Syria Archives - The Bike Project

Cycling Towards Syria: Calais & Dunkirk, France

Cycle to Syria

This summer, Bike Project volunteers David (hi) and Caz are cycling 2,500 miles across Europe, following the routes of migration back towards Syria. On this trip, we’re trying to learn as much as we can about the effects of migration on residents and refugees alike. Right now, we’re in Germany, having already cycled through England, France and Belgium. In this update, I’d like to tell you a bit about the migrant camps in Calais and Dunkirk, just a couple of days’ cycle from our homes in London.

We’d both visited Calais before, but Dunkirk was completely new to us and couldn’t have felt more different: the Dunkirk migrant camp is to the Calais jungle as Milton Keynes is to London. Where Calais is only now having some semblance of order imposed on its meandering medieval street plan, Dunkirk has been ordered from conception to execution.

The Dunkirk camp, the first in France built to UN standards, is around a quarter the size of the Calais jungle. It’s home to approximately 1,100 people, mostly Iraqi Kurds (~90%). This gives the camp an ethnic and cultural homogeneity that Calais, with its jumbled compounds of Eritrean, Ethiopian, Syrian, Afghan, Pakistani, Sudanese and others, will never have. (Milton Keynes compared to London again!)

The Dunkirk camp opened with the blessing of the local Green Party Mayor and is managed by Utopia, a local charity. Any charities or organisations attempting to manage the communities in Calais have basically failed. Both the recent destruction of half the vast shanty town and the construction of more comfortable container living accommodation have been met with serious opposition, including violent resistance.

But the starkest contrast between the two camps is in enterprise. In Calais there are restaurants, shops, a barbers, churches, mosques, bicycle mechanics, schools, a library, bakeries, a youth centre, a play bus, as well as the bustle of constant construction as architects and carpenters get to work building something new.

Dunkirk is a sleepy suburb in comparison. My Friend’s Cafe serves free tea and coffee and when we passed a folk band were fiddling to a full tent. But the only migrant-run businesses that I saw were a couple of roadside stalls, offering baguettes, biscuits and a few other essentials. That’s why I got quite so excited when I bumped into an Iraqi Kurd making a beehive from scavenged wood. (https://youtu.be/svzB4uFg6lQ)

The look on his face reminded me of the people I meet at The Bike Project, getting stuck into an oily old clanger. Obviously, no one would choose the life of a refugee, but it doesn’t take much to return to them a smidgen of autonomy – whether that’s the tools to fix up an ancient bike, or some scrap wood to corral some stray bees. At the very least, we should share our honey.

For regular updates on the ride, please visit www.davidcharles.info and join the mailing list.

If you’d like to support the ride, then think about donating to our Bike Project fundraiser! https://localgiving.org/fundraising/cyclingsyria

Ahmad with bike

Riding on a smile: a Syrian refugee and his bike

Riding on a smile: a Syrian refugee and his bike

Ahmad, a Syrian refugee, with his bike

Ahmad, a Syrian refugee, with his bike

 

Getting around London is expensive for everyone, let alone for a refugee living on the weekly government asylum allowance of £36.95. A London travelcard (zones 1 and 2) costs £32.10 a week.

Whilst seeking asylum, it is vital that people are able to access essential legal, medical and other support services around London, on top of paying for food and other necessities.

It’s a lot to cover with just £36.95.

This is Ahmad’s story.

Ahmad is 33 years old, and came to London a year ago after fleeing violence and persecution in his homeland, Syria. This is a plight sadly shared by over 8,000,000 Syrians since 2011.

When Ahmad arrived in London, he was a stranger in an unfamiliar city, and had no one to turn to for help and support.

For Ahmad, getting to and from important places, such as the supermarket and the doctors was a huge challenge on his meagre budget of £36.95 a week.

One evening, Ahmad attended a community support meeting and was told about The Bike Project. Given his first impressions of London, he was intrigued to hear that someone he’d never met would give him a bike for free.

After looking up The Bike Project online, he headed down to the workshop in Denmark Hill where he was greeted by ‘happy, smiling people’.

A couple of hours later, Ahmad rode away on his new bike, setting himself the rather bold target of navigating his way back to north London.

Thinking back, Ahmad tells me: ‘I felt welcome; welcome and accepted.’

From the moment his foot touched the pedal, Ahmad felt like a new man. He loved the freedom and experience of cycling around London. Importantly, Ahmad now spends the money he saves on transport, on food and other necessities.

Having a bike has given him the opportunity to experience this unique city in a personal way, instead of spending his precious allowance on transport.

Ahmad now rides up to 30 miles a day and knows London better than most of its inhabitants. He has friends in Finsbury Park, Portobello Road and Kentish Town and can now visit them regularly – he’s fit as a fiddle.

He’s also been back to The Bike Project to service his bike and to volunteer his services, helping other refugees to get a bike.

It is clear in Ahmad’s voice that having a bike has made a real difference to his life – as he himself gleefully exclaims before we say goodbye:

“I LOVE my bike!”

 

 

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Jem and Silla

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