Most people seeking asylum in the UK are not allowed to work and receive as little as £9.58 per week to live on. Transport poverty is a growing concern, with people lacking funds to get to appointments. The Bike Project provides a solution – and you can help
Two wheels. A frame. Cables, brakes and pedals. There’s no earthly reason to get emotional over a jumble of metal and rubber – however artfully it’s put together – but that’s the magic of bicycles. They’re so much more than the sum of their parts. To many, they’re the ultimate expression of freewheeling independence, and to refugees and people seeking asylum they can be a literal lifeline.
“For me, getting a bike was a resurrection, a second chance at life. It wasn’t just a means of transport, it was a means of finding myself and starting all over again,” says Comfort Adeyemi, an early beneficiary of UK-based charity The Bike Project.
The charity has been refurbishing discarded and donated bikes, and gifting them to refugees and people seeking asylum, for a decade now. What began as a one man band in founder Jem Stein’s garden shed has become a sprawling concern, with repair workshops in the capital and Birmingham. More than 11,000 bikes, along with safety kits, have been distributed in almost 40 cities and regions across the UK.
“Demand is huge, we don’t even touch the sides in terms of demand,” says CEO Lizzie Kenyon, who hopes to alleviate some of that pressure through the project’s winter appeal. Members of the public can buy a gift for a refugee, such as bikes, accessories and lessons for as little as £10.
On a practical level, the charity is responding to some depressing economic realities: people seeking asylum are not allowed to work and instead must make ends meet on just £47.39 a week in government support, falling to a mere £9.58 if they’re housed in accommodation where meals are provided. Even being granted asylum is no guarantee of an end to financial hardship: 76% of refugees referred to The Bike Project are unemployed.
“The average bus pass costs £20 a week, so transport isn’t considered an essential,” says Kenyon. “The people we’re working with need to get to the Home Office and solicitors’ appointments. They might use our bikes to access support from other organisations like food banks. As one of our recipients said, ‘when you have to go from charity to charity to feed yourself, a bike becomes very important to your life’”.
Getting a bike wasn’t just a means of transport, it was a means of finding myself and starting all over again
Savings in transport costs alone stack up to a whopping £11.8m across The Bike Project’s beneficiaries, but Kenyon says that owning a bike also brings transformative social, physical and emotional benefits. For example, “Being able to do things that would otherwise feel like a luxury – visiting friends, going to church, or riding a bike to school,” she says.
“Our bike recipients say that it’s really helped them connect in their community in a way they hadn’t done previously.”
For Adeyemi, during her early days in an asylum hostel, her bike was something like treasure, a fiercely-guarded token of her independence. “When you’re in a hostel you don’t have a say about what you eat, what sanitary products you use, or even if you’re still going to be there tomorrow,” she recalls.
“But I did have a say on my bike. Nobody could tell me to throw it away. I was ready to fight anybody just to keep it.”
Another recipient, Yousef, who arrived in the UK from Syria with three young children, explains how his young family use their bikes for escape and recreation. “A bike is like a healthy friend,” he says. “If we have any psychological pressures, I go to the nearby forest or park with the kids and feel better mentally.”
Bikes arrive at the project from members of the public and unwanted steeds that might otherwise have been scrapped are given a new lease of life in one of The Bike Project’s workshops, located in Deptford, London, or Birmingham. If they’re beyond repair, they’re stripped for parts. High end, high value bikes are sold on to raise funds. All told, the charity donates around 200 bikes per month.
Recipients also get a set of accessories, including a helmet and lock. There are cycling lessons for women, run by women such as Adeyemi, who besides working with the charity as an instructor now sits on its board of trustees. A befriending programme, Bike Buddies, matches volunteers to refugee cyclists.
2024 and beyond will see The Bike Project expand its roadshow programme, providing scaled down versions of its service in towns, cities and remote areas where it’s most needed, and finding new homes for some of the estimated 38m bikes lying unused across the UK.
Adeyemi, meanwhile, continues to find support and community in her Bike Project family. “It’s a community of its own,” she says. “One you can be part of, where you can grow, where you can learn and where you can flourish.”
Main image: The Bike Project