The Cleveland Refugee Bike Project, which began early this year in partnership with Catholic Charities, had an inspiring recent success teaching the balance bike method to a group of young siblings — and their mentors from Oberlin — in preparation for a special Traffic Skills class to be held once they all can reliably ride two-wheelers; which should be soon, judging by their enthusiasm and drive!

One of their mentors, Kelly Garriott Waite, sent us this write-up she wrote for their church bulletin:

Last Saturday, at 4:00pm, after having grumpily wrestled two bike racks onto the backs of our cars, we took the refugee children to the Ohio City Bicycle Co-Op, located in the Flats near the Columbus Avenue bridge. The kids were unusually silent as we drove, except in the translator’s car where, we later learned, the children worried: There’s only enough room for five bikes. Who won’t get a bike today?

At the Bike Co-Op, we met Jim, our trainer, who’d begun his day at 8:00that morning teaching a public version of the same three-hour class the children will be taking — once they have learned to ride.  We began with a mandatory bicycle safety slideshow, which our translator, Bakisa, ably interpreted. Then we fitted each of the siblings with a bike and a helmet and we were off to the parking lot.

There was much laughter as Jim, in what can best be described as a seated waddle, demonstrated how to balance on a bike with his feet on the ground. This way, we wouldn’t need to run behind the children as they found their balance — since most of them are too big for us to hold up anyway!

From fifty feet away down a slight incline, we stood facing our family as they rolled toward us. Their faces were a blend of elation, trepidation and often sheer joy as they worked up the nerve to trust their bike and themselves and remove their feet from the ground, if only for a moment.

One of the more ambitious of the kids wobbled and fell, often unintentionally cutting across the paths of his sisters. Sometimes he hid behind a pier to keep out of sight of the teacher as he, against instructions, began to try out his pedals! Naturally, he was chosen to head the group when Jim suggested a game of follow the leader, in which not only the refugees, but also Bakisa and the Refugee Group paraded on bikes around the parking lot, along the Cuyahoga and past diners at Merwin’s Wharf like a line of giggling ducks. Jim ended the day by demonstrating the use of pedals and letting each child try his hand at soloing down the drive.

The afternoon air was filled with gentle raindrops, laughter, clapping, frequent shouts of “brakes! brakes!” (accompanied by the squeezing of air for emphasis) and lots of Somali words we didn’t understand. And that’s OK: no words were necessary to describe the independence and confidence our family felt. No words are necessary to describe the love we feel for these kids and the joy we share at helping edge them a little closer toward making their way in a new and confusing world.

At seven o’clock, sweaty, hungry, and more than a little tired, we loaded all six bicycles onto our cars and headed out for celebratory ice cream, courtesy Bakisa, before taking the family home.

This group returns for a second session next week:    they have been practicing with their mentors in a schoolyard near their new home, and are eager to take the next step to becoming cyclists!