Social Justice

Changemakers: Jem Stein gets refugees moving across London with Bike Project

Giving bikes to refugees doesn't just save them money – it offers a taste of freedom. And Jem Stein's Bike Project is making it a reality

In London, refugees are pedalling their way to independence – and it’s all thanks to Jem Stein. The 31-year-old created The Bike Project, a social enterprise donating refurbished second-hand bicycles to refugees and asylum seekers. The exercise is important, Stein says, but it is about more than that – access to services, health care, legal aid, a social life are all made possible by a bike in the sprawling capital. TV presenter Louis Theroux was convinced enough to get involved.

Stein, originally from Oxford, studied Government at the London School of Economics until 2010. While a student, he signed up to a buddy project which resulted in him mentoring a 16-year-old asylum seeker, Adam, from Darfur. He saw that the boy was struggling to get around, largely because of money – people waiting on asylum claims being processed are banned from working and instead are given just £37 a week by the government. Stein’s younger brother had a spare bike; Stein refurbished it and gave it to his mentee, thinking very little of it.

“That was the first sense of really living in London for him,” Stein says, still moved by how quickly a bike changed Adam’s life. “Suddenly he could access education and healthcare. We could go on bike rides together. I took him boxing. That really got me thinking about this as a solution to something.”

After graduating, Stein spent some time as a youth worker in his local Jewish community, working with kids on issues like mental health and social action. But all the while he was collecting old, rusting bicycles abandoned in London or donated directly to him and storing them in his back garden. He wanted to give all refugees and asylum seekers the same independence he had given Adam.

They felt independent, more in control of their lives

The Bike Project grew legs. More people were donating bikes; more vulnerable people were receiving bikes and with them, agency. The charity was outgrowing Stein’s back garden. He had to change gear.

But as The Bike Project gained traction, his perspective on the power a bike had to change a life morphed. “At first I was very concerned with the tangible benefits like saving money. But when we started researching the impact we were having, we realised there was another aspect to it – the emotional benefit.

“Refugees felt more empowered. They would feel independent, more in control of their lives. Yes, they were saving money, which is massively important, but they had access to resources and were enjoying the emotional effects of regular exercise.

“It seemed like with a bike, you couldn’t lose,” he adds.

What my greatest failure taught me:

When we started out, we fixed bikes for corporate clients. It was stressful and wasn’t profitable. I learned that it’s better to stay focused on your core mission. Don’t be afraid to stop and regroup then change course.

Stein points out that the Bike Project team, now numbering 13 people, has kept the application process for a set of wheels as easy as possible. No proof is needed of someone’s status as a refugee or asylum seeker, just some basic details in an online form. The flip side of this is that the waiting list is three months long. That is around 400 people – but the charity has given more than 4,500 refurbished bikes away to date.

To keep the operation running, The Bike Project sells second-hand bikes too. Stein’s team of mechanics select donated bikes which might sell for a decent price. Those sales support other projects too, ones Stein hopes “help people make the most of their bikes”.

This includes a programme teaching people to fix and maintain bikes and a talent development programme (which allows some wannabe-mechanics to volunteer in the workshop – one refugee works there full-time now). Refugee women can head along to Pedal Power, special sessions for women from countries where they might not have had the opportunity to learn to ride a bike. Here, they learn the skill from scratch in a safe environment.

And Stein launched Bike Buddies last year – an initiative reminiscent of what led him to steer change like he did. “Refugees who received a bike from the charity but are hesitant to cycle in the area, whether that’s because they don’t know their way around or they don’t know which routes are the safest, link up with a local volunteer who’s experienced on wheels. But it’s a friendship thing too. There’s no point to all of this if everyone stays isolated.”

The Bike Project was launched prior to the refugee crisis, but was still deeply impacted by it. “Demand exploded,” Stein says, explaining how the 2015 surge of people fleeing conflict and persecution in Syria and Iraq impacted the social enterprise. “We didn’t even really have a waiting list to start with. But while we’ve seen a huge increase in demand, we’ve also seen a huge increase in support.

“Trump changed things as well, funnily enough. He increased the issue’s profile for sure. When he ordered that travel ban on majority-Muslim countries, there were huge protests. We went on those protests and then, somehow, every time Trump tweeted about refugees, people would donate money to us. It was a bizarre situation.”

Now, Stein is working on launching a second Bike Project hub in Birmingham, which he says “ticked the boxes” – a significant refugee population plus reasonably pricey public transport for a network less comprehensive than that in London. He hopes the social enterprise can spread right across the country, but is wary of running before he can walk, so his priority for now is to prove that all branches of the project can run smoothly in a second location.

Next month, Stein will be leading a push on bike sales with the help of Theroux (the documentary maker recently recorded a video urging the public to go to Stein for their bikes and make a difference in the process). With the Birmingham hub opening soon, Stein says, it’s time to kick things up a gear.

Read more Changemakers here

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