If you end up in London after fleeing violence or persecution in your own country, you can expect to be provided with housing on the capital’s outskirts and issued a weekly £35.39 ($55) payment card that can be used “for food, clothing, and toiletries.”
That seems generous, but refugees must navigate lawyer and therapy appointments, healthcare, government appointments, and more. Public transport in London is expensive, and the city is large, so getting around can eat up a lot of that allowance. The Bike Project aims to help by giving old bikes to refugees, helping them to fix the bikes up, and teaching them to ride.
“A bike is an affordable and sustainable way to access these resources that they need,” says project co-ordinator Sarah Morpurgo. The Bike Project is run by former refugees and mechanics, who work with new refugees to fix up donated bikes. This gets them involved in the project, as well as teaches them how to look after their “new” bike.
“A bike makes all the difference to a refugee,” says Morpurgo. ”Whilst going through the long and drawn-out asylum process, a refugee is provided with only £36 a week to live on, is not allowed to work, and therefore forced to rely on charitable support. Most refugees are placed right on the outskirts of London, so have very long distances to travel in order to access the resources they need.”
Throughout the week, project mechanics work on donated bikes “to make them almost ship shape.” Then, at the public workshop run every week in Denmark Hill, South London, the volunteers and regular mechanics work with the refugees to fix up punctures and repair brakes and gears.
Given that these are the most likely things to go wrong, these sessions provide good training for future maintenance. At the end of one or two sessions, attendees take a bike, along with a new helmet, lights, and lock. Volunteers who know how to work on a bike are encouraged to just come along and help.
The Bike Project also does courses which teach refugee women to ride. Many women have never learned ride before, says Morpurgo, ”primarily due to cultural reasons in their country of origin.”
These refugees don’t only get a form of free transport that can save them up to £20 ($31) per week on bus fares. They get all the other benefits of cycling, like better health and less stress. “The emotional and physical benefits of cycling have also proven to be a huge benefit to the refugee population, helping to relieve the stresses they are under,” Morpurgo says.
Immigration is a hot political topic in the U.K., but Morpurgo tells us that there has been very little negative response to the project. “Occasionally other low-income or disadvantaged British citizens have queries about why we are helping people from other countries, when they themselves are in need of support,” she says. When it’s explained that refugees face all the same problems as a local, only without access to government benefits, and with the added spice of violence and persecution in the countries they fled, these critics back down.
The Bike Project has given away 863 bikes since March 2013. It averages around ten bikes per week, although right now the summer rush is on and last week it gave away 24 bikes. If you live in or near London, bike donations are welcome, and if you know how to fix up a bike, you can help out too. Just head over on a Thursday evening.