Emily is a 21-year-old Afghan refugee living in Berlin, and her best experience in Germany so far has been, without a doubt, learning to ride a bike.
“It gave me the feeling of freedom and self-confidence. I mean, it was just such a beautiful experience, being able to be in control and concentrate on just two wheels. I felt like a bird in the sky,” she wrote in a note of thanks to her cycling teachers.
Showing that note on a wet Sunday afternoon in a modest park in Kreuzberg is Annette Krüger, co-founder of the organisation Bikeygees, which has been teaching refugee women and girls in Berlin how to cycle since 2015.
“We have one million new citizens in Germany, so the question is: do we want to have one million car drivers, or can we get one million new cycling fans?,” asks Krüger.
The unassuming traffic school where Bikeygees were teaching about 30 women that day, is hidden in Wassertorplatz, metres away from the famously gritty Kottbusser Tor. Each was coached by at least one volunteer instructor, who helped them ride around a circuit signposted with German traffic signs.
The idea began in 2015, when, following the huge increase in refugee arrivals in Germany, Krüger and her partner, both cyclists, went to the refugee camp in the Moabit borough to teach people how to cycle. Children came first, and their mothers followed. The demand shocked Krüger: “It could be -10C, and still after each class, the women would ask us to come back.”
The idea is to empower and educate through action. From the beginning, “we could see the fun in their eyes – language is not so important. When you move your body and achieve something, like when you play sport, adrenaline comes rushing in. And you can also feel that someone is physically holding you, which is important after some of the women have experienced trauma.”
Two years later, the organisation has taught more than 500 women, aged 14 to 64. “Sometimes we don’t even know their names. We’re not there to ask, ‘are you a refugee?’ We want to offer two hours’ escapism.” The two hours also provide lasting skills, with classes teaching German traffic rules and, crucially, how to carry out repairs. Thanks to donations, they can also give women bikes, helmets, maintenance tools and locks, so they can leave the classes self-sufficient.
In some cases, explains Morvarid, a 20-year old from Kabul, cultural and religious norms dictate that women shouldn’t cycle. “People come to another country to change their lives, but then you find that they revert to the way they lived before. Some men in the camp keep saying women should cook, wash. It’s been so nice to see this all-woman organisation manage to exude a sense of trust, so that even those men got over themselves and allowed their daughters and wives to come.”
Morvarid cycles around Berlin now, though she still finds the city’s traffic challenging. She has been coming back to the classes to help translate for fellow Afghan attendees: “They have big wishes, they want to go outside, work outside, state their ideas, not their husband’s, brother’s or father’s ideas. I also come from an Afghan family, I know how difficult it is. Whenever I see a woman riding a bike, I’m like: thank God that they are here.”
Bikeygees has cleverly exploited the “when in Rome …” mentality and strategically goes to refugee shelters directly. Rahima, 22, never saw cycling as something she could ever do. Now, she rides with her neighbours. She says: “In my experience, in refugee camps, I saw so many men who bought nice things for themselves, went out all day, and then wouldn’t allow women to go out at all. My father and mother didn’t allow me to ride in Iran or Afghanistan, but here, there is opportunity and I have to use it.”
Krüger is now planning to teach women in the outskirts of Berlin, where public transport is harder to come by and even more expensive, and volunteers aren’t as readily available as in central Berlin’s well-known camps and shelters.
“We learn to cycle or we learn how to help,” she says. “We are all learning something. The idea has always been to show the world that it’s not so complicated to effect change. Most people say: the government are evil and I can’t do anything. You can! This is the evidence.”