How refugees are playing a vital role in the recycling of cycles in Zagreb

The Croatian authorities have been strongly condemned by Amnesty International for their treatment of refugees and asylum seekers. Yet grassroots movements in Zagreb are helping those who have been displaced. MARINA KELAVA reports on one bicycle fixing project that is giving refugees a sense of purpose and an opportunity to learn about sustainability

I feel useful when I fix a bicycle. I will keep coming because I like bicycles and I want to help people like they helped me. The bicycle is now my car.

Odai Ajam is an archelogist from Idlib, and one of the attendees at a bicycle repair course for refugees and asylum seekers in Zagreb. "I had a bicycle in Syria when I was a child, but it got broken and I had no money to fix it," he told The Ecologist.

"When I came to Croatia I saw that people really enjoyed using bicycles as their method of transport. Now I go everywhere with a bicycle, come rain or snow."

The bicycle course has been organised by Biciklopopravljaona, a volunteering collective that has donated more than 100 bicycles to refugees in the last year. The collective works to integrate refugees while also teaching and promoting sustainable solutions.

Cycling and recycling

The course is funded by the EU's School of Sustainability project and aims to contribute to the integration of refugees but also to teach and share DIY skills and promote sustainable transport. 

It is the first of this kind in the region and it is organised by Biciklopopravljaona, a volunteering collective that works within the environmental NGO Zelena akcija (Friends of the Earth Croatia), running workshops on Saturday afternoons. 

I visited a workshop where they were learning how to tune wheels and change spokes. Five attendees from Syria, Libya and Iraq had already learnt how to patch a tyre, fix brakes, change cables and will go on to learn about and gears.

Eugen Vuković, the coordinator of Biciklopopravljaona and the course teacher, said: “This is a beginners course which we based on the very successful course we ran for women in November."

"The idea is that the participants learn enough so that they can come and volunteer during our regular working hours when our Bike Kitchen is open to all citizens. People can come and fix their bicycles for free with the help of our volunteers.”

New skills

Ahmad A didn't have much contact with bicycles until he found out about the course. The 19-year old from Damascus said: “This is the first time I'm doing something like this. It is difficult, like anything you encounter for the first time.” 

He has been living in Croatia for the last two years, but has so far not been able to continue his high-school education. “I finished first grade of high-school in Syria and then had to stop.

"As I'm now an adult I would have to pay to continue my education so I don't think I will be able to continue soon. I decided to apply for this course because at least I can learn something new here”

Biciklopopravljaona has been working very successfully for the last eight years. During this time volunteers have fixed more than six thousand bicycles. They have managed to include asylum seekers in the programme, even though they had not expected the high numbers that came from Zagreb. 

I feel useful when I fix a bicycle. I will keep coming because I like bicycles and I want to help people like they helped me. The bicycle is now my car.

Paying it forward

In the beginning, the people waiting for asylum decisions had no right to free transport in Zagreb. Since the facilities they were housed in were far from the centre of town, their freedom of movement was very limited.

This made the long months of waiting and uncertainty even more depressing. But getting a bicycle meant that they could move around the city freely. 

And even though refugees in Zagreb were eventually entitled to free public transport cards, Biciklopopravljaona continued to collect old bicycles, fix them and donate them to refugees and other people in need. 

In the last year more than 100 bicycles have been salvaged - returned to life and donated. Some of the people that received donated bicycles continue to return and from time to time help other users of the workshop. 

Community engagement

Vuković said: “The idea to organise a course developed from this experience.  Asylum seekers have become our regular visitors, so we thought it would be useful to include them in our work as volunteers. We think this is also our contribution to the integration process in the local community.

"Users of our workshop are people of all ages and social backgrounds in Zagreb. Many of them had no opportunity to meet a refugee from, say, Syria - so this is an opportunity to work on overcoming the prejudice the media sometimes create." 

"We’ve had no negative experiences. Prejudices that may have existed among local people have definitely gone. People want to help refugees, evidenced by the fact so many people have donated their old bicycles to be fixed and donated to refugees."

Many of the bicycles have actually been saved from becoming land fill. They've either not been used for years or the owners have been told they are not worth fixing.

The parts used for fixing old bicycles have also mostly been recycled - other users often leave their old parts in the workshop when they buy some new parts, like seats, wheels and shifters.

Vuković told The Ecologist: “Maybe the skill of bicycle repair could also be useful to refugees who are looking for a job. If some of them become really interested in it, it is not impossible that someday they could get jobs as bicycle repairmen - why not?”

Useful skill

Besides connecting people and the economic and environmental benefits, the course is also helping people learn the Croatian language. 

A longtime volunteer Talal Abedrabbo who is translating the course from Croatian to Arabic became a volunteer because he kept returning to Biciklopopravljaon with his bicycle that often required repair.

He said: “It is definitely a useful skill to learn - and the atmosphere here is always good.”

Odai also plans to come back and volunteer in the workshop after the course. He says: “I feel useful when I fix a bicycle. I will keep coming because I like bicycles and I want to help people like they helped me. The bicycle is now my car.”

This author

Marina Kelava is a freelance journalist.

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