Jem Stein is from a cycling city – students and townies were spinning wheels in Oxford for decades before amateur veloists stormed London – and he and his brothers grew up on bikes. But cycling mania has its detritus: a jam of jilted rides, slipped chains and flat tyres. There are so many discarded bicycles in Oxford that the city regularly conducts culls, rounding up errant cycles like two‑wheeled badgers and ushering them on to an afterlife as scrap metal. London has its own lost bicycle problem now. Stolen and recovered wheels are backing up in police stations across the city and most of them will be eventually scrapped.
Half a million trips by bicycle in London every day, tens of thousands of cyclists, thousands of bikes misplaced, stolen, or ditched for mechanical failings or new models – Jem Stein has done the sums. ‘Every year in London there are 27,000 bikes abandoned,’ he says. ‘And every year 20,000 refugees arrive in the UK to add to the hundreds of thousands already here. All we do is match the two.’
Stein’s Hackney-based Bike Project isn’t the first charity to put the two together. The Bristol Bike Project has been pairing refugees and asylum-seekers with wheels since 2008. But London’s refugee population dwarfs Bristol’s and the capital’s girth – and the practice of housing refugees in far-flung, zone-6 council blocks – gives the London version an added importance.
Refugees and asylum-seekers are forbidden from working, and are given weekly allowances of only £35 to stretch across food and transport from some of London’s least connected districts. Stein realised the relevance of cheap transport for refugees when he mentored two teenagers who’d escaped genocide in Darfur; in separate instances the Janjaweed militia had murdered their families. After being processed through the UK’s punitive asylum system they were given housing near Heathrow. Stranded near the airport, where local amenities are scant, transit is car-oriented, and tickets to central London are pricey, they were distressed, isolated, and bored. But when Stein found bikes for them, their experience of London changed dramatically.
‘Bikes were the first step toward normal living for them,’ Stein said. ‘All of a sudden they could access local amenities, Tesco’s, Sainsbury’s, healthcare, volunteering, social and community resources, lawyers and Home Office appointments, and the psychological support they needed.’
Since the donation of those two bicycles, Stein’s project has grown and grown, from a backyard where he refurbished bicycles himself to a warehouse in Haggerston, where, at Thursday’s weekly volunteering session, more that a dozen volunteers work on battered bikes. The Bike Project accepts used cycles at collection points across London and has received donations of abandoned bikes from Oxford City Council, the Metropolitan Police and the BBC. The project recently handed out its 171st cycle, complete with helmet, lock and lights.
The refugees themselves do much of the repair work and refurbishment, Stein says. It’s a valuable skill and a respite from isolation and boredom. One of those involved is Ussamane Silla, who escaped imprisonment and torture in Guinea-Bissau. He’s been working with the Bike Project since receiving a bicycle five months ago. ‘I’m a cyclist now. I must know how to fix a bike,’ he says.
After years in detention facilities across the UK, Silla now lives in a shelter in Haringey and uses his bicycle to access education. He regularly logs 40 miles a day: it’s a distraction from his asylum application, which has stalled again despite appeals from his local MP. ‘There’s nothing I can do,’ he says. ‘Just carry on, study, come to Bike Project.’
As well as making London more accessible, affordable and a little more hospitable for refugees, the Bike Project is also helping to change the profile of London’s cyclists. It is already working harder to reach less typical potential cyclists. It has received funding from Transport for London to launch cycling proficiency training courses for refugee women, who are currently underrepresented in the project. Many of them never learned to cycle in their home countries or are afraid of hitting the crowded streets alone, Stein explains. The courses will start in the park first, as the women learn their balance, but the Bike Project hopes then to lead them onto the roads.
Lauren Van Schaik Smith is a masters student at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies. This article is the winning entry in our young writers’ competition, which asked entrants to write about a project or policy that addresses the environmental crisis and social or economic injustice at the same time. The judges were journalist George Monbiot and Red Pepper’s environment editor Kara Moses. Thanks to everyone who entered. This competition was kindly supported by the following organisations: People & Planet, Shake!, Woodcraft Folk and the Young Greens.