Wheels of change: In Germany, local initiatives help refugee women feel at home, one bicycle ride at a time

Bicycles in Germany are changing lives of refugee women, as local initiatives like #BIKEYGEES and Bike Bridge are teaching women how to cycle and adapt to their new surroundings better.

Amit Kamath August 06, 2019 09:09:45 IST

Sitting in her cozy office in Berlin, Annette Krüger invokes history. “Did you know that a century ago, a woman on a bicycle was not a very common sight even in Europe! They would be frowned at. They were judged! They had to fight for the right to bicycle on these streets,” she says, right before pulling out bright, multi-lingual pamphlets, bearing slogans such as #cyclingisfreedom and #cyclingisahumanright.

While the humble bicycle's important role in women's emancipation is well documented, Krüger's mission treads a similar path: to use the bicycle as a tool to help refugee women integrate into German society.

She remembers the time when she and a handful of her friends walked into a refugee shelter near her home in Berlin, and started shouting, "yalla, yalla, bicyclette" ("come, come and cycle"), while wagging a cycle helmet and an air pump over her head.

“As soon as we shouted that, all the kids at the shelter came running to us. But we told them to get their mothers along too. When the women came, they all looked sceptically at us. We took them to the parking lot of a nearby supermarket without fully knowing how we can teach someone to ride a bicycle,” Krüger tells Firstpost.

A refugee woman being coached by #BIKEYGEES co-founder Annette Krüger (right) and a volunteer. Image courtesy: Deutsche Fernsehlotterie/Jan Ehlers

This is how #BIKEYGEES e.V. started in the summer of 2015, when the refugee crisis was at its peak. The Berlin-based initiative is one of the two in Germany that teaches refugee women how to ride a bicycle. The other initiative is called Bike Bridge, which also started the same year in Freiburg and has now expanded to Stuttgart and Frankfurt. Bike Bridge’s founders too are planning to open a chapter in Hamburg soon.

Currently, #BIKEYGEES, which registered its 700th trainee last week, hosts sessions in six locations in and around Berlin, including one at Brandenburg, 70 kilometres away from the capital.

Krüger says that the Brandenburg chapter was started because previously they would have women coming to Berlin from places where local buses would be available only thrice a day.

“I also heard some sad stories about a few locals making fascist comments at these women wearing hijabs. The women would say that they are afraid to go home from Berlin after its dark,” she says.

Freedom, mobility, escape!

For some refugee women, getting on a bicycle means not having to depend on others for mobility. For others, the simple act of riding a bicycle signifies freedom, one which they never had much of back home. In many of the countries from which said refugees hail, a woman on a bicycle was uncommon. In some, they were reproved. In others, it was outright forbidden.

Krüger, though, admits that she and her friends didn’t know this when they started #BIKEYGEES.

#BIKEYGEES volunteers and trainees after a session in Berlin. Image courtesy: Deutsche Fernsehlotterie/Jan Ehlers

“We knew there were a lot of people who had fled wars in their countries and were living in shelter homes. So we wanted to help them. We didn’t know that women from some countries had been forbidden from riding bicycles. It was later that we discovered that what we were doing was multi-layered. For us, it was not very important if they were forbidden or frowned at while riding bicycles back home. The question is not why they still cannot ride a bicycle. The only question we ask during our training session is whether they want to ride a bicycle or hold someone who is trying to learn how to ride. It doesn’t matter if someone is wearing a hijab. After a while we were training women from Afghanistan, Iraq, even Somalia. We don’t ask them questions about the lives they have left behind in the countries they have come from. If they want to share, we listen. But we don’t ask for those things. We offer two hours of happiness,” says Krüger.

Given Germany’s culture of cycling, many cities in the country have extensive bicycle lanes. Thus, initiatives like #BIKEYGEES and Bike Bridge are helping refugee women adapt to their new surroundings with simple two-hour sessions one day of the week.

“Such courses help these refugee women integrate into the German way of life better. It also provides them the freedom of riding a bicycle, which is very important for them. Many of the women I have taught said they can get to places they want faster on bicycles than through local transportation,” says Judith Häring, who started the Bike Bridge initiative in Stuttgart three years after it came into being in Freiburg. The story goes that once while visiting a refugee shelter, one of Bike Bridge’s founders, Shahrzad Mohammadi, noticed that while men had sports like football and basketball, there were not too many activities for women.

Volunteers help a refugee woman at a training session. Image courtesy: Patty Buescher

Both initiatives believe that their role does not simply end with helping a woman ride a bicycle. They also help them understand local traffic rules, which can be unsettling in big cities like Berlin, besides teaching them basic cycle repair hacks. Many refugees also take some time to come to grips with the traffic rules, since vehicles in Europe drive on the right side of the street.

#BIKEYGEES even printed their own multi-lingual pamphlets to help these women understand traffic rules, when they realised the government leaflets could sometimes be tone-deaf.

“The government gave us some information leaflets to help the women. But I cannot tell these women some of things that they mention. On one leaflet it says that you should not cycle after drinking alcohol or consuming drugs. I cannot say that to these women! I do not want to be crude!” bristles Krüger. “But we have to teach them other things. They often hang their handbags on the bike handles. That’s a big problem. So we developed our own pamphlets.”

No men, please!

An essential tenet of these two courses is the focus on teaching women rather than teaching all refugees. Bike Bridge ensures even their trainers are women. #BIKEYGEES tried taking in men a few months after they first started, but the organisers soon realised that the women would get too conscious of being laughed at.

“We are not saying men are evil, but we try to offer safe spaces for women. Places where they can learn without distraction. That’s why we also ask fathers to take their kids to the playground for those two hours when the women are learning how to cycle,” says Krüger.

Volunteers repair a bicycle during a training session. Image courtesy: Deutsche Fernsehlotterie/Jan Ehlers

At Bike Bridge’s sessions in Freiburg, there are volunteers who hold workshops to keep the children occupied, while their mothers take part in sessions. Häring says the initiative has helped around 60 women in Stuttgart so far, aged between 16 and 60.

“Many of the women whom I have taught told me they wanted to do this for their children, who could already ride. They wanted to cycle with them rather than having to run behind them,” Häring says.

While #BIKEYGEES has garnered a lot of attention in Germany, thanks to their approach to helping refugee women integrate into society, Krüger wants to make a quick clarification.

“We are not only about teaching refugees. We have women who are living in Germany who are originally from Brazil, Mexico, Korea and even Turkish women, who come to us. In many of these countries, it’s not forbidden. But it’s not common either. Many countries don’t have bike lanes. One Brazilian woman told us that no one would dare ride a cycle in the city she comes from. It’s too dangerous! Some Turkish women who came to us were born here, have a job, and always drove a car to their work. But never a cycle.”

Lending a friendly hand

With little to no funds initially, both the initiatives had people volunteering for them when they took off. Help arrived from local bicycle shops, neighbours and friends.

“We worked as volunteers in the beginning. All the people around us were so willing to help us. Some gave us money, others donated bikes. One of my neighbours gave me money to buy locks for the bicycles. There has been no support from the big bicycle companies. It was only the small people,” says Krüger, who adds that they currently receive funds from German lottery, besides other foundations.

In the four years since it began, #BIKEYGEES has won many awards, including the German cycling award, which Krüger brands as "the Oscar for cycling in Germany". More importantly, they now get invited to talk to students in schools on how anyone can bring about change as individuals.

Krüger says, “We’re very small. But we’re very effective. A lot of people are suffering but we cannot do anything about that. But with this, we can change the life of a woman in two hours. It’s easy. The idea we want to share is that if you just extend your hand towards others, you can change the world. You don’t have to be the government to do this. We can change history with small steps. Small things, like a woman on a bicycle.”

The writer is in Germany as part of the Robert Bosch Media Ambassadors Program.

Updated Date: October 07, 2019 22:51:02 IST

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