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Bikes for New Mainers
This story, by Shoshana Hoose, first appeared in the Fall 2015 issue of the League's magazine, American Bicyclist. Read the full issue here.
The seaside city of Portland, Maine — population 66,000 — has become home to thousands of immigrants from all over the world. During the past four decades, waves of refugees and other immigrants have arrived from Vietnam, Cambodia, Bosnia, Sudan, Somalia and many other countries. About a third of the students in the city's public schools now speak a language other than English at home.
Among the most recent arrivals are people fleeing repression and violence in central Africa. Many come to the United States on temporary visas and then seek asylum. They are not allowed to work for at least six months as they await initial processing of their cases. Some asylum seekers live in shelters, and most scrape by on very little money.
Two years ago, the Bicycle Coalition of Maine began receiving requests to donate bikes left over from its annual swap to asylum seekers and other so-called "New Mainers."
Nancy Grant, the coalition's executive director, said many of the recent immigrants "don't have driver's licenses, don't have motor vehicles and are asked to go all over town to complete paperwork, to attend different kinds of orientations, to sign up for and take English classes."
"If they had bicycles," she said, "it would make life a lot easier."
Last year, the coalition partnered with local organizations serving immigrants to launch a pilot project called Bikes for New Mainers. Adults who complete a free, nine-hour course in bicycle safety receive a used bicycle, helmet, lights, bell, lock and a $50 gift certificate for bike repairs.
The class has been offered five times and demand is strong. More than 60 people applied for the May class. The coalition selected only experienced cyclists, since class time was too limited to teach beginners how to ride.
The nine students came from Iraq, Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi, Angola and Uganda. Most were used to riding under very different circumstances than in the United States. The African students said there are no laws to protect cyclists in their home countries, and no one wears a helmet.
The nine students came from Iraq, Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi, Angola and Uganda. Most were used to riding under very different circumstances than in the United States.
Eugenie Mydear learned to ride a bicycle with no gears or brakes in a Ugandan refugee camp. It is not considered acceptable for girls and women to ride there, she said, so she would sneak out on her brothers' bike. Her family depended on the bike to haul water and groceries since they had no car. They'd blast the horn to let people know they were coming. "We learned how to use our feet" to slow down, Mydear said. She still has a scar from a childhood bike crash.
The Bikes for New Mainers class met for three evenings in May. Nathan Hagelin, the main teacher, is a League Cycling Instructor. He taught students how to fit their helmets snugly, and showed them how to position themselves in traffic as they approach intersections. He encouraged them to be courteous to pedestrians.
After an hour in the classroom, students were eager to try out their skills. Hagelin passed out orange and green safety vests, assuring students that they were very fashionable. "Don't give me that face!" he teased.
The students learned how to pump up their tires. Then, Hagelin led them on a trail ride through the city and along the beach to Portland harbor. They practiced making hand signals and changing gears. They maneuvered safely over railroad tracks. "On your left!" they called out, as they passed pedestrians.
As they approached downtown, Hagelin warned the class, "We're going to have some cars, some hills, some traffic lights, some tight situations." Students rode single file, just as they'd been taught. They smiled and shouted triumphantly as they arrived back at the parking lot.
Two days later, they went on a longer ride through neighborhoods that many had never seen before. They stopped at a bike shop where they can do their own repairs. The class ended with a little graduation ceremony and lots of photos. Mydear couldn't wait to send one to her family in Uganda to show them her purple and white Diamondback mountain bike.
Maine's cycling community has helped support the Bikes for New Mainers program. Volunteers assist in teaching the class. Coalition members and recycle-a-bike programs have donated used bicycles, and a local cycling club gave locks. The coalition has provided helmets, lights and the instruction. A Portland consulting firm gave the class a free meeting space.
To make the program sustainable, the coalition may have students build their own bicycles in the future, rather than getting them for free. Grant, the executive director, said she would like to hire an interpreter to translate curriculum materials. Eventually, she hopes that one of the immigrants who graduates from the class will begin teaching it.
Mydear said her husband back in Uganda considers her a "hero" for learning how to cycle better than he can. She is using her bike — with gears and working brakes — to get to adult education classes. Soon, Mydear said, "I'll be riding all over the city."
Shoshana Hoose writes “Leg Work,” a bi-weekly column about bicycling and walking for the “Maine Sunday Telegram” newspaper in Portland.