Road Cycling

The Bike Project | Meet the Man Behind the Charity That’s Recycled Over 2500 Bikes for Refugees

This charity is changing lives by the simple act of giving asylum seekers a secondhand bike

Words by Tristan Kennedy | Photos by Susan Black

“When the spirits are low, when the day appears dark, when work becomes monotonous, when hope hardly seems worth having, just mount a bicycle and go out for a spin down the road, without thought on anything but the ride you are taking.”
– Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Here’s an interesting statistic. Every year, around 13,500 people come to London seeking asylum. In the same period, almost exactly twice that number of bikes – just over 27,000 – are left abandoned on the streets of the capital.

On the surface these figures may seem entirely unrelated. But making the connection between them provided the inspiration for one of the most innovative and effective charities working with refugees in the UK today. Introducing The Bike Project, which collects unwanted and abandoned bikes, repairs them in its workshop in Herne Hill, South London, and gives them out to asylum seekers.

“As an asylum seeker you only get £36 a week to live off, and you’re not allowed to work.”

“When I was at university I mentored an asylum seeker called Adam who’d fled Darfur,” says Jem Stein explaining how the charity came into being. “He was 16.”

“In order to create a life for yourself in London you need to be able to access education, healthcare, psychological support, and other resources and services. And one of the big challenges Adam faced was actually just getting anywhere. As an asylum seeker you only get £36 a week to live off, and you’re not allowed to work. You do get accommodation but it’s really poor quality and tends to be around the outskirts of London, which is obviously a bit counterproductive.”

To help him out, Jem gave Adam a bike (“it was a mate’s old bike that he didn’t want anymore”) and was amazed by how much of an impact it had on his young friend’s life. Not only did it help Adam make all his Home Office appointments on time, it gave him a measure of freedom and independence. He could come and go as he pleased, travel to see friends or just cycle purely for the fun of it.

The Bike Project now employs a staff of 11 (seven of whom are full time) and has helped thousands of refugees – “around 2,600” so far Jem reckons. They get the unwanted bikes from individual donations, from the police, from local councils and from building management firms. “All these big buildings springing up around London are managed by a handful of companies, and basically wherever there’s a bike rack, people will eventually abandon bikes.

“So every month or so they’ll get in contact and say: ‘There’s a building in Canary Wharf and we’ve got 70 bikes, would you like them?’” By fixing them up – often with the help of the refugees themselves, in their weekly workshop sessions – The Bike Project equips asylum seekers not just with a means of transport, but with skills that can help in all aspects of their lives.

Ussumane Silla from Guinea Bissau is one of those who has benefitted. “I was arrested, I was imprisoned, tortured,” he says matter-of-factly in an interview for one of The Bike Project’s promotional videos. “After that, I managed to escape and then I came to the UK.”

Unfortunately it’s not been an easy ride for Ussumane since he arrived. “At the moment I’m homeless,” he explains. “I’ve been living in shelters.” But having a bike has made him more independent, able to move from shelter to shelter and to get out and about during the day. “I use my bike every single day,” he says.

According to Jem, the practical advantages of having a bike are just the start. The sense of ownership and the feeling of freedom are also hugely beneficial, especially for those who’ve lost everything or been imprisoned. “A lot of people just go for a cycle, they don’t even go anywhere in particular, they just use it to explore, exercise, that kind of thing. The benefits from that are really significant,” he says.

The idea that you can help someone who’s lived through the horrors of prison and torture, or the Syrian Civil War, simply by giving them a bike might sound like a wishy-washy liberal fantasy. But The Bike Project are scrupulous about making sure that what they do is helping in a quantifiable way, carrying out rigorous impact assessments.

“We do what’s called a baseline survey. So when everyone comes they do a survey about what their uses are, and then we follow up with them after three, six and 12 months so we can see their progression. How much money they’re saving, what resources they’re accessing and so on.”

“We measure our impact according to three outcomes,” Jem says. “Financial, which we’ve talked about, you save about £20 a week using a bike. [Then there’s] access to resources, and the third one is the psychological and social impact. The qualitative surveys we’ve done [show] there’s a real kind of benefit through just being able to access your community. People talk about feeling more independent.”

Obviously, he says “there are lots of other factors that come into that. How someone’s feeling on a bike is only a small part of it, but the anecdotal evidence and the qualitative evidence of people feeling better [because of cycling] is all there.”

While it’s nice for Jem and his team to have hard evidence that they’re making a difference, it’s also increasingly a necessity. “As you get bigger, you get more funding and the pots of money that you can apply for get bigger,” he says. To win bigger grants you need to provide proof that what you’re doing actually works. So the team have adopted an increasingly professionalised approach. “We now have a development manager who handles all the fundraising bits.”

It’s paying off too. The Bike Project recently won a grant from the UK government to support their pioneering program which teaches refugee women to cycle. “We found that actually most refugee women never learned to cycle in their countries of origin. They came from societies where it just wasn’t socially acceptable to cycle.

“They had never learned or if they’d learned it had been in a park – they weren’t allowed out on roads and weren’t that confident. So we [now] teach refugee women to cycle from scratch basically, so that they can benefit in the same way that men can.”

Jem tells me they also have plans to expand outside of London in the near future. “We’re currently applying for funding from the lottery to set up a branch in Birmingham.” It’s certainly come a long way from the days when it was Jem fixing up a few bikes in his back garden.

“The sense of ownership and the feeling of freedom are hugely beneficial, especially for those who’ve lost everything or been imprisoned.”

A big part of The Bike Project’s success and continued growth, Jem says, has been down to people’s generosity and willingness to give their time and expertise for free. When it comes to impact assessments and fundraising, he says: “People have actually been really great at giving us advice, and teaching me stuff and teaching all the staff stuff”.

They secured the lease of their workshop space from Southwark Council with help from a property lawyer who worked pro-bono, and while there are four mechanics who work full time, there’s also a continuous stream of volunteers who come and help out at the regular workshop sessions. “I thought I was a big cyclist and into bikes, and then I started this and I realised that I don’t even scratch the surface. There’s a whole world of bike nerds out there. My bike nerdiness was pathetic in comparison.” says Jem, chuckling.

Even the neighbours have been chipping in. Working with people from around the world, the language barrier could have proved problematic. But they have a team member who speaks Arabic, another who is Eritrean, and speaks “both the Ethiopian and Eritrean main languages” and then “randomly, totally randomly, our neighbour is Iranian and speaks Farsi”. As the majority of refugees come from the horn of Africa, Iraq or Syria between them they can “usually figure it out” says Jem.

Unfortunately, although the majority of people who come across The Bike Project are happy to help, not everyone’s reaction is so positive. “We get quite a lot of abuse on social media,” says Jem. “Islamophobic type stuff, and there’s a lot of ‘on your bike’ – who’s the Tory minister who said that? – you get that joke a lot: ‘Don’t they get the message? On yer bike!’ That sort of thing.”

At one stage The Bike Project was even the subject of a petition by the neo-Nazi group Britain First. “We got a load of bikes from the police and they were like: ‘The bikes should be going to British people’. But it wasn’t an independent petition, it was just on their website and they got like 200 signatures or something. And [even] that was probably just a made-up figure.

“They’re pretty nasty people but also kind of pathetically useless as well.”

Given the tone of the national discourse around refugees, with right wing papers like the Sun and the Daily Mail spewing out a steady stream of negative articles, I’m slightly surprised that there hasn’t been more of that sort of thing. But in fact, Jem says the opposite is true.

“The thing that we get more is the backlash against that,” he says. “We benefitted a lot from a kind of liberal backlash over the refugee crisis, over Trump, over Brexit. When Trump tweeted something about refugees, we got loads of donations of money through the website.”

“When Trump tweeted something about refugees, we got loads of donations of money through the website”

The delicious irony of the anti-refugee President’s rants actually helping refugees isn’t lost on Jem. He laughs. “Yeah, although the national discourse is depressing, I’ve seen a lot of people reacting against that and they react against that by supporting us.

“There’s been a real movement of people that are fighting against that and we’ve kind of surfed that wave in a way.” And as long as that movement continues, it will keep The Bike Project rolling, and help it to help out those who need it most.

If you’d like to support the work of The Bike Project, you can buy a refurbished bike from their shop, donate an old bike, sponsor a bike with a direct donation, or volunteer at one of their workshop sessions.

To read the rest of Mpora’s June ‘Peace’ Issue head here

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