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For Refugees New To Louisville, Bicycles Ease The Commute

Tucked behind Beargrass Christian Church in St. Matthews is a small garage lined with tires and filled with bikes.

Well, it was filled with bikes.

Nearly all the bicycles in the garage were packed into a big white truck — with some overflow fitting snugly on another trailer — and hauled to Kentucky Refugee Ministries in the Highlands as part of Pedal Power Project’s June 30 delivery.

Now the bikes have new homes with some of Louisville’s newest residents: refugees from Iraq, Cuba, Bhutan, Burma, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Syria.

Pedal Power Project has been delivering bikes to Louisville’s refugees through KRM since January 2013, when several members of the Beargrass Christian Church congregation were inspired by a furniture drive.

“We knew about KRM because our church had provided some furniture to families ... but no one was giving them bicycles,” Pedal Power Project leader Bob Callander said. “Some of us in the church who are bicycle enthusiasts decided, well, let’s see if we can get some donated ones from church members and maybe in the neighborhood.”

Callander said during the first couple months, Pedal Power collected between 10 and 20 bikes. On the June 30 delivery, 91 bikes were distributed -- pushing Pedal Power Project’s total past 1,500.

KRM Donations Coordinator Melissa Siegel said the bikes play an important role in helping the refugee families transition to their new homes. Most of KRM’s clients rely on the TARC system for transportation, but Siegel said buses aren’t always a convenient option for the families.

“It’s not always the quickest and it’s not always the easiest to get to work, to school, to ESL classes at KRM on the bus,” said Siegel. “Some folks do go on to get cars, but the bikes really help expedite day-to-day life, getting to the grocery, to KRM, to appointments when they’re in a pinch if they can’t take the bus.”

Zaid Al-Fadhli, who came to Louisville from Iraq in May, has relied on the bus to get around during the last two months.

“I don’t have a car, I don’t have anything," said Al-Fadhli. "I’m waiting for my license. Just because of that I have to use a bike to go to the market. I need this very much.” 

But the bike also allows him to travel to the park more easily. There, the 23-year-old can get back to playing futbol.

Helping refugees to be more mobile is not an effort limited to the Louisville area. World Relief, a Baltimore-based international aid agency, helps refugees resettle in the U.S. within the first eight months of their arrival.

Jenny Yang, vice president of advocacy and policy, said while the bikes make work and school commutes easier, enabling refugees to be autonomous in their transportation has a bigger impact.

“For refugees to be able to have some kind of mobility program, either through the bikes or even a rideshare program, is something we’re really seeing to help refugees gain self-sufficiency,” said Yang. “I think it helps in their social growth and healing as well.”

While many of the bikes Pedal Power Project collects are adult-sized, the group makes sure not to overlook some of KRM’s youngest clients: the children.

“Immediately, the thought goes, that bicycle would probably be in a landfill because it wasn’t cared for or loved by somebody,” Callander said. “They were just going to throw it out anyhow, and here are these kids … They got transportation for probably the first time in their life. They’re in this country, and they have a little freedom here and can experience the joy of riding bicycles.”

So far this year, KRM has received more than 450 refugees. But Executive Director John Koehlinger said between now and the end of September, KRM is expecting to help resettle 211 more refugees — most of whom will be Congolese and Syrian.  

Siegel said most people think of bicycles ordinary objects, but for the clients she works with at KRM they can have a huge impact.

“A lot of these bicycles have been in someone’s garage for a number of years, but when they are donated and make their way to the parking lot at KRM, they sometimes change someone’s life,” Siegel said.

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