Life & Culture

The bicycles that can change lives

Jem Stein's bicycle repair project enhances the lives of refugees


It’s not often that you hear about a project which was set up in someone’s back garden and goes on to profoundly impact the lives of thousands of people. But the Bike Project is one of those rarities, which began when its founder Jem Stein started tinkering with second-hand bikes. Once he had repaired them, he would take them to a refugee drop-in centre in East Finchley. “If someone had told me then that I would still be doing this today, I think I would have laughed.”

But “doing this” he very much is. Since Stein set up The Bike Project in 2013, his charity has donated over 8,000 bikes to refugees and asylum seekers who have fled war, terror and famine to start a new life in the UK.

The 33-year-old first saw how valuable bikes could be for refugees when he was a student in London in 2009 and joined a befriending scheme for unaccompanied asylum seekers run by the JCC. “I was paired with someone called Adam. He had come to the UK from Darfur, aged 16, with just the clothes on his back. One of the biggest challenges for him was getting around because of the cost of public transport. Asylum seekers now get around £37 a week. A bus pass costs half of that, but they aren’t allowed to work.”

A friend of his had an old bike and Stein, a keen cyclist himself, asked if he could give it to Adam. “It allowed him to access essential services such as education, healthcare and psychological support. Without having to pay for transport, he could afford to get to there.”

After graduating, Stein became a movement worker at Socialist Zionist youth movement Habonim Dror. That’s when he started fixing bikes in his back garden to donate to refugees.

Having studied politics at LSE, his intention had been to go into public policy or journalism after movement work. But a chat with his mentor, Dan Berelowitz, former CEO of Jewish social justice charity Tzedek, persuaded him to turn his voluntary work into a full-time job and so The Bike Project was born.

Since then, with initial support from JHub and the Pears Foundation, Jem has set up bike repair workshops in London and Birmingham and opened a shop where bikes are sold to help fund the charity’s work. If people are looking to donate a second-hand bike, they can go to one of a number of drop-off points, including North Western Reform, Finchley Reform and Westminster synagogues. Stein is keen for more shuls to get involved.

Having started the project single-handedly, the Kilburn resident now has a team of staff running operations, repairing bikes and teaching cycling and road awareness skills. Some employees and volunteers first came across The Bike Project as refugees or asylum seekers themselves. “It’s really interesting seeing people who have been through the lifecycle of the project. One lady, Comfort, from Nigeria, came to us four or five years ago and learned to ride in our Pedal Power programme. She is now an instructor herself.”

Pedal Power came about when it was clear that the vast majority of applications for bikes were from men. “Many women came from countries where it was not acceptable for women to ride bikes, so we launched Pedal Power, cycling classes just for women.” More than 400 women have graduated from the programme, which focuses not just on the technique of cycling, but also on confidence and bike maintenance.

“Sometimes, it can take persuading to get them on board, but the women get a lot out of it. Many refugees — both women and men — talk about an increased sense of independence, control and empowerment from owning and riding a bike.”

The success of Pedal Power led to another programme, Bike Buddies. “Women wanted to cycle, but they didn’t know their local area, so Bike Buddies was set up to match volunteers to refugees, who were then able to cycle together.” This was then expanded to include men too. “There are lots of wrap-around benefits, such as having someone to chat to.”

Indeed, some of the biggest challenges for asylum seekers and refugees, says Stein, are “being bored, isolated and lonely. This was especially problematic during Covid when the things which make communities feel human were closed, and many refugees and asylum seekers were not digitally well-equipped.”

This sense of isolation is often made worse by asylum seekers being prohibited from working, apart from in exceptional circumstances. This is despite many of them being highly educated, says Stein, who adds that his perception of asylum seekers and refugees has changed hugely since he started his charity. “I meet lots of interesting people, many of whom had good jobs in their home countries and have so many skills to offer in the UK. I meet pharmacists, lawyers, journalists and many others.”

He recently joined forces with an asylum seeker, Danny*, to take part in the charity’s current fundraiser, Refugee Routes. Participants cycle the equivalent distance of a well-known refugee route in their own time. Stein and Danny cycled the length of the journey from Guinea-Bissau, where Danny is from, to London, covering 2,800 miles between them. The other 146 cyclists are cycling the distances of diferent routes taken by refugees, such as Syria to Turkey and Calais to Dover. So far, they have collectively raised more than £48,000 by covering more than 33,500 miles.

The parallels between belonging to “a wandering people” and now working with refugees hasn’t been lost on Stein. “My experience of being Jewish and my awareness of Jewish history and liturgy helps me identify with the refugee experience. Also, growing up in Habonim, there was an emphasis on social justice and having a responsibility to do things, rather than just seeing a problem and ignoring it.”

* not his real name

Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive