Bikes pedal-start refugees' new lives in English city (dpa German Press Agency)
Refugees fleeing Africa and the Middle East gain mobility and widen
their horizons through the Bristol Bike Project’s Earn-a-Bike scheme.
Bristol, England (dpa) – Tesfalem Dawit will move to London to start
a degree in computer science next month, taking the next step on his
long journey from Eritrea.
The 30-year-old security guard has lived mostly in the south-western
city of Bristol since he arrived in Britain two years ago after
travelling via Sudan, where he stayed two months before flying to
Greece and continuing to Italy and the notorious migrant camp in the
French port of Calais, known as “The Jungle.”
“I had to get into a truck which was parked in a shopping mall,” said
Dawit, a pseudonym used at his request.
“And the truck went straight to the train. We crossed the Channel,”
he told dpa. “I was not worried.”
Dawit is one of around 1,500 Eritreans who applied for asylum in
Britain in 2013, a number that more than doubled to 3,300 last year,
according to the British Refugee Council.
He – like many other Eritreans – left to avoid national service,
which is “compulsory, and frequently extended indefinitely,”
according to an annual report by Amnesty International. The
organization called Eritrea’s national service “a system that
amounted to forced labour.”
Critics of Eritrea’s totalitarian government have dubbed the
impoverished nation “Africa’s North Korea.”
The government allows no political opposition parties, independent
media, civil society organizations or unregistered faith groups,
according to Amnesty.
The UN refugee agency recorded 308,000 refugees and 30,000 asylum
seekers from Eritrea in January 2014, with some 3,000 fleeing each
“I was doing national service till the last day I left,” Dawit said.
“The only chance you have is just to get out of the country.”
He was speaking at the Bristol Bike Project, which reconditions old
bikes donated by the public and operates as a drop-in workshop,
training centre and second-hand bicycle shop.
The project provides free bikes and maintenance training for
refugees, asylum seekers and other disadvantaged groups in Bristol.
It is also sending bikes to migrant and refugee camps in Calais this
month under the nationwide Critical Mass cycling initiative.
“I use it every day,” Dawit said of his reconditioned mountain bike,
which the project gave him under its Earn-a-Bike scheme after a
referral by the group Bristol Refugee Rights.
“I use it to go to work,” he said. “It’s just my means of transport.”
The bike project was started in 2008 by two friends, James Lucas and
“It started as quite a small-focus project just working with refugees
and asylum seekers,” said Henry Godfrey, the project’s co-director.
“Right at the beginning bikes were just given away … but that was
quickly abandoned as a concept because bikes weren’t going to the
right people and they weren’t being looked after,” Godfrey said.
“So we wanted to create a scheme where there was a bit more of a
two-way street,” he said. “So the idea of earning a bike came about.”
Refugees referred to the project spend up to three hours working
alongside a voluntary bicycle mechanic, learning basic maintenance,
and work with the mechanics when they return for repairs.
Housham Saifelnasr, 28, came to the project shortly after he arrived
in Bristol in December, following an arduous journey that began when
he fled political persecution in Sudan.
“I came by ocean. It’s not easy,” he said. “I would not put my life
at risk unless … I can’t stay in Africa.”
“I have a chance here,” said Saifelnasr, who worked at farms and
warehouses in Sudan. “I feel safe and I can build my life and get an
“Every week I come here … fixing any problems,” he said of the bike
project. “And the staff here are very kind to me.”
In 2012, Bristol University geography student Louis Devenish asked
refugees using the project to draw maps of “my Bristol” before and
after receiving their bikes.
Two sketches included in Devenish’s dissertation, Pedalling to
Possibility, graphically illustrated the benefits of the scheme,
showing that the refugees covered much wider areas in their weekly
“We know that people use the bikes and get a lot out of it,” Godfrey
said. “We know because they come back for repair sessions.”
He pointed out that the sign-in centre for refugees had recently been
moved from the middle of the town to a location on the outskirts of
“So that means that they now have to make that journey, which is a
16-mile (26 kilometres) round trip, using buses or however else they
can get there,” Godfrey said.
“A bicycle, hopefully, makes that journey much easier.”