'A Beautiful Feeling': Refugee Women In Germany Learn The Joy Of Riding Bikes
Like most Americans, I learned to ride a bike as a kid. I still remember the glee after learning how to ride a bike on a subdivision road where I grew up in Florida. I had cracked the mysteries of balance, and now I had the giddy pleasure of my newfound freedom.
But girls around the world don't always get to experience the joy of a first bike ride. In some countries, conservative societies frown upon women and girls who ride bikes – it's not considered dignified or appropriate — and gives a girl too much independence.
Joumana Seif, a Syrian lawyer and activist, recalls riding a bike as an 11-year-old in the capital city of Damascus. It was the first time she understood there were different rules for girls and boys.
"For the people [watching on the street], and even for the children, it was shocking to them that I was riding a bike. They started to say, 'Oh, shame on you, you are a girl riding a bike,' " Seif says. "It just wasn't in our culture."
But it's never too late to learn. In Germany, a nonprofit group called Bikeygees is teaching refugee women from countries such as Iran, Iraq and Syria how to ride.
Bikeygees began in 2015, a time when Germans were embracing a concept called Wilkommenskultur -- or "welcoming culture" — to greet newly arrived refugees, many of them fleeing the war in Syria. The movement spawned an explosion of nonprofits eager to assist the newcomers, including Bikeygees, says founder Annette Krüger. Bikes are an important part of German culture. In fact, nine out of every 10 residents own a bicycle.
The group's name, she explains, is "a word creation" of "bike and refugees."
In the early days of the program, Kruger donated bikes to refugee centers and taught refugees how to ride on an ad hoc basis. Since then, the program has grown, and today, volunteers offer riding lessons to refugee women five days a week in 15 locations in Berlin and Brandenburg. The women can take as many classes they need to master the skill. Since the group first started, it has taught 1,100 women how to ride a bike, says Krüger.
"It is possible to change the life of a woman in two hours. It is really magical," says Krüger, an avid cyclist.
The group also teaches women how to fix bikes. It instills a sense of self-sufficiency, says Krüger. If they can do bike repairs, ride and learn the German rules of the road, they are awarded with a bike kit. That includes a a bike, helmet, bike lock and bike tools. So far, Bikeygees has distributed 400 kits, paid for with donations.
In a sprawling park on the edge of Berlin in July, Krüger watched four volunteers teach cycling to a new crop of refugee women.
The three students came from Ahvaz, Iran; Kirkuk, Iraq; and Afrin, Syria. They say they didn't know how to ride a bike before they arrived to Germany and were forbidden to try in their home countries.
Shaha Khalef, 21, signed up for her first lesson with Bikeygees three years ago and now she's a volunteer trainer. She gently holds a trainee on a bike around the waist while running alongside until the rider finds her balance to take off on her own.
"It's a beautiful feeling when a person is riding a bike," she says with a broad grin.
Khalef, a member of the Yazidi religious minority from Sinjar, Iraq, says she wasn't allowed to ride a bike when she was growing up.
"It was both forbidden and highly risky," she says. Not only was it culturally prohibited for girls and women, it was dangerous. Her neighborhood had dirt roads and no sidewalks, and people's bikes were often old and unsuitable for riding.
But these concerns have slowly disappeared since she and her family moved to Germany, says Khalef, who is studying to become a social worker. Her three sisters also learned bike-riding through the program, and her mother insists Khalef teach her fourth sister, the youngest, how to ride, too.
The program's success is measured in the smiles of the riders when they conquer another bike skill, says Krüger. Shapol Bakir-Rasoul says she grew up in Kirkuk and came to Germany four years ago. She's been honing her skills for weeks in these classes — and on this day, she's learning how to better use the handbrakes. They screech as she makes a perfect stop on a dirt road in the park.
Her hands shoot up off the handlebars. She whoops and cheers in a duet with her trainer.
Krüger says when some women master bike riding for the first time, they cry. "Sometimes we [do], too," she says of the volunteer trainers.
She recalls one student in her 60s who continued to practice through a bitter German winter. "She said, 'This is a dream for me. I have been waiting my whole life to do this.' "
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