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Pedal power to refugees


Thousands of refugees who have settled in Adelaide over the past two decades have had at least one of the speed bumps to moving into Australian life removed, thanks to an initiative that is providing them with free transportation.

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Established in 2002, Bikes for Refugees has been responsible for recycling more than 11,700 bikes over the years, with many being donated to refugees and asylum seekers arriving in our city.

Parishioners may have heard about the program through the Diocesan e-newsletter, which has been promoting the donation of unwanted bikes for a good cause. As founder Mike Brisco observed, the concept also fits nicely with Pope Francis’ call in Laudato Si’ to recycle rather than be part of the ‘throw away culture’.

“It’s been satisfying to watch the scheme develop and now we are putting about 1200 bikes back on the road each year,” he said.

“People have forgotten how to repair goods and the best part of recycling is that you put it back into use – and that’s quite feasible for bike shop bikes.”

Bikes for Refugees first got its legs almost 20 years ago when someone connected with the community cycling advocacy group, Bicycle Institute of SA, met four Congolese refugees on a bus. The women were asked what would help them in their new life in Adelaide, to which they replied ‘a bike’.

Mike volunteered to take on the task of finding them bikes, helmets and locks and the donations began to roll in.

“It just kept going from there,” he said. “Other people had bikes they didn’t need and we went from fixing up bikes on a Saturday morning –  about two or three a week – to getting grant money and moving to Plympton as part of a community bicycle workshop.

“Then we were doing 8-10 bikes a week and the opportunity came to move into the city (on Franklin Street at the old bus station).

“Fairly quickly the number jumped to 20 to 25 bikes being fixed each week.”

Now retired from his job as a research scientist at Flinders Medical Centre, Mike has about 20 volunteers who join him during the week to help fix bikes and make them roadworthy.

A keen cyclist himself, Mike explained that refugees often looked to a bike as a preferred mode of transport as obtaining a driver’s licence was difficult due to the expense of having lessons and many could not afford to purchase a car. Adelaide is also a good cycling city as it is relatively flat.

Refugees and people in need are referred to the service by a range of community organisations including the Vinnies Migrant and Refugee Centre, Hutt St Centre and Catherine House.

On Saturday it is ‘market day’ when about 30-40 bikes are lined up outside the workshop. People who have been referred can make an appointment to come and select a bike and members of the public can also drop in and purchase a refurbished bike at a greatly reduced cost.

“What we see when people pick up the bikes is that they’re happy,” he said.

“Quite often when the kids get a bike they just start riding in the carpark…you can see that they are happy having it.”

At the moment the workshop has a surplus of children’s bikes and Mike invited any organisations, including church groups, which might need bikes to contact him.

If anyone has a bike to donate they should call first so he can determine what state it is in, as some are not of suitable quality to be repaired.

And the program is always looking for volunteers who can help repair the bikes.

John Townsend working to fix a 1970s French bike.

“I am self-taught…when I was a student in the UK I couldn’t afford a car so to get around it was either buses, bikes or foot,” he said.

“My dad had worked in a bike shop so he got me a bike and I sat down with the bike manual and figured out how to service it. That took me two days and after that, and about 11,000 bikes, you get fairly quick at it!

“We just want people with a basic knowledge of bike mechanics – if you can fix your own bike by changing the tyres and adjusting brakes, you should be able to do it.”

Newly retired John Townsend joined as a volunteer in August and said he was enjoying being part of such a worthwhile initiative.

“I wanted to do something in my retirement that would help others,” he said, adding that as a cyclist and having an interest in the sport it was a good fit.

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