(a lecture transcrit)
Immigrant and citizens, thank you for being here and letting me wash your feet. With this small gesture, let us commemorate the plight of people who cross borders on foot.
Look at these birds – always on the move across the earth, the concept of border is unknown to them. They are ceaselessly searching for food or a place to rest or lay their eggs.
I want to express some of my views on walking, searching and on finding place.
Let us now look at images of people walking and attempting to cross borders in search of a new home.
These people are mostly from Syria, and some are from Afghanistan and other places of conflict in Middle East. These images started appearing in Western media once the migrant influx climaxed in the Keleti train station in Budapest. Thousands of people started arriving daily and the trains could not accommodate them – the authorities shut down the trains to Western Europe while the EU was trying to understand whether it can accept these migrants.
I spent the past year living in Hungary, and would pass by that train station, now flooded with people, regularly. In Hungary, I participated in the opposition conversation, and a topic of discussion was the policy towards migrants and Orban’s plans to build a fence. Now these plans have come to reality.
Google Maps traces a direct route from Syria to Hungary – it is 2700 km. Many people have walked from Syria on foot. Many have first gone to Turkey, a Muslim country, and from there they went to the Greek Island Lesbos, and then a ferry to the Greek mainland. From Greece they started walking. Information about the routes is exchanged online and in forums, and it is easy to get a smuggler to get you from place to place. However, the likelihood of death in these cases is high.
Take a look at this map.
From Lesbos Island (between Turkey and Greece) to Budapest it is 1400 km. The images of the “river of migrants” started appearing this August, however, given the distance, most of these people have been on the road for 6 months or so. What is it like to walk for 6 months straight?
Then we see images with a fence, these are from Hungary, where the fence was erected on Aug 31, 2015. We also see a train station, Keleti, in Budapest, where thousands were stranded because they stopped the trains to Austria and Germany. These people are in unclean condition – many of these people have been sleeping on the street for weeks. It is curious for me how little they have with them- a plastic bag, a small backpack. Where are the rest of their things? have they been lost or stolen? Have they abandoned them along the way as they lost their value and gained weight?
There were instances of true hospitality in Budapest and then, in Western Europe. These were donations of shoes, food, diapers, and welcome signs in Germany. My university in Budapest organized a program to allow migrants to audit courses. These instances are very heartwarming.
I have become obsessed with these images, because to me they show the limit of our humanity. Humanity is something that has to be recognized in the other, it is not a given. It is dangerous not to recognize the humanity in others, because it is through this rejection that concentration camps are erected.
This plight is also personal for me, I feel inscribed in it. I am a citizen of Estonia and am myself a migrant and an immigrant. My mother and I left Estonia for America to search for a better life. I have a greencard. My life is filled with a constant negotiation between citizenship, residence, place and home.
While I was living in Hungary, my US Greencard was being sent to me, but it was lost in the mail and my Estonian passport was expiring. I had to prove my identity while not being in the country where I am a citizen or resident. In these cases, you have to be present in the place that you “belong” to retrieve these documents. Finally the Hungarian embassy in Budapest agreed to issue me a stamp that said that i am a US alien resident and am able to board the plane to America. This experience was very shocking for me, separating place and home, citizenship and residence, identity and belonging and making them something that you have to prove.
I am here but am not from here. I am trying to go home, but I am not a citizen in that place, and where I am a citizen I am also an occupier, an oppressor. Between the stamp I received in Hungary, I felt an affinity to the stamp you get as a migrant. As a migrant, you have to stay in the place where you are “stamped” because you then belong to that countries’ refugee policy.
I eventually made it to America. I did not have to swim across the Atlantic. When the Budapest authorities refused to board the people on the trains to Austria, these people decided to walk. Thousands of people walking on the highway. From Budapest to Vienna it is approximately 250 km on the highway. I have made that trip several times last year. I don’t know what its like to walk 3000 or 1400 km, but I walked 200 km- 50 km less- this summer over the course of ten days.
Before coming to Santa Fe, I did a pilgrimage on foot to Santiago de Compostela. It is a city in Spain with the relics of St James and one of the most popular pilgrimages in the world. About 300,000 people do it a year for different reasons. 300,000 is a small city, a number equally unfathomable as the number of migrants crossing Europe now. 300,000 people going to Santiago de Compostela from all around the world. Hundreds of thousands walking from Syria to Western Europe.
I want to tell you about my experience in relation to the “pilgrimage” of the migrants across Europe.
You can start the pilgrimage from anywhere in the world, but the official “yellow arrows and shells” – the mark of the camino- start at 500 km from Santiago. I walked 200 km from Porto, Portugal to Santiago.
You try to prepare for the journey, but nothing can really prepare you for how heavy your backpack will start to feel, or how many blisters you will get – I’ve seen people’s feet that look like raw meat. In any church, you can get a pilgrim’s passport – a document that you use to mark your journey. Each destination- church, cafes, albergos can stamp the passport for you. Along the way there is accommodation for pilgrims which is “donation based”- just a mat without bedding – and in the busy months, these fill up, so after reaching your destination, you might have to sleep outside or continue walking. Some firefighters, police stations, etc accommodate pilgrims.
71 decomposing bodies were found in a truck on the highway between Hungary and Austria. The wonderful thing about the camino, is that everything feels like it is happening for the best, and it has meaning as long as you follow the arrows – you might get lost and end up in a monastery with monks singing evening prayers who feed you a warm meal.
People tell you stories about miracles – many people come because there was a death or an illness that cut through their life, and they come to come to terms, to find meaning and their path. People understand that life itself is a journey – a migration. We are all displaced until we find our place in the world.
I’ve heard incredible stories of miracles and people’s lives being changed. The camino has an economy outside of capitalism. People are generous in a new way, and open their hearts to you, but also look for a gift they can give you – they look and listen to see if there is something they might be able to do for you. I gave a pair of shoes to a girl, people constantly exchange socks, water, food, someone passing me by on a mountain gave me his walking sticks. A woman gave me her pilgrim’s shell and told me to put it in the water for her, since she had an injury and would not be able to go on to Santiago.
I’ve seen people carry other people.
I crossed a border on foot between Portugal and Spain by simply showing my pilgrim’s walking stick and the custom’s officers shouting at me “Bon Camino!”. People along the way waving at me, smiling, offering me water. No one ever asks where I am from, or what I do for a job – they just ask you “Where did you start?” and “What do you need?”
In Santiago, you use your passport to get a spot in a massive palace – it is a former seminary that can accommodate thousands of pilgrims. A luxury for one night. You recognize people you have seen at different part of your journey, embrace, cry and exchange stories. You feel part of a community, and through that, you feel part of the world.
I hope that the people walking through Hungary felt the power of their journey, exchanged food and made real friends.
I walked 200 km. My most memorable experience was of a man who washed my feet. He told me his story in the course of two days, about being molested as a child by his mother, then having inability to speak to people until late twenties, then becoming involved in radical movements and being a terrorist in the Middle East against the American presence there- he was shot at, had friends die, and spent time in prison. After he got out, he wanted to be a farmer, and so he became a farmer and a hunter in Sweden for 10 years. During this time, he went in the camino, walking for a month. When he reached Santiago, he realized that he can’t go back, and he flew to Sweden, sold his farm, and started walking from Sweden- it took his 6 months. Along this 6 months, he felt for first time that he had a place in the world, and he realized he can talk to birds. This man also told me that each day that he walks, he gets happier and happier. He is now living on the camino.
Who doesn’t have the right to have this experience of searching and belonging?
Most of all, I witnessed the potential of humanity blossom when a person finds their place.
I returned to Budapest to fly to America amidst this migrant crisis, which separates self from other, mine from yours. We live in a world that thinks that we don’t have enough, and we trace borders and capitalism helps us do that. For a short time, I experienced what is it like to be without borders and what generosity is, and it was hard for me to come back to this world. I witnessed a parallel, best possible world. Having returned, I have faith that through giving we receive.
Here is an image of the shoes of migrants, abandoned somewhere in Eastern Europe and the shoes of pilgrims in the seminary in Santiago.
I wanted to end with a prayer to St Francis, the saint who lived in poverty, gave everything away to charity and who talked to birds. Birds are a powerful symbol for me, because they are the epitome of migration. They circle around the earth, dismissing all borders always searching for a better place to eat and rest. I recall the image of Pope Francis washing the feet of migrants, and the prayer comes from the St Francis Cathedral in Santa Fe. These small things make me feel like I belong here.
“Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy.
O, Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love; For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; it is in dying that we are born again to eternal life”.