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As the political debate over refugees in America heats up during this political season, this series explores the experiences of refugees who are settling, and have settled, in Virginia, and the programs that provide services for them. The Harrisonburg and Charlottesville areas lead the way in refugee resettlement in Virginia. Harrisonburg is second only to Northern Virginia in the number of resettled refugees, which numbered 260 in 2013.

Refugee Cyclists

For refugees trying to establish themselves in a strange land, just like for the rest of us, reliable transportation can be the key to landing a job, or simply being independent. One Harrisonburg bicycling enthusiast is not only teaching refugees how to ride bikes; she is also providing them with their own bicycles. WMRA’s Christopher Clymer Kurtz attended the most recent class and has this report.

The morning is not without incident.

[Sounds of a rider upending his bicycle]

A crowd of about ten volunteers and even more refugees from all over the world--Cuba, Pakistan, Congo--are gathered in a church parking lot to learn some tips for riding bicycle in America.

RITCHIE VAUGHAN: Use your back brake a little more and you'll skid rather than flip it.

The best part? At the end of the two hours, the bikes they’re using during the lesson will be theirs to keep.

Last fall, Harrisonburg resident Ritchie Vaughan met with a group of women from Iraq to garner feedback about the city’s bus system, sidewalks and related infrastructure.

VAUGHAN: So just sort of offhand I said, “Well, do any of you ride a bike? Cause I can get across town in 20 minutes on a bike, and you're saying it takes an hour on a bus.” A bunch of them kind of, like, giggled and put their heads down. It turns out that in Iraq it's actually not socially, culturally acceptable to ride a bike if you're a woman. Several of them expressed interest in learning how to ride a bike, sort of for self empowerment and sort of new thing that you can do in America.

Vaughan’s first class was geared toward that handful of women and some children. Her second was for four men from Eritrea who already knew how to ride but needed to learn the rules of the road here--and who needed bikes.

One of the 15 bicycle recipients at this recent class is Fareed Ahmed, a college computer lecturer from Karachi City in Pakistan, where he faced religious persecution. Just two months ago, after three years in Sri Lanka, he arrived in the United States. He’s looking for work, and says that not having a job leaves him bored at home.

AHMED: Now I have bicycle so I will use it. It's very helpful for me to travel especially to little nearest places, like I want to go market or some store, or maybe I can go to a job, through this cycle. Because some places I search, bus cannot reach there. That's why it will be very helpful for me.

The first part of the class is fitting helmets, here with volunteer Phoebe Kirby-Glatkowski:

KIRBY-GLATKOWSKI: Too tight now? Okay, we can make it looser.

Four of the bikes were paid for the Voluntary Gas Tax campaign in Harrisonburg, purchased new--and at cost--from Wyse Cycles. Another was donated by the Bridgewater Rotary Club. Otherwise, says Vaughan,

VAUGHAN: I've pretty much bankrolled the program thus far.

Out on the parking lot pavement, Vaughan introduces the instructor for the day, Matt Hassman of Safe Routes to School.

VAUGHAN: Matt is going to teach us basic laws and rules here, and then we will go practice in the streets with cars.

HASSMAN: This drill will be to practice stopping quickly. Practice using both brakes so you don't go forward over the bars when you stop.

[Sound of speeding up, skidding to a stop, and applause]
After the lesson, everyone divides into smaller, language-specific clusters, with an instructor and interpreter for each group, and they ride out onto the streets through a residential area of town.

[Sounds of vehicles passing]

Carl Goetz is volunteering with the Spanish-speaking group:

GOETZ: Don't ride too close to parked cars, because somebody could open a door. So keep a distance from parked cars.

[Sounds of riding, traffic]

The bicycle Ahmed receives isn’t one of the brand new ones, and is without a hoped-for rack for carrying supplies. Nonetheless, he is pleased that he again has his own bicycle.

AHMED: I had my bicycle in Sri Lanka, so I donate to some of the refugees, they can use it. I donated there, and got again for me here. So I am happy.

The Shenandoah Valley Bicycle Coalition has set up a website to receive donations for the Bicycles for Refugees program in Harrisonburg.

Christopher Clymer Kurtz was a freelance journalist for WMRA from 2015 - 2019.