Bike scheme for asylum seekers is saddled with success

Bike scheme for asylum seekers is saddled with success
Frederika Whitehead, The Guardian

The idea behind the Bristol Bike Project is simple: take in unwanted bikes, show people how to repair them, and give them to people who need them. Founders James Lucas and Colin Fan initially ran the project in Lucas’s back garden in the St Paul’s area of the city. To begin with they repaired donated bikes themselves and gave them to asylum seekers. But they quickly decided this wasn’t enough.

Lucas wanted to help refugees and asylum seekers because, having taught English at Bristol’s Refugee Rights project, he was aware transport was a real issue for them. "Refugees who have been given leave to remain are given a room to sleep in and £35 in vouchers for food, but they can’t use these for travel. We have given bikes to people who were having to walk for over an hour to get to appointments," he says.

"It can take years for people to get their refugee status, and during this period they are not allowed to work. There is a real problem with not being able to do anything. Many of them are highly skilled and there is a willingness to get stuck in."

As volunteers, Lucas and Fan were only able to commit to running the project two days a week, but over time it has gained six regular volunteers – including Sylvie, who runs a women’s bicycle maintenance group on Mondays, and Simon, who runs a workshop on Fridays. It is now open four days a week.

"We’ve never been precious about this project," says Fan. "It’s not ours. It’s just something that we do, and we are really happy to include other people."

Of the 4,000 asylum seekers supported by Bristol city council, 150 are riding bikes they repaired themselves at the bike project, which is funded by the sale of some of the more fashionable bicycles that it has been given.

The project has grown almost entirely by word of mouth since the first bikes were donated more than two years ago, after Lucas and Fan sent family and friends an email asking them to look in their sheds for unwanted bikes. It also has a website and a blog.

"At one point we put up posters in bike shops, but that was it, about four posters in the whole of Bristol. Everything else has come to us by word of mouth," says Fan. "It has made me realise how much goodwill there is out there. People have been really generous, not just donating the bikes but giving up their time as well, volunteering, helping us fix the bikes. It’s just a matter of giving people the opportunity to help."

The project has branched out to work with a wide variety of disadvantaged groups, from homeless people to those with drug and alcohol problems or mental health issues.

Lucas says: "Setting up this project has made me realise how do-able these things are at grassroots level. Anyone could do this. "