First published in In The Snow magazine, January 2018
This winter, as part of the Riders for Refugees initiative, Freeride World Tour vice champion snowboarder Anne-Flore Marxer distributed hundreds of items of warm clothing among migrants and asylum seekers who have made it to Northern Italy. Here is her heart-rending account…
“At our first stop in Ventimiglia we met around 150 young people living under a bridge,” recalls pro-snowboarder Anne-Flore Marxer. “They were friendly, sweet, and respectful, but completely broken. Never did they expect to come so far from home to end up living under a bridge, washing in a freezing cold river.”
Marxer, who is from Switzerland and has made her name riding some of the world’s gnarliest lines as well as for her advocacy for gender equality, had two goals this winter season: one was to reclaim her place on the podium at the impending Freeride World Tour. The other was to galvanise as many winter sports brands as possible into donating warm clothing to the scores of people who have fled war, persecution and hardship and made often perilous journeys to get to Europe.
The industry responded in spades, and big hearted brands who donated gear include Volcom, Quiksilver, Billabong, Vissla, BUFF, Racer Gloves, VAUDE, Pull-in and Thermopad, as well as Culture Sud, local to Biarritz in the south of France where Marxer spends the Fall surfing as part of her pre-winter training regime.
Marxer ‘s dedication paid off, with 164 boxes containing jackets, gloves, beanies and neck warmers, ready to go by mid December.
With her friend and fellow pro-snowboarder Aline Bock, as well as support from other volunteers, the 33-year-old drove the mass of clothing to areas including Ventimiglia which, following stricter boarder policies has become a frontier of the humanitarian crisis. Once there, they distributed the clothing, bringing a smile to those who were losing hope in humanity.
Marxer says: “With tears in his eyes, one young man told us, ‘people die here every day. Back home we had rituals to show love and respect to those who die. Here we disappear in a bag. I don’t want to die here’. He was just 21.”
Marxer and Bock met people who were teachers, graduates, chefs, drivers and entrepreneurs, from countries including Afghanistan, Pakistan, Eritrea and Sudan, who were sleeping under bridges or in makeshift tents, forced into nearby forests during the day to keep warm by camp fires.
“Often their tents leak, and they’re so cold,” Marxer continues. “There is a high risk of skin infections and they’re often refused medicine because they can’t afford to pay for it. They are forced to live like animals.
“But despite everything they were going through, they were so welcoming and friendly. They made us delicious chapatti and chicken stew on a grill made from an old bike frame. I will never forget their kindness.”
Marxer’s initiative, which she launched via social media, is one of myriad Riders for Refugees projects happening this winter, involving volunteers collecting and distributing clothing among Europe’s growing refugee population across France, Italy, Serbia and Greece.
Riders for Refugees was founded by winter sports journalists Danny Burrows and Alexis de Tarade in 2015. Their initiative grew from the simple premise that snowboarders and skiers the world over have surplus jackets lying around, which could go towards keeping some of the world’s displaced and desperate people warm.
“The day we left, it fell below freezing,” adds Marxer. “But while we could leave, back to our happy lives, they were stuck there.
“I am privileged to do what I do. I get to travel the world and live my passion. But so many other people are not to lucky. So this was a chance to make a little difference. Every jacket counts, every smile counts.”