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Second-Hand Bikes Give Lifeline To San Diego Refugees

For Uganda girl, a newly refurbished bike means one less obstacle

Second-hand bikes are providing a lifeline to refugees settling in San Diego by giving them a low-cost way to get to work and school.

Edith Okello enjoys riding her bike home from Crawford High School in City Heights. Her long braided hair blows in the breeze as she glides down Orange Avenue.

But the 15-year-old’s journey hasn’t always been this carefree.

"I was born in Sudan but I’m from Uganda," Okello explained. "I lived at Kakuma camp. I lived there for 10 years."

She lived at the refugee camp in the Horn of Africa alongside 110,000 other refugees who had fled wars in neighboring countries. "Kakuma" is said to mean “nowhere” in Swahili.

Photo caption:

Photo by Susan Murphy

Edith Okello, 15, lived in a refugee camp in Uganda for 10 years before moving to San Diego.

Conditions were harsh, Okello recalled.

"We didn’t have enough clean water. We had to walk a really long distance to get clean water, which wouldn’t even last us two days," Okello said.

Having a bicycle to get around wasn’t even a dream for her back then.

"And for food, the UN used to give us food, but it wasn’t enough," she said.

Okello said nights were long.

"We slept on the ground, like five people in a room and shared one blanket," she said.

When she wasn’t working or waiting in line for food or water, she attended school.

"When we got in trouble we used to get punished by getting beat," she remembered. "Sometimes they would put pencils between our fingers or hit our knuckles with the ruler or smack our butts with sticks."

Okello’s story isn’t unique. Many of the 3,500 other refugees who relocate to San Diego County every year from around the world share a similar background. Most have suffered greatly before moving here. The average stay in a refugee camp is 17 years.

Okella and her family moved in 2008 from Kakuma Campa to City Heights -- San Diego’s hub for refugee resettlement.

"I’m very grateful," Okello said. "I have a bed, I have enough food to eat and I have a family who has time to spend with me."

Okello also has a new bike to help her travel the 5.5 miles to school and back, thanks to the San Diego International Rescue Committee’s (IRC) refurbished bike program.

The IRC collects donated bikes from the community, fixes them up and gives them to refugees, like Okello.

"What I do is I repair the bikes, make them safe and suitable so the refugees are able to use them," said Maarten Voorneveld, an IRC bike repair volunteer.

Photo caption:

Photo by Susan Murphy

Maarten Voorneveld, an IRC bike repair volunteer, replaces the front tire of a donated bicycle in August.

"Most bikes have either a flat tire or the brakes aren’t working or the gears aren’t working," he said, as he replaced the front tire of a donated bicycle.

After a batch of bikes is ready, IRC transportation coordinator Hong Tran teaches refugees about bike safety and how to ride a bike before giving them a set of wheels.

"So whenever you turn, you want to make sure you turn next to the curb. Does that make sense?" she asked a group of students from Crawford High School as she pointed to a road during her PowerPoint presentation.

Photo caption:

Photo by Susan Murphy

Hong Tran, IRC transportation coordinator, teaches refugees from Crawford High School about bike safety before giving them a bike, Sept. 25, 2013.

Tran has distributed more than 100 bikes since the program began in October 2010. She said buying a car or taking public transportation is often beyond the financial means of newly arrived refugees.

"Because a lot of them come here and they want to live a life of self sufficiency and independence, and the bicycle really provides a great way for them to start that," said Tran.

For Edith Okello, who has already learned English and adapted to a dramatically new culture in five short years -- having a bike is one fewer obstacle. She no longer has to walk to school at 5:45 in the morning.

"It helps me get up later than usual, when the sun is up, so I don’t have to go in the dark and be scared.

Okello said she doesn’t regret having lived in the refugee camp because she said coming from a place called “nowhere” with almost nothing has inspired her to work hard.

"The camp helped me become a strong person from the inside and the outside because when I came here I realized there’s more to me than I ever knew," Okello said.

She’s a track star and plays varsity basketball at Crawford, where nearly a third of students are refugees.

She’s hoping to follow in her sister’s footsteps and attend UC Berkeley.

"I’m hoping to become a forensic anthropologist and just travel around the world," Okello said.

But for now, she said she’ll stick to traveling around San Diego on her newly refurbished bicycle.


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