On October 13, 2016, Ali Al-Khattawi arrived in Miami from Iraq with his wife and three children. The refugee family had very little possessions and were adjusting to being in a new place with no relatives or friends to rely on. But a donation of a bicycle from FIU has changed the family’s life dramatically.
“I’m very grateful for this gift,” Al-Khattawi says through an Arabic translator. “I was very happy when I received the bike because I don’t have a car. I use my bike with a GPS app on my phone that allows me to reach other areas I couldn’t get to by foot. To go to work, I used to get two busses in each direction, but by using the bike, I ride the first bus and when I get off I continue to my job on my bike.”
As a community advisory board member at the Church World Service, alumnus Eric Feldman ’10, ’12 approached the organization to find internship opportunities for students enrolled in Global Learning’s Medallion, Peace Corps Prep and Kimberly Green Latin American and Caribbean Center programs, where he serves as a coordinator. In doing so, he also discovered that there was a need for bikes among the organization’s refugee clients.
After a call to the FIU Bike Shop, a partnership was formed – Bikes for Refugees – and in spring 2016, five bikes and $50 were donated from FIU to Church World Service for its Immigration and Resettlement Program.
Since then, the program had stalled. In January 2017, interest in the program came up again. Through a partnership with the FIU Bike Shop, Wellness and Recreation Center – MMC and Global Learning, anyone can now donate bikes to the Bike Shop, which they will repair or tune up, and in turn, donate to CWS’s Refugee program.
“At FIU, we prepare students to impact the world around them,” says Charles Judkins, director of Wellness and Recreation Center – MMC, which runs the FIU Bike Shop. “It’s important that our community provide assistance when we can. Our Bike Shop had been collecting abandoned bikes on-campus and using them for parts, donations or re-sale. It only seemed natural to repurpose our efforts to provide newly arriving refugees with a source of transportation.”
Kenneth Fuentes, a caseworker at Church World Service, helps families who have recently arrived in the United States through its Immigration and Resettlement Program. Making sure families have food, clothing and social services is at the heart of the program. But transportation is a challenge for many.
“Refugee families rely on public transportation to go for groceries, to attend adult education classes, visit other refugee families from the same country around their area, go to work – most of the time far from home – and do other activities,” Fuentes says. “However, not all families feel comfortable or confident using public transportation at first. Many times, if not all, families become familiar with their neighborhoods and other surrounding areas by moving around on donated bikes. Some families living in North Miami have ridden their bikes as far as downtown Miami.”
Fuentes notes that an important part of the program is making families feel welcome in their new home.
“We always make sure families understand that the bikes we provide to them are gifts from the community who appreciates them and wish them the best,” he says.
According to the United States Department of State, 84,995 refugees from around the world were welcomed to the United States in 2016. Of those, about 3,200 were resettled in Florida, primarily in Miami-Dade, Hillsborough and Duval counties.
For Al-Khattawi, the bike is a small part of what’s helped his family find happiness in their new home in Miami.
“Before the bike I use to go to the nearest grocery store by foot, for example Publix,” he says. “Although, it’s expensive, it’s the only nearby store I can go to. After I got the bike, I was happy because I could go to other stores on the bike using the GPS app on my phone. Now, I know all the shortcuts around the area.”
With his children in school and a job under his belt, he says he’s feeling comfortable and happy, now that they have been able to build a stable home.
“Refugees or people coming to this country want to feel they are humans,” he says, reflecting on his experience. “They want to live without injustices. They want to live without suffering. Before, we were unable to become happy. We are seeking the happiness of living comfortably in peace. I want all the good things for my family. I want peace. I want my kids to be educated. Simply, we are nice people who want to live a normal life just like everyone else.”
For more information about the Bikes for Refugees program, visit the Bike Shop website.