Pedal for Peace
Is there anything in common with Lebanon, Syria, Palestine and small, idyllic and demilitarized islands of Åland that are located between Finland and Sweden?
Not much, one could say. Except from time to time they are filled with laughter, sweat, big ideas, courage, some more laughter – and women on bicycles. Who are talking about peace.
In late August of 2017, 50 women – and one dog – professionals from different political levels of peace mediation, education and prevention gathered in Turku, a harbor city in Western Finland to start a five-day journey into the stunning archipelago of Finland and into each other’s ideas, political settings and methodologies in peace building.
These fifty women were coming from Palestine, Jordan, Columbia, England,Scotland, Lebanon, France, Ireland, Germany, Serbia, Slovenia, Portugal, Romania, Armenia, Georgia and Finland. It was time to get out of the seminar rooms to the open air and get exposed to each other’s thinking, millions of bloodthirsty mosquitoes, freedom of rolling movement and the safety, that only peers can offer for persons, whose daily work is more standing against than going along. It was time to start Pedalling for Peace.
Sharing ideas for the future world
The main idea of the cycling peace seminar, organized by the Peace Education Institute Finland (RKI), was to take strong professionals out of their working rooms in different parts of the world, get them together and give them time to connect. This would not only support participant’s professional capacity and well-being, but also offer a space, where ideas for future projects on sustainable peace could be born. As Riikka Jalonen, the primus motor of the event and Executive Director of RKI putit: “One of the strongest indicators for the success of the seminar is the amount of revolutions of love and sustainable peace in the world in future”.
Jalonen has been working with peace education, non-formal education and youth work for more than 20 years. For a while already, she had been thinking of those women she had met in different work settings having wow-moments: wow that person is doing a lot, or wow, there’s a lot of capacity and competence in certain organisations or individuals. She thought if it would be possible to bring all these people together and have the space to connect, more great initiatives would come about.
Pedal for Peace wasn’t Jalonen’s idea alone. The event is an affiliate to a UK-based charity network called Follow the Women, which has been organising peace rides in the Middle East since2004. Shortly after the attacks in Iraq, and following the political rhetoric on the axis of evil, Detta Regan, the founder of Follow the Women, had had enough. For years she had pondered on how it would be possible to draw attention to Palestine and the Middle East in a positive way.
After travelling in Lebanon with her daughter, she came up with an idea that if she would cycle with hundreds of women from Lebanon to the West Bank through Syria, it would definitely be something different.
“Follow the women was just a crazy idea
I had 13-14 years ago. In the beginning,
I really wanted to take people to Palestine.
I had also had this idea of women on the bikes
and I thought: women on bikes in the Middle East
would definitely attract media.
It would be different.”
Self care is a political act
There are several reasons why Pedal for Peace happened in Åland, Jalonen explains: “I’m an educator, peace activist and an organizer of events and trainings. One of the lessons I have learned through 20 years of organising different non-formal education activities is that all of the most important things happen outside of the plenary. The connection with the people, the new ideas and the click moments, when you realise: we can do this.”
It was also about supporting women who work in challenging settings: “It’s not only Trump or Brexit or whatever is happening in Finland at the moment. Racism, chauvinism and hate speech are putting a lot of peace activists down in general. Often the message is that activism isn’t a part of the real life or world. So, I thought we need to create a safe space, where no one is saying that what you do is stupid or, it sounds ok, but you know how the reality is different. We didn’t want to have these voices to put people down. And when I say people, I mean women.”
As feminist writer and civil rights activist, Audre Lorde puts it: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”
It doesn’t matter if you are working in Colombia, Finland or Georgia. Sara Christina Lara Gonzales, a human rights coordinator for the Lutheran Church of Colombia, says that “You aren’t going to have the same attention, when you speak as a woman. Sometimes your life doesn’t even have a value. It’s hard to leave the house and try to change the world as a woman in Colombia. You are going to get pointed out and people make fun of you. Your life may be at risk, because there are many ways women can be broken, and they find those ways. But we know, we are together, we support each other and we feel safe, when we are together.”
And at the bottom of it, there’s the political struggle. Peace wouldn’t be possible without the participation of half of the world’s population, as Gonzales points out: “In peace building, women’s role is crucial. In Colombia, we have studies that say the peace wouldn’t be possible without women. Without us. Women are the ones who bring together the whole community. The community wouldn’t exist without women, who bring people together and find those solutions where everybody can agree.”
Åland – Palestine
Before starting to put Pedal for Peace together,
Jalonen was thinking that one of the best peace training activities
she had ever participated in was cycling from Beirut, Lebanon
to Ramallah, Palestine in 2008 with Regan’s Follow the Women ride:
“There were 300 women and we cycled and we talked.
We went to refugee camps and we went to visit different NGOs on our way.
We met communities in different villages and there were a lot of this
very important, informal connection happening with people.
And almost 10 years later I wanted to create that space in Finland,
in an area where military is not present.”
Follow the Women isn’t only about getting women to cycle together, but also about Palestine. It’s about women and refugees in Palestine, Lebanon and Jordan. One of the Palestinian cyclists in Åland, Halah Faiq Khoury has participated in Follow the Women peace ride five times. She, together with the Palestinian team wanted to bring the message about the situation on the ground in Palestine, so people wouldn’t be scared or surprised when they’d finally visit the country.
For her, the biggest obstacle to peace is the lack of freedom. “Freedom to move, freedom to get health care, freedom from military prisons.” She works for the higher council for youth and sports in Palestine and gives a very concrete example of the lack of freedom: “If we want to create a Palestinian championship, where all the Palestinians are participating, we need to do it in Jordan. People from the West Bank, Gaza and exile can’t meet within Palestine.” She wanted to tell the participants to:“Come, see and tell to the outside world what is happening. And listen to the real news.”
On Peace and on Change
So what is that peace that all these women gathered and cycled for, despite the moody weather and bloodthirsty mosquitoes of late summer in the archipelago? In general, peace is something most of the people see as something worth achieving, but when you start to dig and try to understand what peace means for different people, the picture gets more complex and nuanced.
Something which all of the participants shared was an understanding that the notion of peace is larger than just an absence of conflict. It’s also the absence of discrimination and imbalanced power structures, which prevent people from making decisions that concern their own life or reach their full potential, among others.
Achieving peace starts from each individual, and especially from their ability to adapt to constantly changing situations. Georgian Katy Zhvania Tyson puts it as such: “There is no way we can have peace if people don't have peace inside. So I would say - Work on yourself. Become a more educated person. Peace starts by accepting the change.”
Her colleague from Portugal, Viktorija Guzeva agreed. The biggest obstacle is the resistance to change: “It doesn’t matter so much, what the politicians do, if the individuals aren’t ready to change. When an individual is ready to change, it’s like a snowball effect in society. Everything can be done.”
The other element, which most of the participants were of the same opinion on, were unjust power structures that keep up and reproduce the imbalance, that in the end cause conflict or are obstacles to sustainable peace. Armenian Mariam Poghosyan said that: “In Armenia, we had a conflict, but the biggest obstacle to peace and equality is still the male dominance. At the moment, every young woman in Armenia tries to overcome it, by strengthening her own self-confidence. And accepting that we are all equal and independent.”
There is also a lot of prejudice and racism prevailing in the world, not only in the conflict and post-conflict areas, but also in Europe. Anne Welsh from Ireland said that the biggest obstacle to peace in Ireland’s context is racism. She says that the racism isn’t very visible. But it is fostered to keep the society unequal: “So if you got no jobs, if you got a lot of criminality that’s happening in your community, how would you then start to build bridges with the other?”
Hanna-Leena Pölkki, who is working in post-conflict Myanmar, said: “The biggest obstacle to peace in post-conflict zones is mistrust. Conflict zone environment lacks the sense of security of participation and inclusion. Everybody’s voices should be heard, people should be brought together and then there should be true will to be able to do compromises. To find the common goals and also the smallest common things, people can agree upon and start to build from there.”
In Serbia, the prejudices people are socialised into when they were growing up are now used to justify our discriminatory actions and that is the biggest obstacle to peace. According to Serbian Ana Brtka: “That’s why we need peace education to challenge these kinds of views and to get people from different communities and groups together, just to talk and to develop a dialogue. Just to make them acknowledge each other and consequentially respect each other.”
In France and Europe, the situation is no different. The biggest obstacle to peace is prejudices and ignorance towards other people. For French Maylis Reygnacq, the most dangerous thing is to say, “ok he’s different, I don’t know him, I’m not going to make an effort to know him.” Because that is the way people create an image of a terrorist in place of a normal neighbour living her everyday life next to you. And here comes the acceptance of change into the picture again; she continues that we could just accept that:“Ok, my neighbours are different but he is a citizen of my country and we live together.”
For that change to happen, we need cooperation – and that was the message especially from people coming from the turbulent Middle-East. Razan MahmoudAbdullah Al-Hadid from Jordan said that: “There’s a lot of obstacles to peace in the Middle East at the moment. What I’ve learned is that at the end of the day, people are the same humans everywhere and many of the challenges we face are many times the same. We need to be able to build bridges and it’s not one person or even one country, that can do it. We need to be able to see beyond our own way of doing and look for common goals, to overcome our differences and work together for the process of peace. It won’t be easy, but accepting that we can work together, even on a personal level, is patching the way.”
Palestinian Luna Abualhaj, for whom peace is amore crucial issue than for most of the other participants, added that true cooperation requires equality: “No matter if you have two or five sides, they all need to be on the same page and level. There is no possibility for peace, if all the sides aren’t equal and this is especially true with Palestine andIsrael.”
according to Maylis, who works for a French organisation called Coexister, whose main area of work is interfaith dialogue.“Often we say, we live despite our differences and we do things despite our differences. But what we say in Coexister is, we can do things thanks to our differences”, she continues.
Voichita Ciotoran from Romania continued: “We need to be open and ready to accept that there’s another point of view. There might be many reasons why people think as they think, that we aren’t able to see or feel, which are as valid as our own.This week has reminded me of that.”
Jordanian Suha Ismail also had a solution on how to make it happen: “The crazy thing about us people and about the world is that even when we’ve seen so many wars and gone through so much violence, it’s hard to understand why we can’t make peace. In the end, it’s very easy. Just having pluralistic societies. In pluralism, you accept the differences between people and cultures and you are also able to enjoy it. We aren’t there yet, but there’s hope. Today we have 50 persons cycling for peace and I count on this. I count on civil society, on normal people bringing us together. We can normalise the habit of bringing different people together.”
Meeting other women and sisters in the fight for a more just world also reminded participants about the value of their own work.
“What am I going to bring home? The people. People are amazing. Sometimes you don’t even talk to people so much because you don’t have a chance. But you watch them on the bike, you watch the absolute endurance, and the strength. You’re just blown away by the effort people are making. That’s really powerful,” said Anne from Ireland.
Nutsa Goguadze was thinking similarly:“The main thing that I’m bringing home is that, no matter where in the world, we, humans, are having and facing the same problems. And the peace is the most important thing and it’s a very big challenge all over the world.
All’s well that ends well
As every person living in today’s world knows, things are not as rosy as they seem to be on Instagram; the cycling tour was not free from imperfections for the organisers.
“We had some challenges a week before the event started; one of the guesthouses that we were supposed to stay in for our first night cancelled, so we needed to reroute it all in one week. We took out the map and the ferry timetables and started calling. We were promised that we could take 25 bikes onto the first ferry – but we had 40 bikes,” tells Jalonen. “We biked to the first ferry harbour during the first night by six o’clock and they were like: no no no, you are going to have 25 bikes in. We told that we are kind of 40 and they said: let’s see. We all smiled and chatted and in the end, they let us in and we were able to take the ferry to the next small island, where we were staying from then on. We never really had enough space reserved in the small ferries between the islands. So we just told our 50 ladies to be as awake and funny as you can be when we are taking the ferries. And for 4 days, that’s what we did. We just walked to the ferry with our bikes and the workers in the ferries said: ok, whatever, we are going to fit you in.”
Then, there was a group coming from Palestine, where the freedom of movement is an issue and people do not know when, or if, they are able to get through a checkpoint or a roadblock or be able to travel abroad. And unfortunately, a smile does not help there.
Apart from the RKI staff, who needed a moment for self-care and reflection after the close call with the logistics catastrophe and having taken care that everyone finished the ride in one piece, the self-care aspect seemed to work for the others as well. Now we are only waiting to see how many revolutions of love and sustainable peace the week of pedalling and sharing initiated.
Special thanks to: Mirjami Jalonen and Merja Alastalo
Extra special thanks to: Ålandstrafiken, Tiina in Pellas, Lappo and all the people in the island of Kumlinge.