Last week, two teams from the University of Sheffield set off, from Hornsea and Southport respectively, to walk over 120 miles on the Transpennine Trail.
The weather was not kind. The terrain was tough going too. It tested them all, even the most experienced walkers amongst them. Day after day, to get up and face a 20 mile walk, in boots that had barely had time to dry out from the previous day, on damaged feet. But for Tom Rhodes the Big Walk was ‘a chance to show that humanity and hope is stronger than fear, division and intolerance’. Tony Strike spoke of his tears of relief when it was all over, at not putting boots on blistered feet, and commented, ‘Respect to refugees who have no choice and no home’.
Physicist Matthew Malek gives his account here, and explains why he undertook the challenge.
Last week, I participated in the University of Sheffield’s Big Walk — a long-distance hike for the purposes of aiding refugee students and academics. In total, there were 21 participants; we were divided into two teams and sent to opposite ends of the Trans Pennine Trail. After five days of hiking towards each other, we met in the middle on Thursday night, and then hiked the final miles back to Sheffield together on Friday. Each team walked over 120 miles, and we were joined by about 100 other people on the final day for the Big Walk One Day Challenge.
I am an experienced hiker, having previously completed the Hadrian’s Wall Path, a large portion of the Thames Path, and the National Three Peaks Challenge. However, the Big Walk involved six days of long distances, covering over 20 miles per day. This sort of sustained distance was new to me. It proved difficult at times, both for myself and for other members of my team — Team Hornsea. We looked out for each other, though, and always made sure everyone was okay.
A long walk like this is a challenge that is part physical and part mental. You need the physical stamina to cover great distances daily; you need the mental resolve to keep moving when the pain kicks in and things get tough. We endured blisters and bleeding feet; we endured heat rash and muscle pain. For me, the greatest challenge came towards the end of the fifth day; at about 110 miles in, my ankles incurred soft tissue damage, leaving me to walk the final 20 miles on Thursday night and all day Friday in significant amounts of pain. As I write this, my feet are bandaged and I am walking with a crutch for the next week or so until the damage has a chance to heal.
What gave us the strength to keep going under such conditions? The spirit of teamwork was strong, to be sure. However, the single greatest motivation was the cause itself, the reason that we had undertaken the Big Walk in the first place — the refugees.
Despite the troubles we encountered, our walk was a pleasant experience, full of camaraderie. On the walks, we enjoyed good company and conversation. Each night, we were able to rest in a warm bed after a hot meal. These are luxuries and privileges that refugees do not get. When we walked, we had not left behind everything — and everyone — that we had ever known. We did not walk out of fear for our lives. We did not walk in danger; we all knew how long the journey would be and that we would survive it. Most importantly, we knew that when we reached the end of the walk, there would be friends and family waiting to cheer for us, hug us, and welcome us home.
I wish every refugee could walk under such conditions. This is not the reality that they experience. After leaving their homes behind and completing long, dangerous journeys, the sad truth is that it is all too common for these people to meet nothing but hostility at the end of their travel. The sad truth is that they are more likely to be detained in camps whilst accused of being terrorists, or of stealing jobs and unemployment benefits. This is to the lasting shame of Europe and the United States. We can do better. We must do better.
When my walk became painful, this is where my thoughts turned. It gave me perspective and the willpower to keep placing one foot in front of the other. Whatever I was experiencing, I know that it was utter luxury compared to a refugee’s journey.
As a newcomer to Sheffield and to this University, I am pleased to have moved to the United Kingdom’s first City of Sanctuary. And I am proud to be a member of a University that would initiate such an event, giving 21 staff members a week of paid leave to support such an important cause. We have raised over £40,000 for refugees, and I hope that others will continue to send support through our JustGiving page.
My Big Walk was made by choice and it is now over. There are far too many who are forced to make walks, and that is a reality that we must work together to end.
Dr Matthew Malek
Lecturer in Physics & Astronomy, University of Sheffield
Funds raised through the Big Walk will be used to support refugee academics and students at the University, to demonstrate our solidarity with refugees and to show that refugees are welcome at our University and in our city. Our University is a University of Sanctuary and this has been our tradition since this institution was founded.
Funds raised through the Big Walk 2016 will be used in the following ways:
• Supporting at-risk academics: We have strong links with a number of programmes to support at-risk academics, including the Institute of International Education’s Scholar Rescue Fund and the Council for At-Risk Academics (CARA) – a charity which helps academics in immediate danger, those forced into exile. Through these partnerships, the University of Sheffield can host academics, giving them a place of safety and the financial and practical help to continue their careers until such as time as they can return home.
• Students seeking refuge or asylum: The University offers fully funded undergraduate and postgraduate scholarships for refugees including those seeking asylum in the UK. Throughout 2016 we will be raising funds to increase this support.