet to arrive, as if a mention in a history book was sufficient to hold back the exploitation of saltpeter and the discovery of cement.

Scores of chemical laden lorries, a horizon pricked with chimneys, complexes cased in steel piping and a constant drizzle put paid to those ideas. There was even a warning that cyclists should wear helmets. We had breakfast in a graffiti spewed motorway underpass.

I suppose it’s all understandable: heavy industry demands a lot of water and the Rhine has been a faithful servant to the landlocked southwest.

But all is not lost for the passing tourist. On the other side of a four lane highway in the riverside town of Ludwigshafen sat an unmissable attraction, a must-see museum, a touristic temptress: the BASF Visitor Centre.

Ducking inside from the continuing drizzle, decked head to foot in Decathlon’s finest waterproofing and several local varieties of mud, we enjoy the appreciative attentions of a sixth form chemistry school trip. Ignoring the less politely stifled sniggers, we muster as much self-respect as the puddles under our feet will allow and present ourselves at the reception desk. ‘We are visitors and we are at the visitor centre. What happens now?’

What happened then was a very expensively assembled version of that bit in chemistry when your teacher tried to convince you that science was FUN. We learnt how to cook the perfect steak by exploiting the Maillard reaction, investigated the properties of cobalt with anti-radioactive gloves and set off a rocket by cleaving water into gaseous hydrogen and oxygen.

In among the fun and games, we learnt how BASF stands for Badische Anilin and Soda Fabrik (I even had a glass of soda water) and how BASF Ludwigshafen is the world’s largest integrated chemical complex, with over 2000 buildings covering 10sqkm. Their overground piping, arranged more creatively, could carry soda water from here to Seville.

We could watch archive footage of their history and swish interactive interfaces over their future as BASF heroically struggle with balancing the needs of the economy, the environment and society.

As we enviously watched a gaggle of US students (what were they doing there??) cooing over a console that showed you what you might look like with different hair styles, I started to wonder whether there was more to this outing than a three minute steak and a cut and blow dry.

A lot of money had been spent on this visitor centre. It had even won awards for its creativity. But there was something else in the air: not quite the gangrenous lung-stopper that accompanied our slumbers, but something not quite freshened by the fancy display panels and interactive modules. The faint but unmistakeable smell of greenwash.

The School Bus Project, Calais

One of the beautiful things about this bike ride is that we can connect places to places and people to people. In Whitstable we spoke to Shernaz, an active organiser of support going from that part of the world to Calais and beyond. She told us that, while in Calais, we must visit Kate McAllister, who works on an educational project there. So two days of cycling later, that’s exactly what we did.
Continue reading The School Bus Project, Calais

Grande-Synthe & Calais: Compare and Contrast

The Grande-Synthe migrant camp in Dunkirk is to the Calais jungle as Milton Keynes is to London. Where Calais is only now having order imposed on a meandering medieval street plan, Grande-Synthe has been ordered from conception to execution. The result is that the two migrant communities could not feel more different. Continue reading Grande-Synthe & Calais: Compare and Contrast

Conversations in Calais

We are currently holed up in Petite Fort Philippe, equidistant from both Calais and Dunkirk, home to two of the largest migrant camps in Northern France. Yesterday we visited Calais, my first trip back there since the mass demolitions that have devastated the bustling shanty town. Continue reading Conversations in Calais

Cycling Towards Syria: Days 1-3

I’m writing this sitting on the beach front in Calais. A mother and two small children are scootched in the sand, and footprints mark where they’ve been playing. The wind and the waves come across the Channel from England. We’ve been pulling together a bench lunch, interrupted by an Englishman complaining about wogs and A-rabs, insistent on leaving the EU, while registering his van in Serbia for cheaper car insurance.
Continue reading Cycling Towards Syria: Days 1-3

Cycling to(wards) Syria

This May, I shall set off on a 3,000 mile bicycle tour, following the routes of migration from the safe refuge of London to the bombed-out streets of Syria. [footnote]Don’t worry: safety is my first priority. I am fully expecting never to reach Syria, but that is my destination of the mind.[/footnote]

Along the way, I shall be collecting stories direct from the mouths of migrants, aid workers, government officials and local residents, using each interview to inform the course of the journey, and sharing these stories with as wide an audience as I can, in written word, photography, audio, and video.

Continue reading Cycling to(wards) Syria