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Afghan Refugees are Getting Donated Bikes Thanks to Volunteers

By and June 14, 2022June 23rd, 2022Top Stories, Trending, Visuals

A Chicago-area Facebook group is accepting donated bikes, helmets and locks for newly-arrived Afghan refugees.

Mohammad Aimal puts a bike helmet on his nephew, Yahya NazariEmily Soto for Borderless Magazine
Mohammad Aimal puts a bike helmet on his nephew, Yahya Nazari, in Evanston, Ill., May 14, 2022. Nazari received a free bike, lock and helmet from a father-daughter duo that is distributing bikes to Afghan refugees. Emily Soto for Borderless Magazine
By and June 14, 2022June 23rd, 2022Top Stories, Trending, Visuals

A Chicago-area Facebook group is accepting donated bikes, helmets and locks for newly-arrived Afghan refugees.

It was a sunny Saturday afternoon when 14-year-old Yahya Nazari and his uncle Mohammad Aimal walked into the backyard of Natalie Moore Topinka’s home in suburban Evanston. His eyes pointed to the ground as he quietly greeted Moore Topinka and her father, Scott Moore. His uncle encouraged him forward, and the Moores welcomed him to the yard which was filled with a long row of bicycles of all sizes and colors. That was when Nazari’s eyes rose and filled with excitement. They were fixed on a sleek black bike that looked to be just the right size. He walked directly toward it and grabbed the handles without hesitation.

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Yahya Nazari tries out a bike in an ally
Yahya Nazari tries out a bike in the alley behind Natalie Moore Topinka’s home in Evanston, Ill., May 14, 2022. Nazari came to the United States to live with his uncle after the collapse of the Afghan government to the Taliban.Emily Soto for Borderless Magazine

Nazari is one of more than 50 refugee kids to have received a free bike from the father-daughter duo since March of this year.

“Now, with this bike, I go to the nearby shops to get groceries for my uncle’s family, and bike on the park trails with my friends,” said Nazari, who came to the United States from Afghanistan after the Taliban took over. He now lives with his family on the North Side of Chicago.

Moore Topinka and her father started the operation after she helped welcome a refugee family through the local Refugee Community Connection (RCC) Facebook group. Moore fixed a bike for the family’s father who planned to use the bike to get to work.

Natalie Moore Topinka and her father, Scott Moore, center, show Yahya Nazari, left, and Nazari’s uncle Mohammad Aimal, right, another bike after his first test ride
Natalie Moore Topinka and her father, Scott Moore, center, show Yahya Nazari, left, and Nazari’s uncle Mohammad Aimal, right, another bike after his first test ride in Evanston, Ill., May 14, 2022. “I feel like the kid knows best,” Moore Topinka said. “They will often choose a bike that I wouldn’t have guessed. But they're always happy with it.” Emily Soto for Borderless Magazine

In March, they connected with Dana Smith, another member of RCC who has been coordinating bike repairs and donations for refugees since November. Smith’s garage is filled with bikes that were donated by the community, Working Bikes in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood and The Recyclery Collective in the Rogers Park neighborhood. With so many bikes to repair, Smith asked Moore Topinka to handle all the donations of kids’ bikes.

Dana Smith repairs a bicycle in his garage
Dana Smith works on a bike in his garage in the Andersonville neighborhood of Chicago, Ill., April 4, 2022. Smith often comes home from his 9 to 5 job and repairs bikes for about two hours each day. Sofia Leal for Borderless Magazine

Smith, who works for the U.S. Department of Agriculture coordinating food assistance programs, spends several hours a week fixing bikes after work. That’s on top of fielding a steady flow of donations, distributing bikes, organizing volunteers and taking new requests through the Facebook group.

“The administration and coordination is much more work than the actual fixing of the bikes,” said Smith, who began repairing bikes as a volunteer for The Recyclery in 2019. Now the collective supplies him with bikes and any parts needed for repairs.

Dana Smith surrounded by bicycles piled up to the ceiling of a basement
Dana Smith stands in the basement of a small building behind The Recyclery Collective where donations are stored in Chicago, Ill.,May 24, 2022. The bicycle collective, located in the Rogers Park neighborhood, also donates bicycles and the parts that Smith needs to repair them for refugees. Sofia Leal for Borderless Magazine

Several months on, word about the bike giveaway continues to spread and volunteers regularly receive bike donations from the public.

Most of the donations come from families whose children have long outgrown their bikes, said Moore, who works on repairs at his home just across the street from his daughter’s place. Some of the bikes arrive in decent shape, but others require new parts to make sure the bicycle is safe and working properly. This means checking the chains, pedals and wheels, and ensuring the bike has safety reflectors. In some cases, Moore pays for the new parts out of his own pocket.

“I want it to look presentable,” Moore said. “I do a lot of cosmetic work, trying to bring it up to where a child will be attracted to it and proud of it.”

bicycles in Dana Smith's garage
Dana Smith works on bikes in his garage in Chicago, Ill., April 4, 2022. Smith’s garage is filled with bikes given to him by The Recyclery Collective, sponsors of refugee families and other members of the public. Smith fixes one to five bikes each week and says the most challenging part of the process is matching people with the right bike. He is currently looking for volunteers to help lessen his workload. Sofia Leal for Borderless Magazine

Everyone that picks up a bike also receives a lock and helmet, which Moore Topinka says is the most important part. Without them, the kids and their new bikes wouldn’t be safe. “It’s really nice to give a kid their own brand new helmet and let them choose the color. They’re so proud to wear them,” she said.

But because these items are generally overlooked by donors, Moore Topinka often takes care of those expenses herself. She said that for people looking to help, helmet and lock donations are an easy way to get involved and they are needed more than the bikes.

An Afghan man and his four youngest children leave Natalie Moore Topinka’s house with newly refurbished bicycles in Evanston, Ill., the last week of April 2022. More than 50 refugee children have received bicycles from Moore Topinka and her father since March.Photo courtesy of Kathleen Heneg

Moore Topinka and her father were already avid bikers long before they found the RCC Facebook group. They hope that the refugees now able to ride bikes, some for the first time, will get as much joy out of them as they do.

Moore referenced a quote from the author Arthur Conan Doyle displayed on his bedroom wall:

“When the spirits are low, when the day appears dark, when work becomes monotonous, when hope hardly seems worth having, just mount a bicycle and go out for a spin down the road without thought on anything but the ride you are taking.”

Refugee Community Connection volunteers are collecting donations for bike locks and helmets through a GoFundMe.

Saleha Soadat contributed reporting to this story. This story was published in partnership with DePaul University.

Editor’s Note 6/15/22: Borderless Magazine’s reporting fellow Saleha Soadat received a bike as a result of the Refugee Community Connection Facebook group.

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