Princeton residents Marianne Farrin and Caroline Spoeneman recently returned from a trip that had them bicycling through all seven emirates of the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
Along the way, they represented the United States in meetings with sheiks and other dignitaries, were greeted by local children, and even showered with roses.
Ms. Farrin and Ms. Spoeneman were among 120 Pedal for Peace riders, all women, from 22 countries raising awareness of the plight of Palestinian women and children as well as funding for The Red Crescent, the international humanitarian movement founded to protect human life and health without discrimination of nationality, race, religion, or politics.
The eight-day trip began in Dubai on Saturday, February 16 and ended in Abu Dhabi on Saturday, February 23. It was organized with the help of the UAE Cycling Federation. “The Federation paid for the participants’ hotel accommodations, meals, and bike rentals,” said Ms. Farrin.
The riders were based in Ajman and were bussed to each emirate in turn for that day’s ride. Their bikes were ready for them and they covered between 40 and 50 kilometers each day. The weather was dry and hot, around 70 degrees Fahrenheit. “We had a motorcycle escort and met local dignitaries. In Ras we were treated to a performance of singing by schoolchildren and on one occasion a helicopter circled overhead, a door opened and thousands of red roses came sailing out over us,” recalled Ms. Farrin.
The event was the sixth Pedal for Peace ride organized by the UK-based international women’s non-profit, Follow the Women, which previously organized similar fundraisers in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and Palestine. Because of political unrest following the “Arab Spring,” this year’s ride took place in the United Arab Emirates. Rides were cancelled in 2010 and 2011.
The group was founded by Detta Regan, whose inspiration was her mother’s love of cycling and her father’s love of the Arab world. Ms. Regan was the UK’s Woman of the Year in 2001 and a Nobel Peace Prize nominee in 2004.
The two women undertook the ride after Ms. Farrin read an article about Ms. Regan’s peace- and fund-raising efforts.
Marianne Farrin and her Danish mother fled Nazi Germany in 1944. A decade later, she came to the United States, the country her German-born father Helmut Magers had visited and longed to return to. He died of typhoid in the spring of 1945, at age 38, after being sent to fight on the Russian front. In 1930-1931, he had spent a year at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. Ms. Farrin recently translated the book he wrote in 1933: Franklin D. Roosevelt: A Revolutionary with Common Sense, from German into English.
After raising five children with husband Jim Farrin, a 1958 graduate of Princeton University, Ms. Farrin enrolled in the Princeton Theological Seminary. “I was the oldest in my class,” laughs the Princeton grandmother, now 74. After graduating in 2007, she thought hard about how she wanted to focus her time. Through a seminary colleague she heard about the Christian Peacemaker Team’s work in the West Bank. She went to Israel in 2008, to Hebron, and again in 2009.
At the end of her 2009 trip, Ms. Farrin was enjoying coffee in a cafe just steps from Jerusalem’s “Wailing Wall,” when she read about Pedal for Peace the International Herald Tribune. “Danes are born bicyclists, so I cut the article out and brought it home with me,” she said.
Ms. Farrin had ridden across the United States, from Seattle to Washington D.C. in 2000, to raise funds for the American Lung Association. When she told her friend Caroline Spoeneman about the ride, Ms. Spoeneman jumped at the opportunity of combining sports with a good cause. Last year, Ms. Spoeneman walked 160 miles in 12 days of the annual pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela (across the Pyrenees from France to Spain) and the year before that she won a sprint triathlon in Connecticut. “I joined the ride to support Palestinian women and children and for the cultural exchange aspect,” she said. “Here was an opportunity to hear the stories and experiences of women from 22 countries who have also been working to raise money for Palestinian children, and publicize the plight of Palestinian refugees,” said Ms. Spoeneman.
Ms. Farrin and Ms. Spoeneman cycled across all seven emirates: Dubai, Fujairah, Ras al-Khaimah, Umm al-Quwain, Ajman, Abu Dhabi, and Sharjah. “Most of the emirates are very affluent with incredible high rises, but Ras al-Khaimah was less so,” observed Ms. Farrin. “It was a lot of fun,” said Ms. Spoeneman, who reported that on occasions when the riders were waiting for their bicycles to arrive there were spontaneous dance demonstrations by teams from China, Denmark, and Palestine; “a lot of young women took part and it was all very jolly,” she said.
Participants paid their own airfares to Dubai where they were met by a Follow the Women representative and taken to their hotel.
Funds raised anonymously through the Follow the Women website will be used for children’s projects in Palestine and other areas in the Middle East. Previous Pedal for Peace projects include building playgrounds in the West Bank and Gaza, the provision of sewing machines and equipment to Palestinian women in refugee camps and support for a youth counseling project in Ramallah.
Would they do it again? “Absolutely says Ms. Farrin. “This was an eye-opening experience,” she says, recalling one woman in particular who had fled her home country and city, Damascus in Syria, to take part in the ride. Unable to return home, she was making a new life in Qatar. “I would certainly do this trip again, or another similar one,” adds Ms. Spoeneman. For a three-minute Follow the Women video of the event, go to: http://vimeo.com/61420299.