And still we ride: the ‘Cyber Cyclists’ helping refugees through Covid-19

Words: Jem Stein

Conduit member Jem Stein, founder of The Bike Project, shares how a bike can transform a life – especially during a shutdown.

Covid-19 doesn’t care about borders or status, and self-isolation has hit everyone hard – not least refugees and asylum seekers.

At The Bike Project, we fix up unwanted old bikes and give them to refugees and asylum seekers in London and Birmingham.

Over the past seven years, we’ve given away over 6,000 bikes. Asylum seekers aren’t allowed to work in this country: instead they scrape a living on government support of only £37.75 per week. Every bike donation helps a refugee save around £1,000 a year in transport costs – that’s money they can now save for food, clothes or phone credit.

Beating the shutdown with anti-bac bikes

A few weeks ago, we decided to close our doors for the duration of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Cycle workshops are considered essential pandemic businesses, so our mechanics can still do repairs – but the last thing we want is our beneficiaries risking public transport to collect their bike.

We think bikes are now more important than ever, especially for refugees who are routinely dropped into temporary accommodation on the outskirts of the city, often far from shops, pharmacies and hospitals.

Cycling gives everyone the superpower of free travel and means refugees can afford the effective self-isolation that saves lives. That’s why we decided to start delivering bikes (sprayed with anti-bac!) to refugees at home.

As well as saving them the corona-gamble of public transport, refugees often tell us that bikes give them a chance to reconnect with their bodies and ride out the stress of daily life.

Physical exercise is a wonderful thing, not only for our fitness, but also for our mental health – and that’s especially true for people recovering from severe trauma, like many of our beneficiaries.

It’s not all about the bikes

Here at The Bike Project we’re not all about the bikes. For staff, volunteers and beneficiaries alike, we’re a community. With social distancing in force, it’s more important than ever to reach out and connect with refugees, who are often without family and friends in a strange new city.

Long before coronavirus struck, 58 percent of refugees in London said loneliness and isolation was their biggest challenge. We think bikes can help: 85 percent of our beneficiaries say they feel less lonely and isolated after they’ve started cycling. That’s why more and more of our work involves community-building.

But while we can’t enrol our beneficiaries on our cycle training programme, teach them bike mechanic skills face-to-face, or connect them with a local Bike Buddy, we can now invite them to dial into our new Cyber Cyclists virtual volunteering programme.

Isolation-busting with the Cyber Cyclists

Over a guaranteed non-contagious group video call, Cyber Cyclists delivers daily fitness, education and arts classes to refugees in self-isolation across the country.

The sessions are hosted by volunteers from our awesome community of refugees, staff and supporters and they cover everything from bike maintenance and yoga, to bike origami and the portrayal of cycling in art and literature!

Some of the sessions are women-only, mirroring the welcoming atmosphere of our beloved Pedal Power sessions, and we also give offline SMS and phone support for the almost 20 percent of our beneficiaries who don’t have access to a smartphone or computer.

A groundswell of compassion

While asylum seekers in Portugal have been granted temporary citizenship, the charities that refugees in the UK depend on for food, legal support and social connection are fighting for their future.

You’ve probably heard that the Premier League, Glastonbury and Wimbledon have all been paused or cancelled, but lockdown has also wiped out major fundraising events and left a £4bn hole in British charity finances.

These are strange times, and everyone is struggling: financially, socially, emotionally. But we’re also discovering new ways to look out for each other.

Over the past few weeks, 750,000 volunteers have signed up to support the NHS, tens of millions have come together every Thursday to Clap for our Carers, and who knows how many people working from home have donated what would have been their commute money to good causes.

This groundswell of compassion gives me great hope, not only for tomorrow – or for tomorrow’s tomorrow, whenever it is safe to open our doors once again – but for today, when those vulnerable people in society need us most.

You can support the Cyber Cyclists and help deliver bikes to refugees by donating to The Bike Project’s emergency appeal. The Bike Project are also offering online Dr Bike sessions to help you fix your bike – it’s free for NHS staff and from £15 for everyone else, with all proceeds going to support refugees.

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