The Cycling Charity Helping Female Asylum Seekers Overcome Trauma

Cycling can provide joy, fitness, and more money to afford food for people who really need all three

Many of us can look back over lives and pinpoint the moment that cycling became a part of our being – picking out clear characteristics that have grown, and progressed as a result. Independence, confidence, and fitness are all examples. The change will be more pronounced in some than in others – and a London based charity has made it their business in recent years to help women for which the transformation will be huge. 

Founded by Jem Stein in 2013, The Bike Project is an organisation based in South London – they fix up unwanted bikes, and donate them to people who are living as asylum seekers and refugees. Initially, they didn’t see many women coming to make use of their bikes – and it didn’t take too long to realise this wasn’t down to lack of desire.

Many women had come from societies where females were not encouraged to ride a bike, or where doing so was considered – or made – dangerous for them. The Bike Project made it their mission to address this. In 2014 they applied for funding to set up cycling lessons to teach and inspire the women to ride – transforming them into confident cyclists with more money in their pockets as a result of cash saved by commuting.

We spoke to Operations Manager Claire Donaldson to find out more…

A group of riders working with the project

“The people we work with have, without exception, experienced trauma and very tough journeys to where they are now”

  • Asylum seekers get £36 a week
  • A bus pass costs £21.20
  • That leaves £15 to eat and live with
  • More than 20,000 bikes are abandoned each year in London

Describing the motivations behind launching classes for women, Claire explains: “We have always found that very few women come to the workshop to get bikes – and upon asking women we met at other refugee service centres, we found that this was largely because in the countries they grew up in, women riding bikes was either very much not ok, or simply not a priority. We want women and men of all backgrounds to have equal access and opportunities to ride bikes and gain the benefits of that, so we got funding to be able to provide asylum seeking and refugee women with a bike, safety gear, and as many lessons as they need to be safe and happy on London roads – or whatever their intended use of the bike is.”

One of the women the project has worked with, she came from Albania and Donaldson says she's one of the most dedicated learners

Discussing the issues that some of these women have faced, and the results – Claire told me: “Women are less confident in trying to ride a bike alone, and have often grown up with cultural barriers in place that men from the same places have not experienced. A large proportion of the women I have worked with are overweight and suffering from afflictions such as arthritis, and really struggle to find a non-impact form of exercise that is inexpensive, and doesn’t require getting undressed like with something like swimming.”

Timid on Two Wheels: Learning to Ride a Bicycle Again

For many of these women, a bike can transform their lives – through providing them with a much needed boost in confidence, fitness, and quite simply funds to live on. However, their responses vary greatly upon their first rides. Claire says: “First ride reactions range from pure joy to pure fear! Many people start with a lot of trepidation and self-judgement, while some just jump on with a massive grin and take to it immediately.”

It’s easy to understand why some experience so much fear – riding a bike is a skill that’s easiest to learn when you’re a child: closer to the floor and less mindful of the consequences of falling: “Imagine you are 45 years old, not very in touch with your body, unfit, and never sat on a bike before. It’s a funny looking thing to put between your legs and get comfortable on. It takes time to get used to just that element, and that’s before you even consider learning to balance, finding the pedals, steering and so on. Some people pick it up very quickly and others it takes weeks to find the second pedal!” – Claire says.

“A bike is so much more than a simple means of transport for whoever rides it: it is emancipation, joy, exercise, self-help, and fun

The Bike Project is a charity that works with minority women's groups

The hard work and trepidation are worth it though. Claire tells me: “The people we work with have, without exception, experienced trauma and very tough journeys to where they are now; and a bike can be a massive support to their continued improving mental health and wellbeing.”

The difficulties don’t exactly disappear on arrival. To avoid risk or re-traumatizing them, Claire doesn’t ask for stories of their past lives – but shares a glimpse of the present for many asylum seekers – saying: “When people claim asylum, they can often face many years of living in limbo with next to no money, isolated, not allowed to work, until a decision is made to either give them leave to remain, refugee status, or deport them to another country. Often people are kept in detention centres, which have been likened to prisons, for long periods of time with no idea of when they may be able to leave. Many are separated from their families; spouses, children, and parents, with no idea when they will see them again. Even if and when someone is granted leave to remain, their future is uncertain, as the initial period given is only 5 years.”

Not everyone in the UK is welcoming, either. We’ve all heard stories of post-Brexit racism, attacks and all-round unpleasantness that most residents of our privileged country are shocked to learn of. Claire hopes the negative mental barriers erected by some will crumble over time – telling me: “I hope that the feelings of those who are pro-diversity, pro-multi-culturalism, and see migration of all sorts as an asset to our economy will grow, and soften the attitudes of those who do not yet feel able to welcome our neighbours in need.”

That may take some time, unfortunately. In the mean time, the bike makes a genuine difference to the here and now – in so many ways. She said: “A bike is so much more than a simple means of transport for whoever rides it: it is emancipation, joy, exercise, self-help, and fun.”

There are of course ways that we can all help – either through donations, by giving up time and even space in your home. Or by just being more welcoming to those trying to make their home in the UK. Claire says finding funding for small charities is a “constant struggle” and adds: “There are endless opportunities to volunteer or donate financially at both our charity, and many other refugee service charities; all you have to do is get in touch and ask how you can help. There are also hosting programmes where people who have space in their homes can become a host for someone who might otherwise be ‘housed’ in a homeless shelter.”

To support The Bike Project, you can sponsor a bike, or buy a bike from the Bike Project shop – where the profits will be ploughed straight back into the charity.

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