Tech gives thousands of asylum seekers independence
The experiences of a young asylum seeker from Darfur inspired a charity project which has given thousands of people independence in London.
Jem Stein founded The Bike Project when he acted as a mentor and saw first-hand how difficult it was for Adam to feed himself and navigate around the capital to various appointments on less than £38 a week asylum support.
He refurbished an old bike and gave it to Adam, which he says “made a huge difference to his life”.
“Housed in accommodation miles from the centre of the city, Adam couldn’t afford to travel by public transport every day,” Stein told BusinessCloud.
“In London, a bus pass costs £21.20 a week, but asylum seekers have to scrape by on weekly support from the government of just £37.75. They can’t work until they’re granted official refugee status – a process that can take years.
“London is a great city, but it’s a big place and refugees can sometimes face a choice between transport and basics like food. Cycling, on the other hand, is free.
“I saw first-hand how difficult it was for Adam to access the services he needed, like education, healthcare, food banks and legal advice.
“Luckily, my brother gave me an old bike which I refurbished and gave to Adam. Then when I graduated, I started collecting bikes, doing them up in my spare time and giving them away.
“For many people, a bicycle represents a freedom and independence that they thought they had lost.”
Around 13,500 refugees seek asylum to London each year, while 27,500 bikes are abandoned over the same period.
With a bike, refugees can easily visit charities that offer hot meals, legal advice and social activities, as well as cycle to Home Office appointments or English classes.
“All of this is essential if they are going to feel comfortable and integrate into society,” added Stein.
After graduating from the London School of Economics with a degree in political science, Stein worked for a kids charity for a couple of years before starting The Bike Project for real five years ago.
As demand for the bikes grew, he turned to technology to help as many people as possible. The project has now helped give more than 4,000 people their independence.
“When the refugee crisis hit in 2015, demand for our bikes went from around 10 or 15 per week to 50 or 60,” he said. “People were literally queuing around the block and it was chaos, total mayhem.
“It was incredibly stressful for everyone involved and we knew we needed to change things very quickly.
“Over the last five years, we’ve distributed more than 4,200 bikes to refugees, including 1,200 in 2018.”
Alongside The Bike Project, Stein runs a Bike Buddies project which pairs refugees with volunteer mentors who can show them around the city and help them build cycling confidence.
He also runs a programme called Pedal Power, which teaches cycling skills to women refugees, many of whom come from cultures where it’s not considered socially acceptable for women to ride a bike.
“230 refugee women have graduated from our Pedal Power programme, and we’ve made more than 70 Bike Buddy matches, bringing refugees and their new neighbours together over a shared loved of cycling,” he said.
The Bike Project partnered with Twilio to ensure it was at the cutting edge of technology.
“We were already using Salesforce to register and stay in touch with beneficiaries, so it was a straightforward decision to build a waiting list and alert system on top of that,” explained Stein.
“We’ve got a simple application form on our website where refugees can register their interest in a bike, giving details like their name, contact details and height – crucial for making sure they get the right size bike.
“Once those details are in the system, beneficiaries are kept informed of their position on the waiting list via SMS text messages sent using Twilio. When an appropriate bike becomes available, they are sent an appointment time and a Google Maps pin-drop link to our workshop.
“If they miss their appointment, they get an automated Twilio SMS to check in with them and ask if they’d like to rebook.
“We’re also working on creating a ‘matchmaking’ service for our Bike Buddies mentoring programme, so we just click a button and a Bike Buddy is matched with a refugee. The Twilio platform can then provide them both with a secure messaging portal through which they can exchange messages without having to give out their phone numbers.
“Next, we want to add translations to our SMS messages to help refugees who struggle with English, and we’re looking into integrating WhatsApp so that beneficiaries don’t have to spend their limited phone credit to communicate with us.
“We’re always looking for new ways that technology can help us get more refugees cycling – that’s the most important thing.”