Friday night bikes: helping immigrants get rolling in their new city
It’s an unexpected sight to say the least. On most Friday evenings, if you walk past reception at the Citadel Community Centre and climb a flight of stairs, you’ll find eight or so people repairing bicycles — on the landing.
If you squeeze past the commotion, you’ll find a large storage room dominated by countless old bicycles. They’re awaiting repair and then assignment to new owners from the city’s fast-growing immigrant population.
“We’re one of the few organizations like this that does not need more volunteers right now, but I expect that to change as we grow, so we’re always glad to hear from skilled mechanics,” says Adam Berry, who manages the Welcoming Wheels project for the Ecology Action Centre and its partners.
And it turns out that sharing a passion for biking is a great way to overcome linguistic and cultural barriers. Adam estimates 80 per cent of the volunteers at Welcoming Wheels are themselves recent immigrants.
On the face of it, the project is simple: repair donated bicycles and give them to newcomers. But there’s more to it. Some volunteers are regulars on Friday nights, others take on tasks such as collecting the bikes, managing inventory, raising money, training people to ride safely on Halifax streets, translating, and organizing the distribution of street-ready bikes.
Ephraim Mapendo walked in with his bike while Adam and I were talking about all this. Adam eyed the tires and suggested Ephraim add some air. That segued into a discussion about whether narrow or wide tires are better for riding in the snow.
“Yep. Ephraim lives in Spryfield and needs his bike to get to work at the Walmart in Bedford.”
Adam, an enthusiastic BMX biker who recommends narrow tires for snow, said Ephraim is an example of one of his earliest insights at Welcoming Wheels: “Like most of the world, immigrants want bikes for economic reasons, not recreation. North Americans see it is as hobby, which is probably why we have the lowest bike ridership anywhere.”
Well, hobby or not, volunteers are drawn to the landing on Friday nights to fix bikes and, at break-time, enjoy traditional Canadian cuisine — pizza.