Two friends started the Bristol Bike Project to empower refugees, drug addicts, and marginalised people.
by Aisiri Amin
You can’t miss the Bristol Bike Project. A bright yellow bike hanging on the top of the banner greets you to the bike lover’s paradise. The buzz of the ongoing workshop, the clinking of the metal and the subtle spinning sound of the wheels welcomes you inside. As you swim through the sea of bikes, you can hear the excited chatter of the volunteers in the workshop. If there is a world a biker could find peace in, it would be in this chaos.
Wearing the Broke Spoke Bike Coop t-shirt and a warm smile, Pi Mason, one of the 15 coordinators, tells how Bristol Bike Project came into being. “It took a long time for the Project to become this. It all started eight years ago in James’ (one of the co-founders) room,’’ he says.
It was in December 2008 that the Bristol Bike Project came into being. Founded by two friends, James Lucas and Colin Fan, it quickly grew from a room to the quirky place that it is today. The two friends were working at Bristol Refugee Rights when they witnessed the problems that refugees were facing with transport.
“People who lived far away had to travel a long distance to get to places. They couldn’t afford to pay for a bus ticket or other public transport so they were walking most of the time. That’s when James and Colin realized bicycles can make their life much easier,” explains Mason. And this project started.
“A simple tattoo of a bike on his forearm and the way Mason’s face lights up when surrounded by bikes indicates the importance bikes have in his life. I met James at a bike event and that’s where I learn about the Project. For me, this has been a wonderful thing. It’s a great way of meeting people and making friends. I moved to Bristol not knowing anybody but today have a good network of friends largely because of the Project,” he says.
Though the refugees and asylum seekers are the core of the organisation, they also work with various other people. Mason says, “We also work with the homeless, people recovering from drug and alcohol addictions, people who have got long-term barriers, anyone who is marginalized of other transport options.”
Andrew Williams, who started volunteering at Bristol Bike Project last September feels that the Project brought a positive change in his life. “For me, it has been therapeutic. I have experienced some hard times recently so it has been good for me to be in a different environment and to work with my hands, help people and feel useful.”
One of the unique aspects of the Project is skill sharing. “The core of the project is skill sharing. We don’t work for them, we encourage them to do it for themselves. The idea is to give people skills and empower them to do their own stuff, fix their own bikes,” Mason explains.
The most popular workshop is the Earn A Bike which is the heart of the Project. Mostly it’s the members of the public who donate their bike. People who need a bike come in, they spend three hours working one to one with our volunteers and they fix the bike. At the end of the session they get to keep the bike.
When one imagines a bike workshop, it is a stereotype to think of sturdy young men working on bikes. But the Bristol Bike Project aims at breaking these traditions. At their centre, both men and women work side by side and anyone as young as six years to as old as 70 years can work as a volunteer.
“Every week there is a Women and Trans’ Night which is workshop exclusively for them to come in and fix their bike in a self-supportive environment. We realize bike mechanics can be quite a masculine environment which can be putting off for some people. This workshop is a safe place and very supportive and a good way to break the tradition in the masculine world of bike mechanics,’’ says Mason.
Teresa Valentova is one of the many women who volunteer at the Project. A biker herself, Teresa feels empowered since she started coming here. “I know how to fix my bike now. All my friends want me to fix their bikes. It’s a really nice atmosphere here and I like coming here and working with different people,” she adds.
The Bristol Bike Project is one of its kind. It addresses one of the main issues marginalised people face: transport. Paul Roberts, a charismatic 67-year-old who has been volunteering at the Project since a year says, “There are people who come down here with various problems, such as not being able to get work easily, not being able to get around. A bicycle brings a big change in their life, it makes it much easier for them.”
Aisiri Amin is a journalist specialising in social justice, gender issues and culture. She has written for The Hindu and works as a freelance writer. Social wallflower and an idealist at the core, she lives on books, tea and hope (in that particular order).