Leila Rahimi was so scared when she first moved to New Zealand that she struggled to leave the house; and would spend days working up the courage to walk to the supermarket for basic supplies.
“I was so, so depressed, and I was so down and so unhappy,” says Rahimi, 36, a football player and coach from Iran who arrived in New Zealand as a refugee in March 2018.
A few months after settling, Rahimi was invited to join a local bike club, and was gifted a second-hand bicycle by ReBicycle, a local charity.. Within weeks, her depression had begun to ease, as she cycled the steep green hills and harbour paths of Wellington, sometimes travelling 45 kilometres on a weekend.
“That bike totally changed my life, it gave me hope,” says Rahimi. “I love that bike, I bike everywhere, I feel free now.”
New Zealand accepts 1,000 refugees a year under its quota system and many struggle to access affordable and reliable transport options, with drivers licences and cars sometimes taking years to acquire.
Hilleke Townsend, co-founder of ReBicycle EkeRua says many former refugees have never learnt to ride a bike in their home country, and women are particularly disadvantaged because cycling can be frowned upon for cultural reasons. Long robes and loose-fit clothing can also be an obstacle to cycling.
ReBicycle has donated more than 200 bikes to former refugees in Wellington, and is now expanding bike-riding lessons around the capital as demand soars. Another 500 donated bikes have gone to Kiwis who struggle to afford one.
“Giving people a bike means they can travel further afield but for almost no cost,” says Townsend, who said some former refugees spend as much as three hours a day walking to and from English language lessons.
“If we cut down on transport time it gives people more opportunity to socialise and have a normal life.”
ReBicycle’s bike-riding lessons are such a hit they are urgently looking for more volunteers to work with former refugees. Learning to ride a bike is almost always more difficult as an adult, Townsend says and can take days and weeks, rather than hours.
For Rahimi, cycling has given her confidence.
Rahimi has also learnt to fix bikes and volunteers her time helping other refugees learn to ride. She also enjoys the competitiveness of the sport – with other riders challenging her to ride further on weekends and beat their record.
“I used to be so shy,” says Rahimi. “But they don’t care about who I am, they just care I am human. They give you a good feeling that you are safe, finally.”