Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Bikes for Refugees

Bike recipients and volunteers before the ride home.
A bike mentor with a bike recipient during the ride home.

This video was made by Todd Gerarden and Amara Lewis.

In late summer of 2008, I read the book The Only Road North by Erik Mirandette.  I was inspired from that book to try and help the local refugees in my community, which at the time was Charlottesville, Virginia.  Through those thoughts I developed a vision of how to do that, and after a couple of months it came to fruition.  My vision encompassed volunteer mechanics from the Community Bike Shop working with middle school boys from Fork Union Military Academy to make bicycles rideable for local refugees who came to Charlottesville through the International Rescue Committee.  My friend Brian had loaned me the book.  He was teaching at Fork Union at the time, and it was his students who came and helped.

After quite a few weeks of communicating with everyone, we were ready to put the plans into action.  It began in two phases.  Phase 1 involved getting the bikes in working order.  We had 14 bicycle requests from the International Rescue Committee.  On a Saturday in October 2008, the volunteer mechanics and the middle school boys met at the community shop to do the work.  We were done by the end of the day.  

Happy Rickshaw, a local pedi-cab business, let me secure the bikes for the week in the Ix warehouse space that they were renting.  This space was integral to Phase 2, which occurred the next weekend.  Phase 2 involved giving the bikes to the refugees.  This proved more challenging than it first seemed.  Most of the recipients were from Burma, and their English was minimal. The other countries represented were Bhutan, Nepal, Burundi, Iraq, and Afghanistan.  Many of them were still unfamiliar with basic driving principles on the road here, so bicycle safety skills were also a concern.  Thankfully, the Alliance for Community Choice in Transportation was able to help.  They provided helmets for everyone, and the support of the Bike Mentor group which gathered to ride each person back home.  However, the language barrier was more problematic.  I realized that I needed to find translators if I really wanted to get the safety points across.  I spent alot of time searching for them, and at one point was on a 3 way call with a company in Arizona to be sure that one of the recipients understood exactly where to pick up the bike.  After alot of hard work, I was able to find two translators who could be there with us on the bike pick up day.  Communication went very smoothly during that time.  

After everyone had a bike, helmet, lights, and locks, we were ready to roll.  The Bike Mentors got everyone home safely.  It was a thrill, and it gave me great personal satisfaction to bring together so many different people to accomplish one goal.

Throughout the next year after these initial phases, I received about 10 more requests for bikes from the International Rescue Committee.  I worked on those bikes and delivered them myself to each recipient.  I would talk about safety issues, and go on rides with them as well when I took them the bike.  One person was walking to his job, which took about 30 minutes.  When I delivered his bike, we rode to his work together.  It took us about 7 minutes one way.  He was elated.  My future goal for this before I moved was to do more bicycle safety teaching with them through the International Rescue Committee before they received a bike.  Of course, one of the bikes received was a vintage fuji.  :)

Here is the break down of the people and groups involved for the first two phases:

Charlottesville Community Bikes:

Fork Union Military Academy:
Activities director- Brian
Middle Schoolers- Nathaniel, Colin, John, Nathan, Daniel, Jesse

Volunteer Mechanics:
Sam, Eric, Sam, Nick, Charles, Todd

International Rescue Committee:
Terri, Sarah, Courtney

Alliance for Community Choice in Transportation:

Bike Mentors:
Shawn, Steve, James, Nick, Vince, Andy, Dave, Greg, Mandy, David

Donald, Gawng, Thet Thet, Fatin

Bike Recipients:
Som, Deo, Keshar, Lian Lam, Malud, Pa Ma, Gasper, Najiba, Jardin, Ngwe, Wah Wah, Atiq, Farah

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