Think about how you feel when riding a bicycle. Free. Happy. Independent.
Now imagine that you were in a situation where none of these feelings were a given.
Today, there are around 21.3 million refugees according to the UNHCR, and around the world, organizations are using bicycles as a tool to help and empower them, providing them access to transportation as well as a renewed sense of hope. A bicycle may seem like a simple vehicle, but for some, it’s a crucial catalyst for change, an opportunity to transform a life.
Having access to a bicycle “opens up a lot of possibilities for people,” says Celiz Aguilar of World Relief Seattle. The organization, which focuses predominantly on refugee resettlement and refugee employment services, has used the bike as a tool for the people who they work with, donating bicycles to refugees who need them, increasing mobility and accessibility. That can simplify everyday tasks like getting to work, going to the library, shopping for groceries.
“Refugee newcomers use bikes to get to work and school and to make connections to public transit,” says Caitlin Wasley, Resettlement Support Manager. “The bus system in South King County is underdeveloped, leaving many folks with very long walks to the nearest bus stop. In other cases, people are hired for their first job in the United States just to find that the first bus in their connection doesn’t operate at the time needed, so they have no way to get to work. A bike is a great (and fun!) way to close those gaps.”
Transportation is a main reason that many similar programs exist, both here in the U.S. and abroad. “In a big city like London, having a free means to get around, whether to get to home office appointments, or accessing support services, is invaluable,” says Anna Chapman of The Bike Project, an organization in London that takes second-hand bicycles and donates them to refugees and asylum seekers. “Having a bike makes our big city so much more accessible to our beneficiaries. “
The bicycle can also be a way to raise awareness for the refugee community. In June, World Relief Seattle will host its third annual Ride for Refugee Employment, a fundraising ride that takes cyclists from Seattle to Spokane. The cyclists are also joined by a refugee rider from the program, enabling them to share their experiences with fellow cyclists.
“When I came to America, I thought ‘How can I start my job? How can I go to my work?’ I would either have to buy a car or take the bus,” says William Maki, a refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo, who received a bicycle through the program and rode in the ride last year. Maki will join riders again this year. “Rain or shine, sleet or snow, black ice, it doesn’t matter, I ride my bike.”
Refugee communities around the country are getting access to bicycles through similar initiatives. In Cleveland, Ohio City Bicycle Co-Op, Bike Cleveland, and Catholic Charities Migration & Refugee Services partnered up to launch the Cleveland Refugee Bike Project, a pilot program launching this spring that will provide 50-100 bikes to local refugees.
In Portland, Maine, the Bicycle Coalition of Maine runs a program at the local Portland Gear Hub called Bikes for All Mainers. The educational program which teaches basic bike mechanical skills and road safety and encourages volunteering in local communities, is designed to provide an opportunity for people who don’t have financial access to bicycles, like undocumented worker or recent immigrants. Those who make it through the program are provided with a refurbished bicycle. In Austin, for the last several years the Yellow Bike Project has been partnering with local organizations and donating 10 to 15 bicycles every month to adult refugees in the community.
Bicycles can also provide an opportunity for those who haven’t been on a bicycle for a long time, or ever. In London, the team at The Bike Project noticed that most of the people coming to get a bicycle were men, “so we have set up a Refugee Women’s Cycling Project, where women can learn to ride in a safe, supportive, female-only environment,” says Chapman. “Perhaps it was not encouraged in their home country, or they just haven’t ridden since they were very young, and they find that this course equips them with the skills and confidence to start again.”
Thanks to initiatives like these, refugee communities don’t just have the chance for mobility, bicycles also help to cultivate a sense of community and belonging. A bicycle isn’t just a means of transportation; it’s the chance to build a new life.
How you can help
See if there is an organization in your community offering similar programs. They are often in need of donations, like bicycles and helmets.
If you have a skill that’s related to cycling, consider using it, like teaching a basic workshop on bicycle maintenance.
From MiiR Contributor Anna Brones, photos courtesy of The Bike Project and World Relief.