Donated bicycles help adult, children refugees in Austin

In this Wednesday, Dec. 21, 2016 photo, Ayham Kamil rides a newly acquired bike at Caritas of Austin in Austin, Texas. Kamil is a refugee from Iraq, and was attending an orientation class with his family at Caritas of Austin, after which all the children received a free bike donated by the Yellow Bike Project. (Kelly West /Austin American-Statesman via AP)

By TAYLOR GOLDENSTEIN ,  Austin American-Statesman

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Snug in a black peacoat, 12-year-old Rafael Al-Mashahedi eyed the bikes around her, standing next to a few and sizing herself up. Then she spotted the one: a Magna in pink, her favorite color.

The Austin American-Statesman reports Rafael had never owned a bicycle before.

She had a small tricycle when she was a toddler, but she had to leave it behind in Baghdad, along with nearly all of her family’s other belongings when they moved about six months ago. They also left many of their relatives.

“It’s good, because, like, in my country, no one very (much) want(s) to let his daughter ride a bike, but here we are free,” she said, describing the plans she already had to go with her family to the park near their new home in Northeast Austin. “In my country, it was not very good, it’s kind of dangerous. Here, we feel safe.”

Rafael was one of more than 40 refugee children who received free bikes during a giveaway for families using resettlement services from the nonprofit Caritas of Austin. The bikes were donated by Austin’s Yellow Bike Project, a nonprofit community bike shop that fixes up old donated bicycles with the help of volunteers and some professional mechanics.

For the past three years, the Yellow Bike Project donated about 10 to 15 bikes every month to adult refugees to give them a mode of transportation.

This year, the two nonprofits teamed up to plan the bike giveaway for children as a holiday event, said Will Chang, donation coordinator at Yellow Bike. Small donations have also been made in the past for children, but this is the first mass giveaway. The groups hope to make it an annual event.

At a time when refugees aren’t always accepted with open arms, Chang said he wanted to send the children and their families a loving message with this gift.

“The state of Texas has been talking about not letting refugees in and cutting funding for refugee services, so we just wanted to make an effort so that people who are moving here feel welcomed by somebody,” Chang said.

Caritas of Austin offers many services for refugee families, including orientation programs for adults that include courses on job readiness, health care, and gender and American culture, and sessions for children that cover such topics as what to expect at an American school. Each family is matched with case managers and employment specialists that they meet with regularly.

“Typically, when a family of refugees arrives, they have very little. They’re not able to bring things from back home,” said Amitiss Mahvash, employment program manager at Caritas. “Being able to give kids something to keep them active, that they can play with . Yellow Bike is making that possible for so many children, and we’re so grateful and excited.”

Before orientation classes this week, current class members and graduate families gathered at the Caritas building on Neches Street, where the children had their choice of bikes. One little girl in a fuzzy, pink coat sat atop a bicycle with training wheels, her mouth agape with bliss as her father held the handlebars and pushed her outside.

Another mother leading her children out of the building, pulling a bike behind her, didn’t notice her daughter had already crawled onto the bike, too excited to spend another minute walking. Her mother looked back and laughed.

Hosna Aslami, a toddling, saucer-eyed girl in a white puffy coat, reached for a Disney Princess bike with heart-shaped pedals and a pink plastic doll carrier that nearly matched her pink glittery sneakers.

A few months ago, after seeing other kids riding bikes in her neighborhood, Hosna asked her Caritas case manager if she could have one. On Wednesday, her wish came true.

“It’s very good. It made me very happy,” her mother, Muzhgan Aslami, said through a translator. “Americans are really hospitable and friendly, and we feel like we’ve become part of the community.”

Muzhgan Aslami becomes emotional when she talks about her life in Kabul and the hardships imposed by the Taliban. As a woman, she wasn’t allowed to study, but she is now taking an English and American culture class at a local church. Her eight children, boys and girls alike, will all have the opportunity to attend Austin schools.

The children spoke eagerly about learning how to ride bikes in school, something they’ll now be able to practice at home on bikes of their own.

“We’re happy (in America). The people are very nice,” Muzhgan Aslami said. “People are good.”


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