Thursday 16 February 2017

Bikes for refugees

I've not written much on this blog recently. This is a cycling blog and it's rare that I've strayed far from cycling subjects, but at this point in history there are other big issues which simply can't be ignored and I've not wanted to distract from them. Many of my readers are from the UK and USA and both countries have far greater problems at the moment than their lack of decent cycling infrastructure.

I'll start with a message to Americans: Please hurry up and impeach Trump. He was obviously not of presidential material before many of you voted for him and in the few days he's been in power he has undermined your nation. Trump is a danger not only to the US but also to the world. But at least there is an obvious protest movement in the US and Trump has been of huge benefit to satirists.

To British people: Brexit will be a disaster for the UK. Your massive debt, poor infrastructure, poor social conditions and lack of much to export won't be helped at all by devaluation of your currency and loss of the very good trade deals which you currently have with the EU and through it to the world. Millions of people are already living with uncertainty due to the vote (us included). There's not much good news in the pipeline for the UK. For Britain I think it's worse than for the USA. A president is voted in for four years while brexit is forever. Yet while some British politicians are busy getting close to Trump the official "opposition" has failed to actually oppose anything, and there are no significant protests so I can't see this juggernaut stopped.

Most mainland Europeans understand more than one language. As a result, they're not hostage to what their own media wishes to publish. What's more, newspapers and TV news over here report what's going on in other countries quite well. As a result, the people have been able to see what has happened in the UK and USA, how "fake news" and outright lies misled the electorates of those countries. The result of this is that support for the EU has increased since June last year and the chance of European nations falling foul of the same influences as caused Brexit and the Trump presidency has waned.

A positive message
The world is a strange place at the moment. However that seems like a good reason to write about something positive:

Last year, the Grote Culturele Prijs van Drenthe (Great Cultural Prize of Drenthe) was awarded to the architect Cor Kalfsbeek. Cor and his wife Sibylle decided to use the €10000 prize money to do something for society and what they've done is to buy 100 bicycles for refugees living in a centre near their home in the North of Drenthe.

In this video from our local TV station you'll see people learning to cycle and find out how the bikes are being used. Because cycling has been made accessible to everyone, newcomers to the Netherlands use bicycles just as the locals do, to go to school and work, make shopping trips, and for pleasant rides through the countryside. Cycling is not only useful, it also makes people smile.

Cyclists near one of the many refugee centres in Drenthe
In the words of Sybille Kalfsbeek: "What can be better than cycling in the Netherlands ? You must do it. It takes you far, it relaxes you, you're outside, you're distracted and must pay attention. It's an activity which frees you and it makes your world a bit bigger."

The Netherlands is currently home to many thousands of refugees. There have been objections from some people afraid of what might happen, and crimes have been commited by a small minority, but the majority of asylum seekers are people very much like you and I, singles, couples, families, who are in desperate need and the majority of the Dutch population are compassionate and wish to help.

The school closest to our home in Assen which had fallen out of use after a new school was built has instead re-opened as a centre for educating refugees of secondary school age. Therefore a group of refugee children cycle to that school every day.

The hands of children learning Dutch at a local asylum seekers'
centre. On each finger they've listed something that they care
about:  Family, friends, school, work, football, swimming,
facebook, cycling, cars, cooking, eating, pizza, reading,
television, music... The same concerns as anyone else.
It doesn't matter where they come from, people have the same concerns and the same desires. Primarily, people wish to live in a place which is safe for their family and themselves. All people want their children to do well, they want work, and they want an enjoyable life.

And now back to where I started. Campaigners in countries which we have targeted most for study tours in the past may well have other things on their minds right now. I understand that. However, no matter what happens next, cycling won't grow unless infrastructure for cycling is improved.

This is our twelfth year of offering study tours. Again we'll demonstrate the best of the infrastructure in Assen and Groningen and we'll point out pitfalls to avoid. Open tour dates in April and May can be found on our website.

Keep cycling, and keep resisting injustice.